Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Resentment

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What is resentment, what causes it, and what are its consequences?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

As a complex emotion or mood, resentment is often a difficult and overwhelming concept for individuals to grasp. This is especially the case when an individual is experiencing resentment and does not have the adequate knowledge to understand or overcome this emotion/mood.

Resentment is a normal human emotion, mood, and reaction to experience, yet it is often overruled by emotions individuals have a strong understanding of, such as anger, fear, disappointment, and disgust. Although resentment is associated with these emotions, it is important individuals have a grasp of resentment as an entity of its own.

Understanding resentment can be done through the exploration of the Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith (1767) as well as the examination of the signs, causes and consequences of resentment throughout the lifespan.

This book chapter aims to help the reader develop and strengthen their understanding of resentment. This will be achieved through the exploration of resentment, its signs, causes, and consequences. Additionally, this book chapter will explore ways to overcome or reduce resentment, as well as exploring the role of resentment in the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Focus questions
  • What is resentment?
  • What causes resentment?
  • What are the consequences of resentment?
Case study

Spencer is often overlooked in his workplace. His ideas are shunned and disregarded. Spencer feels he has been wronged by his workplace and is now actively putting in significantly less effort and does not look forward to going to work. Spencer is experiencing and expressing resentment.

Defining resentment[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Someone feeling personally victimised and showing resentment towards two individuals' happiness.

Resentment is a multilayered and complex emotion or mood with many interpretational definitions.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary (n.d) defines resentment as “a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury.” Many psychologists and researchers expand on this definition.

Professors and Academics of Philosophy, such as Katie Stockdale (2013), identify that resentment, in philosophical literature, is individual. The notion that anger, as an emotion, is about “one’s perception that some moral injury was done to oneself” is derived from Jeffrie G. Murphy’s (1982) conception of resentment in his “Forgiveness and Resentment” (Stockdale, 2013).

According to Stockdale (2013), individuals have self-respect and the appreciation for morality, and building on the view of Murphy (1982), Stockdale identifies that resentment is a categorisation of anger or hatred that is directed towards another individual who is “responsible for perpetrating a moral injury or harm.”

In her definition of resentment, Stockdale (2013) argues that resentment occurs due to the perception of wrongdoing, and the object of resentment is the perpetrator of that wrong.

In addition to Stockdale (2013), Banning (2006), in the “Politics of Resentment,” outlines that resentment is an emotion that appears in the classroom, workplace, and everyday lives with “greater and greater frequency, given our times.”

Resentment, like many emotions, has a social foundation, despite many individuals interpreting resentment as a private bodily experience or feeling (Banning, 2006). Derived from relations of inequality, resentment indicates a sense of offense and feeling ill-will toward another (Banning, 2006).

Despite varying definitions, it is universality concluded that resentment is an emotion or mood that is associated with feelings of anger, disgust, fear, and disappointment.

Signs of resentment[edit | edit source]

Resentment can be portrayed in many forms. Including, but not limited to:

  • Continual or recurring feelings of a strong emotion, such as anger, when thinking about a specific interaction or experience
  • Inability to stop thinking about the event that triggered the strong emotions
  • Feelings of regret
  • Fear or avoidance of conflict
  • Tense relationships
  • Feeling invisible, inadequate, or less-that

(Schwartz, 2012; Zaitsava, 2019)

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Resentment Quiz

Take this quiz to test your resentment levels

Causes of resentment[edit | edit source]

As a complex and multilayered emotion, the causes of resentment vary between individuals and their circumstances. As resentment is caused by the wrongdoing of a perpetrator, the definition of ‘wrongdoing’ determined by an individual causes for various factors to influence and induce resentment (Zaitsava, 2019).

Generally, wrongdoing is defined as an act of doing wrong, such as an “injurious, unfair, or unjust act: action or conduct inflicting harm without due provocation or just cause” (Merriam Webster, n.d).

An individual can categorise wrongdoing as betrayal of trust and loyalty, constant discrimination or prejudice, public humiliation, being taken advantage of, and envy or jealousy (Carlsson, 2018).

