One of the rules we set when we first start to express our resentments with Radical Honesty, is that we cannot resent someone for something they didn’t do. There’s a good reason we make this (sometimes frustrating) caveat, and I feel it’s worth spending some time understanding why before we, as RH practitioners, automatically abide by it.
In any relationship the things our partners don’t do seem like constant points of conflict: your partner never puts the rubbish out, cleans the toilet, washes the dishes or gets up for your sick kid in the night. You’re always the one to make the first move in bed, they never share their feelings without being asked or ask you how your day was. So many deeply held resentments seem to begin with the phrase “I resent you for not…” or “I resent you for never…”, with the implication being that the other person has somehow failed to fulfil some private - and often unspoken - expectation we had of them. Understanding that this judgment about how things should be is a rule we impose upon ourselves, is the start of taking responsibility for ourselves and for our own emotional reactions.
Can I be affected by something that didn’t happen? If you don’t take out the rubbish, am I resenting you for not taking out the rubbish, or for failing some privately held standard of behaviour I have? Or for some imagined slight? What actually happened, that you can observe with your eyes and hear with your ears, when your partner failed to take out the trash?
“Well it was trash night and he was sitting in his chair on his phone again and I asked ‘have you taken out the trash’ and he sighed and said ‘I’ll do it in the morning’ and then he didn’t.”
“Do you resent him for sighing?”
“Yes! I resent you for sighing like this – uuuhhhhh - when I said ‘have you taken out the trash?’. And for looking at your phone when I said it!”
“Do you often resent him for looking at his phone?”
“Yes! I resent you for all the times you look at your phone, when I say something to you or when I’m telling you about my day.”
“And is there something you imagine about that?”
“I imagine he isn’t interested in me, that I’m boring. And that I’m nagging him, that I’m a boring nagging wife.”
“And why do you imagine he doesn’t take out the trash?”
“Because he knows I’ll do it.”
“You imagine he thinks that if he doesn’t do it, you will?”
“Yes. I imagine he thinks that it’s not his job, because he works and I’m at home looking after our daughter. I imagine he thinks ‘why should I?’”
“And has he said that to you? ‘I have a job! Why should I take out the trash too?’”
“No, he hasn’t actually said that…but yeah. I suppose I can’t resent him for what I imagine he thinks, can I?”
Not all resentments start with imaginings, but very often when I examine the ones that begin “I resent you for not…” and submit them to the test of my senses - what did I actually hear, see and feel in my body - I find that the resentment is rooted in something other than sensational experience. It’s been created almost entirely in my own mind.
Last year I had a very painful falling out with a close friend, and when I say painful I mean I suffered genuine physical sensations: stomach cramps, nausea, headaches, and I also cried a whole lot of tears. It felt like I grieved for a long time for our friendship before I was done, but when the dust finally settled I begin to understand how much of her anger had been about my failure to live up to her expectations. Almost all of her laundry list of complaints began with “I’m hurt because you didn’t…” or “I can’t believe you don’t…”. I didn’t anticipate enough, I didn’t consider enough, and I didn’t – according to her story – care enough about her feelings to prove myself a true friend.
In the case of our long friendship, I can’t help imagining myself partly responsible for creating her expectation, having always anticipated and prioritised her feelings over my own, but as with any judgment of ‘right and wrong behaviour’ ultimately there is only one person who wields the gavel; the judge. To have an expectation that someone else ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ behave in a certain way, and resent them for the absence of something, is to sit inside our minds and define reality there instead of in the real world. I cannot resent you for something you didn’t do, because what you didn’t do doesn’t exist, either in the past or the present. And if I cannot resent you for that - only for your sighs, eye-rolls and facial expressions - is what I’m resenting an action of yours at all, or just an expectation that I created of how you should behave?
Ultimately, the responsibility for all our judgments lies with us. Society and the law can tell us we’re in 'the right or the wrong', our parents can assure us we were raised correctly and that we have (or don’t have) God or our own holy book on our side, but in the end we make our own rules for life. We can choose to judge or not to judge, to blame or take responsibility, to resent or to share our imagined thoughts with each other.
As the often quoted Gestalt Prayer by Fritz Perls says; ‘I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine’ and it’s with these words in mind that I will continue to question any resentment towards someone for something they didn’t – but that I expected, judged, believed or fervently wished they should – do.