Thursday, April 2, 2020

Just say "No" to Rumination, Resentment, and Regret

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Paola, a 15th-century Italian hermit who founded the Order of Minims. He has very strong words for us in today's Office of Readings, on the subject of nursing a grudge:

    "Put aside hatred and hostility. See to it that you refrain from harsh words. But if you do speak them, do not be ashamed to apply the remedy from the same lips that inflicted the wounds. In this way you will show each other mercy and not keep alive the memories of past wrongs. Remembering grievances works great damage. It is accompanied by anger, fosters sin, and brings a hatred for justice. It is a rusty arrow spreading poison in the soul. It destroys virtue and is a cancer in the mind. It thwarts prayer and mangles the petitions we make to God. It drives out love and is a nail driven into the soul, an evil that never sleeps, a sin that never fades away, a kind of daily death. 
    Be lovers of peace, the most precious treasure that anyone can desire." 

But it's one thing to know that we should forgive and forget, and quite another to actually do it. Here are some tips on how to let go of resentment.

Note: If you try any of them, please comment at the end of this post on how it worked for you. Likewise, if you have more suggestions on the same topic, please offer them below. I've learned some things in my life, but I'm also hoping that the comments section of this blog will become a forum for other people to multiply the wisdom. While you're at it, if you would click the "subscribe" button under the title, that will help the blog to become established and grow. So here are some ideas to start with:

  1. Acknowledge your own role in the conflict. A guilty conscience is a damned uncomfortable thing, and sometimes we try to hide from it by putting more of the blame than is fair on the other guy. This is really two steps: admitting your guilt to yourself, and apologizing to the other person.
  2. Examine your shadow self. I have noticed that very often, the things that disproportionately piss me off in another person are the very things I can't stand in myself. If you find yourself getting angrier or more irritated than a given situation seems to warrant, think about whether this might be a contributing factor.
  3. Question your assumptions about motive. Don't assume that another person's behavior is motivated by the same thing that would motivate you to behave that way. I really recommend getting to understand various different personality type frameworks. The very popular 5 Love Languages, by Gary Chapman, is particularly relevant here. Example: your "love language" is quality time, and your spouse's is receiving gifts ... if your spouse is working overtime in order to express his sense of your preciousness by buying you jewelry, and you get all upset thinking he must be off having an affair and trying to cover his guilt with expensive trinkets, how tragic would that be? 
  4. What else is going on? Are you hungry? lonely? getting enough sleep? stressed about something unrelated? In my case, I find that I'm ridiculously sensitive to the weather. If it's dark and grey for two or three days in a row, I get into a funk. But my mind tends to want to blame my mood on something other than a lack of sunlight, so I might find myself stewing on something I or someone else has done to upset me, and blowing it all out of proportion, before it dawns on me that that thing is just an excuse for my mood, not its cause.
  5. Distract yourself. Read an absorbing novel, watch a movie, or delve into some task requiring concentration. Give your thoughts a break, and when you return to the troublesome topic you may find it's lost some of its force.
  6. Move, and change your scenery. Even if it's just getting up from my chair in the living room and walking into the kitchen to wash the dishes left over from breakfast, that shift can help to break the spell of rumination and resentment. Better yet is to grab my binoculars and go bird-watching, or get out and weed and water the garden. Or turn on some lively music and work off the angry energy by dancing around the house -- great exercise, too.
  7. Plan to prevent a repeat. Sometimes it's a feeling of powerlessness that turns anger at ourselves or others into a persistent poison. So think about whether there are ways you can break a negative pattern. Trace the chain of events that led up to the injury, and look for something you could do in the future to defuse a conflict before it reaches a point of hurtfulness. Or if it's yourself you're mad at, back up and look for what we Catholics call "the near occasion of sin," the point where your willpower started to slip but before it was totally shot, and make that milder sense of temptation your new "red flag" for the future. If a job or relationship is just really toxic for you, do something concrete toward finding an exit strategy.
  8. Talk to someone. If you don't have a friend you can really trust to keep a secret, seriously consider talking to a professional counselor, or a priest under the seal of the confessional. Someone outside the relationship might be able to give you a very different perspective on what's going on.
Do you have any other tips and strategies for avoiding rumination, resentment, and regret? Please share them in the comments below!



  1. The most helpful thing for me in avoiding or letting go of annoyance with others is shifting my perspective. I found this commencement speech by David Foster Wallace a few years ago and it has helped immensely.

    1. Brilliant. I love the part about the lady screaming at her kids in the supermarket -- how easy it is to make a snap judgment about someone without knowing anything about them at all.