The definition of doing wrong, although generalised into a definite definition, varies through experiences and criteria from person to person (Zaitsava, 2019).

For example, one person may consider making a joke at the expense of another individual as an act of wrongdoing, whereas another may see no wrongdoing in that scenario.

In addition to wrongdoings, the causes of resentment vary in different stages of the lifespan. The causes of resentment in children are based on differing factors than the causes of resentment felt in adults (Carlsson, 2018). For example, children and teenagers experience and express their resentment contrarily to adults. An example cause of resentment in children is divorced parents. In the case of divorced parents, children can have feelings of resentment as a result of disruption in normalcy and through a shared sense of responsibility or blame (Wallerstein, 1985).

Case study

Morgan is 8 years old, and his parents are going through a divorce. Since his parents divorced, Morgan is having trouble concentrating at school and he often has intense bursts of anger directed towards his parents and loved ones. Although he has not acknowledged this feeling, Morgan is experiencing and expressing resentment at the cause of his parents’ divorce.

Consequences of resentment[edit | edit source]

Although feelings of resentment are normal for individual to feel and express, excessive sentiments of resentment can be detrimental for mental health, relationships, and physical health.

Mental health[edit | edit source]

Excessive feelings of resentment in an individual can have the capability to be disadvantageous for their mental health and wellbeing.

Dwelling on feelings of resentment ensure a mindset and world view based on negativity (Don’t judge your life, 2016). In addition to a negative lens on outside life, intense feelings of resentment ensure a negative lens on our own self-concept and self-esteem.

Negative outlooks on oneself and the world can cause anxiety disorders, depression, social withdrawal, chronic worry, and obsessive-compulsive disorders (Maloney, n.d).

Relationships[edit | edit source]

Extreme feelings of resentment, and the damage that does to one’s mental health, has detrimental effects of an individual’s relationship with others. Resentment can often be a leading factor in the destruction and ruin of relationships with friends, family, and intimate partners.

As resentment can cause withdrawal in social settings, as well as in relationships, it is often seen as a driving factor in the declination of relationships with others (Don’t judge your life, 2016). Negative mindset combined with constant withdrawals, by a person feeling resentment, can result in the individual being one that other do not seek to interact with (Don’t judge your life, 2016).

Additionally, a resentful individual often buries their feelings. As relationships are built on communication and trust, this consequence of resentment ensures distance between a resentful individual and those they have, or once had, a relationship with.

Physical health[edit | edit source]

Intense feelings of resentment can lead to tremendous damage in an individual’s physical health. Dr. Wrosch and Dr. Renaud (2011), in “Self-regulation of bitterness across the lifespan,” identify that resentment interferes with the body’s hormonal system. Increased heart rate, arterial tension, increased testosterone production, decreased cortisol, and the increased stimulation of the left-brain hemisphere are all systems and responses that occur due to anger and resentment (Herrero, Gadea, Rodríguez-Alarcón, Espert, & Salvador, 2010).

These reactions can lead to numerous vulnerabilities within the body. The majorly damaging effects through the entire body, as a result of excessive feelings of resentment, are similar to that of the effects of extreme stress.

Furthermore, it has been identified that negative emotions interfere with the immune system, making those with heightened feelings of resentment more susceptible to illness and disease (Don’t judge your life, 2016; Wrosch and Renaud, 2011).

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Which of the following scenarios exemplifies resentment?

Penelope is unemployed, struggling to find a job, and feels indifferent about the job status of illegal immigrants.
David is unemployed, struggling to find a job, and has strong negative feelings about illegal immigrant workers 'taking' jobs that he could have.
Luke is employed and works alongside illegal immigrants and believes their immigration status does not affect their ability to do their job.

Ways to overcome and/or reduce resentment[edit | edit source]

As an everyday human emotion, there a many different theories and approaches in overcoming or reducing resentment. As discussed, a complex emotion, such as resentment, does not have one universal approach or path. Despite this, ways to overcome or reduce resentment can be generalised.

