The Gift of Resentment

Sometimes Al-Anon members organize workshops, which are longer than meetings and have a special focus. The gravitational pull towards the Big Book  seems particularly apparent at these. So it was that I recently read about a workshop devoted to something called the Awakenings process whose “rationale is extrapolated from the Big Book”and the exercise was to write a list of resentments and causes. The object appeared to be to analyze these to come up with ways of defining myself as selfish, self-seeking, dishonest and afraid.

So this is the program suggestion for how to deal with hurt or trauma from the past. Many people who attend Al-Anon have been hurt by alcoholic significant others or abused by parents. In the wider social context also, one might have been the victim of prejudiced attitudes such as those conditioned by misogyny, racism or homophobia. “The first thing apparent was that this world and its people were often quite wrong” intones Bill Wilson in the Big Book. Well, yeah? The program suggestions always veer in the general direction of finding abuse victims to be in the wrong for being so self-centered as to imagine that there might be room for improvement in human behaviors and systems.

An essentially similar view is put across in the context of one of the alternatives, or complements to 12-step programs, SMART recovery. There’s a lot of sensible material in their sections for friends and family members of alcoholics*, though I notice the cognitive behavioral therapy party line in such passages as:

The obstacles to forgiving others are exactly the same as the causes of anger. You either think they did what MUST NOT be done to a star like you, or they didn’t do what MUST be done for a star like you. In any case, they are worms. They well DESERVE whatever harm can be sent their way. By applying these same ideas to yourself, you’ll be unable to forgive even you.

In saying this, I do not intend to condone even the smallest harm that people have done to each other, not to mention the major atrocities History clearly shows that humans are fully capable of hurting each other in brutal and cruel ways. You may deplore these acts. You may do everything you can to prevent them. But, no matter how inhumane you rate harmful acts done by humans, they are hardly inhuman. As history clearly shows, humans can act very, very badly. Therefore, you have no sensible reason to believe that humans MUST not act badly toward you. This same point holds true for the universe in general. The badness of any event does not serve as proof that it MUST not happen. Clearly, the universe is capable of doing whatever it, in fact, does. The universe is not out of whack because you get harmed. (by Hank Robb on the SMART website)

This is all very logical but parts of it put me in mind of a shortcoming of cognitive behavioral therapy, on which SMART is based – the emotions and the pain are minimized. There’s even a Wilsonian whiff of deprecation in phrases such as “a star like you”. Some of us have already spent a lifetime having even the merest hint of the audacity to consider ourselves “stars” who might deserve to be treated better beaten out of us, emotionally, verbally and/or physically.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating narcissism. I certainly would not favor brooding on bitterness or grudges. I am rather proposing honoring feelings of hurt, and the messages that they bring.

Perhaps if a past hurt keeps insisting on rising to the surface of my mind, I should pay attention to what that might be trying to tell me. I recently had an experience where a lot of painful memories from about 20 years ago kept coming up. They relate to situations which are long since resolved and absolutely past amend, so why couldn’t I forget? Something fell into place for me when I read this article, which is about Monica Lewinsky. She has good reason to be triggered by reminders of events nearly 20 years ago, because she was so traumatized.

It occurred to me that I was having a hard time forgetting certain things because I had been traumatized by workplace bullying. At the time, I hadn’t even heard of workplace bullying, and lacked any insight that could give me an accurate view of the situation. It didn’t occur to younger me that others’ behaviors were maybe wrong and should not be happening. Blaming myself for the way others treated me was one of the few tools I had. So in decrying myself as selfish and self-centered because of those past hurts, I’d be regressing to a less-developed version of myself … one who put up with a lot of abuse without complaining.

I realized that my recent flurry of memories had been triggered because a loved one was currently experiencing bullying. I was able to define that situation for what it was, and to advocate for my loved one so that they stopped being hurt. While it is unfortunately impossible for me to time travel back and stand up for myself better in the past, my painful memories help me to identify and deal more constructively with bullying situations in the present. And in this way, my past self gives my present self the gift of resentment.

So the gift of resentment is akin to the gift of fear. That’s the title of a book by Gavin de Becker,  which is about the survival-based information inherent in feelings of fear. De Becker points out that we automatically notice all the details we need to determine whether we are in danger. So far from being “classed with stealing” (per the Big Book), fear is all about self-preservation. I was rather socialized to disregard my instincts, but I’m getting into new habits now.

Currently, my old traumatic memories are coming up much less. Maybe that is because I heeded their message and dealt with a bullying situation in the present, which helped to lay some ghosts to rest? Because my younger self could not even name the situation for what it was, I guess there was some unfinished business. Victims do not need to chastise themselves for being self-seeking and self-centered. Bullying and abuse need to be acknowledged for what they are, and stopped.

 

*Unlike the Big Book in which it seems one word in ten is “spirit” or “spiritual”, this is entirely secular, thank goodness.