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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Resentment as a Defense Against Feeling Deep Sadness

People who hold onto resentment for many years often don't realize that holding onto their resentment is a defense against feeling the deep sadness that is underneath the resentment (see my article: Letting Go of Resentment).

Longstanding resentment can become like a hard shell that seals over sadness that would feel too overwhelming to experience.

Resentment as a Defense Against Feeling Deep Sadness

This is often the unconscious function of holding onto resentment--it keeps people from feeling the depth of their sadness.  Often, people who experience longstanding resentment don't even realize that they're carrying around this sadness because it's so well hidden by the resentment.

Even though, on an unconscious level, people with longstanding resentment would rather feel the resentment than the sadness, carrying around the resentment takes it's toll physically and emotionally (see my article: Holding Onto Anger and Resentment is Like Drinking Poison and Expecting the Other Person to Die).

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario, which is based on many different cases, to see how resentment is used as a defense mechanism to ward off deep sadness, and how this problem can be overcome in therapy:

Ed came to therapy because he sensed that the ongoing problem that he had with male authority figures at work was related to his unresolved childhood problems with his father (see my article: How Unresolved Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Relationships).

Although Ed was much sought after in his field, he had problems with male authority figures at work which caused problems for him in his career.

Resentment as a Defense Against Feeling Deep Sadness

He would usually start out well on a job until he and his manager disagreed about a business decision, especially if he felt that his manager wasn't hearing him.  Then, Ed would feel such rage and resentment that he barely could contain it.

Since he was very good at what he did, most managers would overlook Ed's resentment.  But Ed knew that he was having an increasingly difficult time containing it.  He also realized it was only a matter of time before he exploded and placed his job in jeopardy.
Resentment as a Defense Against Feeling Deep Sadness

When Ed started therapy, he approached it like a pragmatic business problem.  He wanted to define the problem and find the solution.

Since he had never been in therapy before, I provided Ed with psychoeducation about psychotherapy and how it was different from finding a solution to a work problem (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

It was very helpful that Ed already had some insight into his resentment and that he knew it was related to his problems with his father when he was growing up.  Rather than blaming each manager that he had ever worked for, Ed realized that it was his problem and not theirs.

As we talked about his resentment towards his father, who was authoritarian and lacked empathy for Ed as a child, I asked Ed what kept him holding onto his resentment after more than 25 years.

At first, Ed wasn't sure why he still felt resentment.  He admitted that he had a very different relationship with his father now, who had become a lot more emotionally available for Ed over the years and who was not the same father that he was when Ed was growing up.  In fact, Ed said, they had a good relationship now.

I recognized that Ed had never processed the childhood trauma, and he was stuck emotionally in that earlier time (see my article:  Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past).

I also sensed that Ed had an unconscious reason for holding onto the resentment and that until we got to these unconscious feelings, he would have a hard time letting go of the resentment.  And, as a result, he would continue to have problems with male authority figures at work.

We began by using EMDR Therapy to process the childhood trauma (see my articles: EMDR Therapy and the Brain and How EMDR Therapy Works).

Over time, Ed was able to reduce the emotional effects of the trauma significantly.  But, at a certain point, the EMDR therapy stalled and, as an EMDR therapist, I recognized that we were dealing with a "block" in therapy that needed to be addressed before we could go on.

I also recognized that, although Ed was able to feel anger and resentment during the EMDR processing, the one feeling that he wasn't in touch with was sadness.

This was significant because anyone who experienced what Ed experienced with his father when Ed was a child would have felt sad.  But Ed wasn't in touch with this feeling at all.

Based on my experience as a therapist, I knew that if I asked Ed directly about the sadness or any other underlying feelings, he would deny it because he wasn't in touch with it at all.

So, I used a technique from Coherence Therapy, which is also used in psychoanalysis, to have Ed free associate about letting go of the resentment.

I gave Ed a part of a sentence and then asked him to free associate to the rest and to keep going for a while.

The stem of the sentence was:  "If I let go of my resentment, _____________________________."

At first, Ed seemed self conscious, but as he continued to free associate to sentence, he went from surface to depth as his unconscious feelings eventually came to the surface.

Initially, he responded by saying things like, "If I let of of my resentment, I would be happier," "If I let go of my resentment, I would get along better with my boss," and so on.

After about five minutes of free association, without even realizing it, Ed said, "If I let go of my resentment, I'll be overwhelmed by sadness."

Discovering that Resentment is a Defense Against Feeling Deep Sadness

At that point, he stopped and looked at me with surprise.  Although he didn't say anything at first, the look on his face said, "Did I really say that?"

Then a few seconds later, Ed began to sob.

After a few minutes when he was able to talk again, he said that this was the first time that he was aware that underneath the resentment was deep sadness.

Although he was surprised and a little confused, he said he also felt a lighter just being able to acknowledge the sadness and cry.  He also began to feel an internal emotional shift.

This was a real emotional breakthrough for Ed.

After that, we were able to continue to work on Ed's resentment and sadness for his unmet emotional needs as a child using EMDR.

Working Through Resentment and Sadness to Lead a More Fulfilling Life

Eventually, he was able to work through his resentment and sadness, and he was no longer affected by his childhood trauma (see my article:  Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

It's not unusual for people to hold onto anger and resentment as a way to ward off feeling deep sadness.

The problem is that they aren't aware that they're doing this because the sadness is unconscious.

What often occurs is that, as children, they allow themselves to feel the anger and resentment because those feelings aren't as scary as sadness.

It can also feel more "powerful" to children and adults to feel anger as opposed to feeling sadness, which can leave a people feeling emotionally vulnerable.  This is especially true for children that don't have an adult around to help soothe them and process their emotions.

So, the sadness goes "underground," so to speak, and remains unconscious even when they become adults.

They don't realize that their anger and resentment have become like a protective shield that keeps them from feeling the sadness.

They also don't realize that, as opposed to when they were children, they now have a greater emotional capacity to deal with difficult emotions as adults, especially if they are in therapy with a therapist who has experience working on these types of unconscious issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
Holding onto resentment is often an unconscious defense against feeling sadness or other uncomfortable feelings.

People are often surprised to discover what a relief it is to let go of longstanding resentment and how much better they feel.  They often talk about having more energy and a greater sense of well-being.

If you've had a problem overcoming your resentment on your own, it's possible that your resentment is an unconscious defense against feeling emotionally vulnerable, and you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping clients with this problem.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to discover and overcome unconscious emotional blocks that hindering them from having a more fulfilling life.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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