CRACK a psychology textbook, particularly one dealing with abnormal behavior, and you'll see a lot about "handling hostility." Hostility is defined as "emotional reaction or drive toward destruction or damage of an object seen as a threat or a source of frustration."
We have that feeling when we want to clobber somebody for something he's said or done. Much of the time we can't clobber him, and we would probably feel bad or go to jail if we could and did. So all we get for our troubles is a festering, burned-up feeling which we call "a resentment."
Resentment is really the AA term for the emotional reaction that goes by the name of hostility in other circles. Our use of the milder word may have something to do with our day-at-a-time program. Resentment, after all, is only an attack of hostility that you happen to be having right now.
One purpose of this essay is to make the point that all resentment, and therefore all hostility, is unnecessary. That should be self-evident, but unfortunately it is not. A surprisingly large number of people, even AA members, seem to feel that it's necessary to blow your top now and then, to get good and mad over something. And if they need justification for it, they can point to the time long ago when a man became angry and chased some money-changers from a temple.
Well, resentment may benefit some people, but I can give personal testimony that it's done precious little for me. Remembering my last attack of resentment is like remembering my last bout with alcohol. It was an experience colored with self-deception, blame cast on others, mounting discomfort, and poor self-control. It even produced its own kind of hangover. The only good thing to be said for such an attack is that I felt good when it was all over. So who needs resentment?
Nobody, of course. And most of us probably realize that. Our inability to kick the habit may be like the inability to stop drinking; we just don't know how. So here is my second point: It is possible to put an end to resentments if one has an honest desire to give them up.
The key to ending resentment, however, is to put an end to the very first one the moment it makes any kind of appearance at all. This is like staying sober by staying away from the first drink. One drink couldn't possibly harm anybody, if he stopped right there. And neither could one little old resentment. But those of us who have a problem with drinking or resentment. can't stop with "just one."
What about "justified" resentments, the times when somebody has really handed us a dirty deal, often without any asking for it on our part? "Justified" resentments are the worst kind, because the individual feels he has a right to be burned up and therefore does nothing to bring himself under control. Who is to say whether a resentment is justified or not? Practically every angry person feels justified in his anger; one such individual even went to the trouble of documenting his "justified" resentments under the title Mein Kampf.
Nipping so-called justified resentments in the bud sounds like difficult work, but it really isn't if we mean business. It becomes a matter of practice, of getting into the habit of not letting anybody or anything make us mad. It's easy to tell whether we're making progress; we can just check to see how we're responding to things that once made us blow sky-high.
Another way out of resentment is to give up resenting with anybody. There are a lot of people in AA and elsewhere who waste considerable time and energy by getting together and grousing about their mutual resentments. This useless activity only makes things worse; it helps to reinforce the dominion resentment has over us by making it appear respectable. Perhaps this practice, too, is a bit like the delusion some of us had concerning drinking; we felt that it was under control as long as we were drinking with somebody and not alone.
Giving up resenting with people may change our social lives a bit, because some of our acquaintances won't like it if we no longer wish to nurse grievances with them. But we have to let that particular cookie crumble in its own way; in any case, we find new interests to replace resenting-with-others.
Watch out, also, for "back door" resentments. Like "justified" resentments, they often go unrecognized. For example, an old-time town drunk who swears off alcohol and then becomes terribly vindictive towards all drinkers is probably guilty of "back door" resentments.
Whenever we get too intense about a cause or an idea, we should be careful to examine our own feelings closely to make sure that we're not just holding new resentments in disguised form. Such a development is no healthier than giving up alcohol and then taking on the pill habit.
The last point to be made here is that resentments--again like the compulsion to drink--yield completely to the spiritual approach if we are sincere about wanting to get rid of them. We don't really have to "handle" hostility in any way except to get rid of it by turning it over to a Greater Power. The older AAs called this "praying for the other guy." If no individual seemed to be involved as a target of their resentment, they would just pray for guidance in their particular situation. If praying didn't answer the problem, getting busy helping others or going to a meeting helped solve the problem.
It has always been good, also, to discuss a resentment with a person in whom we have confidence--if we make sure, however, that such a discussion is constructive and doesn't degenerate into one of those mutual-grievance sessions.
There are probably a number of ways to end resentments, just as there are no doubt several ways to stop drinking. Any way that works is worth following. Resentment is the great killer, the powerful destroyer of human health and happiness. It is a barrier to sobriety and a blight on social relationships. We need it like we need the next drink.
M. D. B.
Copyright ©1944 - The AA Grapevine,
All Rights Reserved. Reprints by permission only.