Resentment is not a safe place to hide

All too often our so-called strength comes from fear; not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine.  In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence.  If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open...How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft-front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness?  I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly - and letting the world see into us.  

~ Roshi Joan Halifax, as quoted by Brene’ Brown in Braving the Wilderness, p. 147.


Resentment is a convenient emotion for me when I am feeling freaked out, insecure, neurotic and emotional - conditions I experience with an unfortunate degree of regularity.  Resentment feels powerful and righteous but most of the time it is a thinly veiled disguise vainly employed to mask my own fear.


Telling myself to be strong and brave and courageous is unhelpful and often leads to an added layer of awkward bravado that is about as authentic looking as breast implants.  After a long time practicing nonjudgmental observation with a LOT of support from others, I no longer accept my resentful feelings on face value.  Today, I more often end up concluding that they are distortions of my more accurate emotion - FEAR.


Fear in the form of resentment is a representation of defensive shielding of a weak spine.  My spine is weak when I am depending on others to tell me how to appropriately think, feel and do.  Interdependence is a good thing and a valuable way to relate to our tribe.  But I am ultimately responsible for myself. Only I can decide what I think, feel and do with my daily life choices.  (This is a strong back; it’s having a spine; it’s knowing and taking responsibility for my core values.)


Resentment pops up for me when I fear that life is unfair.  When I believe that love and provision are scarce and someone else is going to take what is mine, I am terrified but often feel resentful.  How about you?  Is your resentment a cover for fear?  


Tomorrow, I will make a few suggestions about how we can encourage one another in this work of becoming both strong and vulnerable people

Fear and anxiety: The Usual Suspects

We all wrestle with fear and anxiety but not all of us realize the devastating effect chronic anxiety has on us.  My family of origin is a highly anxious system. But I didn’t realize that until I was in my forties. I thought I came from a family who was angry and irritable!  My lack of awareness in this area was a big problem for me and the family Pete and I built. This is the opposite of resilient because it indicates that I was (and can be) emotionally unaware.  This decreases problem solving, interferes with relationships, increases conflict and confusion, on and on the list goes of the ways I misidentified a problem in my family that resulted in me making poor attempts to resolve the issue.  

 

One summer I was in Atlanta visiting my folks while my kids and husband were on a mission trip in the inner city of Atlanta.  Part of the trip included a concert put on by our youth group at a large baptist church in the area of their ministry site. All were invited and I was so excited that my folks could come to an event where they could see my kids sing, meet people I cared about, and have exposure to the awesome work my church was doing through the youth group.

 

In case you are unaware, Atlanta has a lot of traffic and we chose to leave early to head across town.  As the natives can attest to, this is a long and arduous trek. KInd of like a safari without decent guides.  My folks sat in the front of the Suburban and I sat in the back in a way that was eerily reminiscent of my childhood.  Both of my parents began to talk about the traffic and express the likelihood that we were going to be a statistic on the mean streets of Atlanta before nightfall.  And in that moment I got it.

 

My folks weren’t angry they were anxious.  They weren’t a little anxious they were a LOT anxious.  Was traffic bad? Yes. Did my dad navigate it every single day without losing life or limb?  Yes. Did this chatter seem like an over-reaction? Yes. In the past, I would have gone to my mind palace and thought they were fussing at me or each other.  In that particular moment I realized that this is how they sound but not how they felt. Instead of getting irritated myself, I realized I was asking too much of them.  No one should be put in this position. I suggested that maybe it would be a better idea if they didn’t go. They could stay home (we were still in the driveway) and I would take my car.  I admitted that I didn’t realize how much this drive would make them feel so anxious and told them that I wasn’t feeling anxious about driving, so I could go and they could stay home. Dead silence.

 

We all went and lived to tell about it.  My mom thoroughly enjoyed the program and my dad enjoyed meeting all the people and charming them with his witty repartee.  Rarely did anxious moments like this go well between us even after this revelation on my part. I struggled to manage my own anxiety in situations like this and they did too.  But here’s the thing I took away from that encounter: as we increase our ability to identify and handle our strong emotions, sometimes conversations can be more meaningful than mean.

Fear of Conflict

I hate conflict.  I don’t mind standing up against injustice on behalf of someone else but I hate hate hate conflict in my relationships.  One way I used to try to avoid conflict without actually resolving anything was to practice stonewalling. Stonewalling is when we avoid conflict while communicating disapproval, distance and separation by withdrawing from a relationship.  Some call it giving someone the “cold shoulder”. It’s fighting dirty because you do not give resolution a chance.

 

 

It’s also a bit cowardly.  If called out on it, we can always tell the person that they are crazy (which is called gaslighting by the way) and that we are not withdrawn, just tired or stressed out.  If we really work at this we can blame a whole bunch of people with an elaborate story that hides the truth of our own culpability - we are scared of conflict but we still want our pound of flesh.

 

Surprisingly, I did not learn how to reduce my stonewalling ways by learning how to fight more efficiently.  Instead, I’ve learned how to practice what Dr. John Gottman calls “physiological self-soothing.”

 

Here’s how it works.  When Pete brings up a touchy subject that we are having conflict over I immediately experience a visceral desire to run away and pout.  Instead of doing so, I try to tell the truth to myself. Ugh oh, Teresa, here you go again - you are considering stonewalling. If I can remember this and not react by doing this thing I instinctively want to do I can choose to do something different.  It looks like this:

 

“Hey, I hate this about me (acknowledge my feelings) but I really want to withdraw from you and this discussion (tell the truth).  I need your help (express my need rather than blame him in some way). I need to take a break from this discussion and do something that will help me calm down.  I am going to go distract myself with a nice, long walk. Can we reconvene this conversation in a couple hours?” This is an example of physiological self-soothing.  Walks work for me.

 

I cannot count the number of times I have left the house to walk and think about how my husband is a silly goose only to return with gratitude and appreciation for his perspective.  Stonewalling is not helpful but it is indicative that we are freaking out and under stress. Our work, our responsibility, our skill set to develop in situations like this? Physiological self-soothing.  Workout. Do a puzzle. Water your plants. Vacuum. Take a drive. Ride your bike. Go sit on a rock in the James river and thank God you live in such a cool place! It’s a great skill set and it can be done at anytime for no charge!  Try it!

 

P.S.  According to Gottman, you need at least twenty minutes to reset.  I require an hour!