I was reading Olivia Fox Cabane’s book The Charisma Myth and came across the exercise “Getting Satisfaction” which tackles resentment, a negative mental state that is not conducive for charisma. She quotes her favorite adage, a powerful metaphor for how we suffer the effects of our resentment: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”. She then invites the reader to rewrite their reality to get rid of resentment. The first instruction was:
Think of one person in your life who has aggrieved you.
I looked up from the book and said to my husband, “Is there anyone in my life whom I feel resentful towards? I can’t think of anyone. Wait, maybe my ex-boyfriend.”
My husband looked at me with interest. “In what way do you feel resentful toward him?”
“Oh I don’t know… we had a really bad break-up and he was a total wienybutt.” And I started listing the ways he had hurt me. I felt used, disrespected, and disregarded. As I recounted these things that I knew I had already told my husband before, he seemed to be suppressing his grins.
“I guess I’m still angry. I feel like he doesn’t deserve any sort of happiness because of how he had hurt me!,” I said strongly.
My husband was biting his lip to keep from giggling.
“Why are you chuckling?,” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Go on.”
“Tell me. Something seems so amusing to you.”
“You really want to know? Okay. Look at you Hon, you got two beautiful kids who adore you. You have a husband who is just crazy about you. You got a lot of wonderful things going on for you. You have no idea how many people envy you. And yet here you are —“
He didn’t have to finish. I laughed along with him. He was absolutely right.
“Just do the exercise. See where it takes you.”
I was skeptical that a simple writing exercise can change these strong negative emotions I bore for almost ten years now, but I gave it a try. Here are the next steps:
Take a blank page and write that person a letter saying anything and everything you wish you had ever told them. Really get into this — you have nothing to lose. Make sure you write it out by hand. When you’ve gotten absolutely everything off your mind and onto paper, put the letter aside.
Take a fresh sheet and write their response just the way you wish they would respond. You might have them taking responsibility for their actions, acknowledging and apologizing for everything they’ve ever done that hurt you. You don’t need to find any justification for their actions, just an acknowledgement and an apology. It’s your imagination so you get to decide exactly what you’d like to hear.
Olivia Fox Cabane recommends rereading the apology letter for the next few days until this “new reality” takes hold. It took me just that one day when I wrote it to revise my resentment. It just wasn’t there anymore (so much so that it took a while to even recall why I was so angry at him to write this blog post!) and it was a positively freeing exercise I wished I did sooner.
A story from Zen Buddhist literature challenges us to examine our tendency to hold on to our grievances. There are many versions of this story but the latest one I read was from John Muth’s Caldecott Honor Book Zen Shorts which I retell:
Two traveling monks happened to encounter an ill-mannered young woman who couldn’t make it across a deep puddle without ruining her silk robes. Her attendants were carrying her packages and couldn’t help her across either. The older monk quickly put the young woman on his back and carried her across the water to the other side. She didn’t thank him and instead shoved him out of the way. The monks wordlessly continued on their way but the younger monk continued to brood over the incident. Finally after several hours, he said to the older monk, “That woman was very rude and yet you picked her up and carried her across. She didn’t even thank you!” The older monk replied, “I set the woman down hours ago, why are you still carrying her?”
p.s. Thank you Liz Cochran for sharing Zen Shorts with me. We love reading and rereading it!