Why Resentments are the Number One Offender
American history is chock full of stories about famous resentments. The most notable, well-publicized ones involve mutual dislike between people. People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr – to name only a few. Newspapers and magazines had a field day publishing features about their resentments and the resulting fallout. The stories that have most captured America’s imagination, however, may be those about the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. It all started over a stolen pig. Over the course of a decade, thirteen people were murdered, a home was burned to the ground, and various civil and criminal cases were prosecuted against members of both families. Their stories are more than just a perverse American pastime. They powerfully illustrate for readers how resentments can and do get really ugly.
Everybody probably has a basic understanding of what a resentment is. That is, if you’ve ever been: dumped by a girlfriend, fired from a job, passed over for a promotion, back-stabbed, made the object of gossip, lied to, ripped off, treated unfairly, embarrassed, bullied, unfairly blamed, verbally abused, or emotionally or physically abused, you probably held a resentment. We’re human. Our natural reaction if one of these things happens to us is entirely foreseeable: we become indignant; we resent it.
At the same time, we equally have a strong sense that holding resentments is somehow bad, even wrong. While it’s true that resentments, because they are retaliatory in nature, imbue us with a sense of righteousness and control, they are more often likened to weeds that can multiply and ultimately take over a whole garden. We suffer when we are filled with anger that has no place to go. Lingering resentments can cause physical and emotional problems. They can make us anxious and unable to focus on anything else. They even keep us from sleeping. Not surprisingly, the Lord himself commands that we love our enemies1 and turn the other cheek.2 Whatever sense of power that such resentments give us, all too often it comes at a terrible price. We become victims, playing the blame game to shield ourselves from responsibility, anxiety, and guilt. Resentments rarely change the person whom we resent, either. They almost never resolve conflicts.
The Big Book definitely has a lot to say about this topic. It says that the business of resentment is infinitely grave.3 It identifies the “greatest enemies” of alcoholics and addicts as “resentment, jealousy, envy, frustration, and fear.”4 Nevertheless, of these we are told that “Resentment is the number one offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.”5 This is a bold claim – one worth pausing to consider. Why isn’t any other of the greatest enemies the number one offender, for example? Why isn’t the obsession to use drugs and alcohol? Or the physical allergy? Or genetics? Or neurobiology? Or our psychological and social histories?
Good questions. The importance of resentments to the alcoholic/addict lies in the dead seriousness that the Big Book assigns to selfishness/self-centeredness. Indeed, our own self-centeredness is identified as the ultimate root of our troubles.6 Unless this singular point about the addict’s selfishness is clearly understood, we can never appreciate why resentment is the number one offender. Broadly speaking, there are three reasons for this.
First, in our self-centeredness we operate under the persistent, delusional, and dogged insistence that the world and everyone in it must conform to our desires. We are, as the Big Book observes, extreme examples of self-will run riot.7 Time after time our self-centered delusion is powerfully refuted, yet we refuse to accept it. Moreover, we refuse to accept it even while our lives are falling apart because our substance abuse impairs our ability to meet our responsibilities and protect our interests. We become overwhelmed, angry and indignant, and turn ourselves into victims; and we blame others, refuse to take responsibility, and wallow in self-pity and fear – all of which are hallmarks of resentment. Our emotional reaction, predictably, is restlessness, irritability and discontent – three bad hombres. As substance abusers trapped in the cycle of addiction, we’ve only one way to deal with these.
Further, our resentments while we’re using are especially insidious because they loop back on themselves. They create bitterness. With our minds warped by substance abuse, we don’t just hold resentments, we become resentful people. We invariably cloak ourselves with simplistic, black/white views of the world and everybody in it. Our capacity to see things maturely in nuanced, complex ways is just not there. Everybody gets lumped into opposing camps: good/bad, right/wrong. Anybody who’s not for us is against us; but there’s nothing going our way anyway, so we may not see anybody on our side. We still want justification, to see ourselves as good, and we need our anger to make us feel powerful. With everything else in our lives out of control, our resentments are the only thing we have left to shield ourselves from the awful truth. So we let our anger flow with abandon. Our resentments become overblown and disproportionate to any wrongs we actually suffer. We end up wanting to punish others not only for a present harm but also for every harm (or series of harms) that preceded it. We even hold imagined resentments – freebies that give us all the rush of indignation without any actual harm at all. In sum, when our resentments become our only sense of control, it’s no wonder that we can’t control our resentments, or all of the evils that accompany them.
Finally, resentments shut us off from the “sunlight of the spirit.”8 They are a luxury that we simply can’t afford. The very notion of a self-centered, recovered addict is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Only God’s power allows us to rid ourselves of the selfishness responsible for the parade of horrors and resentments described above. We can’t remove it by moral convictions or by wishing it away. “We had to have God’s help.”9 It’s nonnegotiable. Resentment is a recipe for powerlessness preventing us from acting in anyone’s best interests including our own. We’re living in self and blocked off from God. We’ve reneged on our 3rd Step vow to hand over the reigns of our lives and stop playing God. Instead, we put ourselves back in God’s judgment seat. Our resentments turn our focus inward and we again become spiritually sick. Our attention returns to our own plans and designs. We’re of no service at all to our fellows. Instead, we’re propelled by selfish ambition, valuing ourselves above others. We become easy targets – restless, irritable, and discontented – sitting ducks for wanting to experience again the sense of ease and comfort which comes by taking that next drink or drug.10
The Big Book well notes that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. The insanity of our addiction returns and we use again. “And with us, to drink [or drug] is to die.”11 If you haven’t worked your steps, you will have the opportunity to more closely examine your resentments when you complete your Step 4 Resentment Inventory while identifying your character defects. Step 4 is infamously considered “the scary one.” Because of the extreme importance of the work you will be doing, your efforts will be crucial to a lasting recovery.