The more I know about the human psyche and its neurobiology, the more interested I am in emotions. They are the commanders of our actions as well as the cause behind mental issues. Resentment is especially intriguing because of its secretive quality, its connection to violent acts and trauma, and its large role in interpersonal relationships.
The byproducts of resentment are numerous: desire for revenge, punishment, frustration, alienation, outrage, fury, wrath, hostility, ferocity, bitterness, hate, loathing, scorn, spite, vengefulness, and dislike. That’s not an insignificant list. I think it deserves more attention than what the different theories of emotion have given to it –that is to say, almost none.
In a previous article, I explained how “You Are Not Your Emotions.” Here, I want us to go deeper into what happens to your brain and emotional system when the emotion you’re feeling and identifying with is resentment. Resentment can be harmful, or it can be useful; the difference can tell us a lot about emotions in general and resentment’s outsized role in our lives in particular.
Basic Emotion Theory
The most important theories of emotion have been trying to figure out the basic emotions, meaning, those that can be distinguished universally. Resentment has not made the list on any of them, except on Warren D. TenHouten’s, in part because resentment may look different across cultures. TenHouten, however, includes resentment on the list as a tertiary emotion.
What does it mean when we say “tertiary emotion?”
According to Plutchik, primary emotions are those experienced the same way by every person and are recognized across cultures, like sadness, joy, surprise, disgust, trust, fear, anticipation, and anger. He then expanded the classification of emotions to a second level and called them secondary emotions. Resentment doesn’t fit there.
Secondary emotions are emotional reactions we have to other emotions. Secondary emotions are often caused by the beliefs behind experiencing certain emotions. Some people may believe that experiencing specific emotions like anger say something negative about them. Therefore, whenever the primary emotions are experienced with judgment, these thoughts come up, which trigger secondary emotions (Braniecka et al, 2014).
Rage is the emotion pointed out as the secondary emotion of anger, which is in itself debatable. Rage seems much more like an action than an emotion. Once one “is enraged,” there is nothing but “destroying” energy that puts the person in a frenzy or madness. Secondary emotions might be broken down further into what is known as tertiary emotions.
Tertiary emotions are emotions experienced as a consequence of experiencing a secondary emotion. Resentment as a tertiary emotion comes after rage (secondary) that comes after experiencing anger (primary). Therefore, its understanding requires even more depth than basic emotions. I even suspect that it goes beyond the concept of emotion, since it also includes some moral injury.
Facial Feedback Theory of Emotions
Resentment doesn’t show in our facial expression in a generalizable way (like primary or basic emotions do) even when it is rooted in anger’s strong facial emotions, which are universally experienced . I have observed many people manifest resentment in an almost imperceptible way as if they are “hiding” what they feel. I wonder if resentment is really an “emotion” or an emotional process in its own right, since it needs to be uncovered and dissected before it can be dissolved.
Origins of the Resentment Experience
The Latins and French came up with the term “ressentire” to describe the act of “feeling again.” That sounds like a description I would assign to my experiences of resentment: whatever grievance was committed against me before, it feels vivid once more. This matches the concept of a tertiary emotion discussed above, but I presume that resentment could be a tertiary emotion to more than just one secondary (rage) and one primary (anger).
To feel again is likely what the body experiences when an individual carries resentment. From the experiences I have heard from many people, it’d not be far off to say that resentment could be a tertiary emotion not only of rage but also of, at least: neglect, disappointment, envy, disgust, exasperation, and irritation.
Some definitions of resentment include other components. Petersen (2002) defined it as “the intense feeling that status relations are unjust combined with the belief that something can be done about it.” The characteristic of generating hope or ambition as motivators for action makes resentment sound like a respectable emotion — that is, until the actions are aspirations of violence or aggression. In that sense, is resentment really protective as an emotion should be?
Expressive Suppression Theory
Warren D. TenHoutenwrote –who has written a lot about resentment since the beginning of the century– wrote recently (2018) that resentment “is the result of being subjected to inferiorization, stigmatization, or violence,” and that it responds to acts that have created “unjustified and meaningless suffering.”
Further back, Nietzsche developed a broader notion of resentment and considered it something that arose out of powerlessness and the experience of dehumanizing abuse. Historically, resentment has been connected to frustration, contempt, outrage, animosity, and ill will; and it has been linked to “relative deprivation” which refers to the perception that someone is worse off than other people one compares oneself to, leading to feelings of frustration and obliteration.
If someone is forced to suppress an emotion because of disadvantageous circumstances, “expressive suppression” is the act of masking the facial indications of feeling in order to hide an underlying emotional state that could put the person at risk (Niedenthal, 2006). It’s not hard to imagine that experiencing resentment, merged with the need to suppress the expression of affect –as part of the imposition of subjugation– produces internal experiences like outrage, fury, wrath, hostility, vengeance, etc, that are hard to handle.
The level of arousal and the sustained experience of the emotion become taxing. How exactly do those extreme experiences impact the resentful person’s system?