Overcoming and reducing resentment is often an internal and private matter than can be simplified into the following steps outlined by renowned psychotherapist Mark Sichel (n.d):

  1. Recognise that you have feelings of resentment.
  2. Approach resentment as the addictive state of mind it is.
  3. Attempt to identify the cause of this resentment.
  4. Realise that you are using resentment to replicate old dramas and acknowledge that you cannot change the past.
  5. Examine how your resentment may come from mentally confusing people in your present life with people from your past.
  6. Acknowledge that you cannot control those who have rejected you.
  7. Recognise that your resentment gives you only illusions of strength. Instead, highlight and validate your real strength and power.
  8. Learn to identify signals that provoke resentment.
  9. Practice cognitive behavioral techniques to stop indulging in resentment. Put a thought between your feelings of resentment and indulging in ruminating about them.
  10. Acknowledge your part in allowing the abuse to occur, forgive yourself for that, and make a decision to not let it occur again.
  11. Declare an amnesty with the person you resent and with yourself.
  12. Forgive when you can, and practice willful and deliberate forgetfulness when you cannot, keeping in mind that these acts are gifts to yourself rather than capitulation to the people you resent.

(Sichel, n.d; Enright, 2012).

Put simply, in order to overcome or reduce resentment, one must first acknowledge this emotion/mood, address the cause of this particular burst of resentment, and identity provoking aspects of resentment. From there, individuals can have greater control in their resentment and how they express and deal with this.

Overcoming and reducing resentment relies heavily on understanding oneself and how we react and internalise our own emotions (Akers, 2009).

In addition to these steps, working through the emotion and feeling of resentment may not be overcome or reduced on your own. In this case, therapy and counseling may be deemed appropriate to address the issue of resentment and the consequences discussed previously (Akers, 2009).

If you or someone you know are struggling with their feelings of resentment, online assistance and therapy can be found through the following links:

Better Help

Beyond Blue

Online Therapy

Resentment in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. 18th-century Scottish economist, philosopher, and author, Adam Smith, who is considered the father of modern economics.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments: To which is Added a Dissertation on the Origin of Languages, by Adam Smith (1767), argues and puts forth that our moral ideas and actions are a creation of our nature as social creatures and that this social psychology is an improved guide to moral actions rather than reason (Adam Smith Institute, n.d). Additionally, Smith (1767) identifies the basic rules of prudence and justice that are needed for society to survive, and explains the additional, beneficial, action that enable it to flourish (Adam Smith Institute, n.d).

Smith (1767) addresses the concept of resentment in the Theory of Moral Sentiments through the emotions of self-interest and sympathy. Smith (1767) outlines that we do not feel others’ emotions as strongly as they do. The natural empathy of humans with others ensures that we understand that an excess amount of anger, grief, or resentment, or other emotions cause distress within individuals (Adam Smith Institute, n.d).

 It was envisioned, by Smith (1767), of a world in which actors perform various resentments to other actors, in the hopes of gaining commendation and sympathy, which is a fundamental need of human beings (Cushman, 2009)

Click the link to read the Theory of Moral Sentiments
Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith

Re-examined by Thomas Cushman[edit | edit source]

In this re-examination of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, titled “Resentment in Theory of Moral Sentiments: A Sociological Re-examination and Critique,” Thomas Cushman (2009) claims that Adam Smith (1767) leaves readers with a “rather unsatisfactory elaboration of what exactly resentment is.” Cushman (2009) elaborates on the importance of resentment in the theory of moral sentiments, as it is of ‘paramount importance’ to the theory itself.

Cushman (2009) outlines that it was necessary for Smith to include more information and theory on resentment in his work, as ‘gaining social approval for our resentments is of crucial importance for the actualization of the self; having our resentments ignored is a cause for even further resentment; and resentments that are expressed without adequate self-command and restraint are “dangerous,” both for the development of individual virtue and civil social relations.”

Thomas Cushman (2009) recognises that Smith’s (1767) theory of resentment in the Theory of Moral Sentiments is the “starting point” for a general sociological theory of resentment, yet arguing Smith could have explored this more, as “his static view of the dialectic of resentment-sympathy is insufficient for understanding the dynamic aspects of social life.”

Click the link to read Cushman's re-examination

Resentment in Theory of Moral Sentiments: A Sociological Re-examination and Critique by Thomas Cushman

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Evidently, resentment is a complex and multilayered emotion and mood caused by numerous external and internal contributing factors.

As this book chapter discussed, resentment is a standard emotion and mood felt and expressed by people through various approaches, depending on the individual. Acknowledging feelings of resentment are the first step in overcoming and reducing these feelings. The reduction and conquering of resentment can protect the relationships with others and within ourselves, and it can protect the mental health and wellbeing and physical health and wellbeing of ourselves.

There are many ways to address feelings of resentment, each of which vary on the circumstances and individual.

Take home message

Resentment is a normal emotion and mood felt by human beings. As a complex and multilayered concept, the acknowledgement of resentment in ourselves is not an easy task.

Identifying feelings of resentment is the first step in overcoming and reducing this emotion, and consequently maintaining and strengthening our relationships with others as well as within ourselves.

See also[edit | edit source]

Motivation, Emotion, Resentment, Anger

References[edit | edit source]

Adam Smith Institute. (n.d). The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The Adam Smith Institute. Retrieved 06/10/21, from

Akers, J. (2009). 4 Powerful Tips to Reduce Resentment and Feel Happier. Tiny Buddha. Retrieved 28/08/21, from

Banning, M.E. (2006). The Politics of Resentment. JAC, Vol. 26, Issue 1/2 (2006), pp. 67-101. Retrieved 07/10/21, from

Carlsson, U. (2018). Tragedy and Resentment, Mind, Volume 127, Issue 508, pp. 169–1191, Retrieved 28/08/21, from:

Cushman, T. (2009). Resentment in theory of moral sentiments a sociological re-examination and Critique. Retrieved 06/10/21, from

Don't judge your life. (2016). RESENTMENT: How it Destroys Your Mind and Body, and How to Fix It. Don't judge your life. Retrieved 28/08/21, from:

Enright, R. D. (2012). The forgiving life: A pathway to overcoming resentment and creating a legacy of love. American Psychological Association. Retrieved 10/10/21, from

Herrero, N., Gadea, M., Rodríguez-Alarcón, G., Espert, R., & Salvador, A. (2010). What happens when we get angry? Hormonal, cardiovascular, and asymmetrical brain responses. Hormones and Behavior. Volume 57, Issue 3. Retrieved 10/10/21, from

Maloney, B. (n.d). The Damaging Effects of Negativity. Marque Medical. Retrieved 10/10/21, from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Resentment. In dictionary. Retrieved 09/10/21, from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Wrong. In dictionary. Retrieved 09/10/21, from

Murphy, J.G. (1982). Forgiveness and Resentment. Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Volume 7, Issue 503-16, pp. 506. Retrieved 09/10/21, from

Schwartz, A. (2012). Understanding resentment. Mental Help. Retrieved 28/08/21, from

Sichel, M. (n.d.). Forgiveness - 10 Steps To Letting Go Of Resentment. Mark Sichel: Therapy for Individuals, Couples, & Families. Retrieved 10/10/21, from

Smith, A. (1767). The Theory of Moral Sentiments: To which is Added a Dissertation on the Origin of Languages. Google Books. Retrieved 06/10/21, from

Stockdale, K. (2013). Collective Resentment. Social Theory and Practice. Vol. 39, Issue. 3 (2013), pp. 501-521. Retrieved 07/10/21, from:

Wallerstein, J.S. (1985). Children of Divorce: Preliminary Report of a Ten-Year Follow-up of Older Children and Adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, Volume 24, Issue 5, Pages 545-553. Retrieved 10/10/21, from

Wrosch, C., & Renaud, J. (2011). Self-regulation of bitterness across the lifespan. In M. Linden & A. Maercker (Eds.), Embitterment: Societal, psychological, and clinical perspectives. pp. 129–141. Springer-Verlag Publishing. Retrieved 10/10/21, from

Zaitsava, V. (2019). Nature and Effects of Resentment and How to Defeat It. Verv. Retrieved 28/08/21, from:

External links[edit | edit source]

Ted Talk: How Does One Shift from Resentment to Respect? - James Hogue

Ted Talk: A strong mindset for a life without resentment - Axel Allétru