Sunday, September 2, 2018

Consumed by Resentment

It’s a complex and difficult case. A woman who calls herself “Tangled in Resentment” writes to New York Times advice columnists Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed. She had broken up with a man she had been seeing and discovered that a close friend had taken up with him… but was not telling her. This happened five years ago. She is not over it yet.

She is now consumed by resentment, especially against the former friend:

Five years ago, I was betrayed by a close friend. She was seeing my ex and lying to me about it, even though I’d confided in her about my complicated feelings about him. When I figured out the truth, I was devastated and heartbroken. In spite of this, I wanted to maintain our friendship and work through it. That’s when the worst of it happened: She didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I can only guess that my ex spoke poorly of me, a habit of his.

I don’t want to be with my ex, and I have a solid list of reasons why. Though sometimes I doubt this list and I feel envious of the things he does provide, my resentment is chiefly with her. It keeps me up at night and ruins my days. I have nightmares of physical violence against her and revenge fantasies of spilling her secrets. I wish misery to her and her family. To get rid of this hatred in my heart, I’ve journaled, exercised, performed rituals, even tried to meditate and picture her as a small child. I wind up hating that small child. Every time I hear her name, I get sick to my stomach. I feel certain she has swallowed up all the good in life and none is left for me. I compare us, come up short, then spend hours building up the case for why I’m better than her. She probably thinks I’m the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” Or worst of all, she doesn’t think of me at all.

I’m usually a forgiving person, because I know I’ve done many things in my life of which I’m not proud, but I can’t seem to push her out of my mind. How do I move on?

Tangled in Resentment

Obviously, TIR made a mistake in wanting to continue to be friends with a woman who betrayed her. And she is also wrong to think that it’s just a mental problem, one that requires psychic gymnastics. Almond will tell her that she needs therapy. Strayed comes closer to the truth when she says that TIR would do better to see herself dumping her friend.

Unfortunately, we lack sufficient information to assess the situation accurately. At first glance, we understand that TIR still maintains a circle of friends that includes the treacherous former friend. Apparently, she hears the dread name often and it makes her sick. This tells me that the problem is not merely in her mind. It is constantly being fed by friends who speak the dread person’s name. If they belong to the same circle of friends, I wonder whether anyone else knows how she feels, and thus, has been put on notice that she does not want to hear her name. We do not know enough to see how much of her social circle needs to be put on notice. And we do not know enough to grasp whether or not she might need to find some new friends. If her current circle of friends contains friends of the deceitful friend, she might need to revise her circle.

Sadly, it will be through no fault of her own... but such is life.

This to say, without further evidence, that we should not limit ourselves to seeing this as a mental problem. The problem lies in the group she spends her time with. And, it might be that the situation in question has poisoned the well.

So Steve Almond is off track when he recommends that the problem lies in her feelings. Isn’t that what therapists always say? And aren’t they mostly wrong?

Almond writes:

Your underlying feeling is one of futility, that these two have “swallowed up all the good in life and none is left for me.” I urge you to find a therapist or counselor who can help you explore the meaning of these intense feelings. When an obsession runs this deep, it’s not likely to be silenced by exercise, meditation or other forms of self-care, nor boiled away by wrath. This woman’s cruelty may have sparked your loathing and self-doubt, but it’s been sustained for the past five years by the furnace of your inner life.

A good therapist will provide the space to talk about all this: your regrets, your fears, the early relationships that shaped you, and, yes, why this rejection unleashed such devastating feelings. The only way to exorcise the hatred in your heart is to find some measure of forgiveness — for yourself. That’s never easy work, Tangled, but it’s the right work.

She has been trying and failing to deal with her feelings. Telling her to keep trying, with the aid of a professional, is just the wrong advice.

As mentioned, Strayed has a better take. Again, she focuses on storytelling, but she understands that TIR would have done better, not just, as she says to get angry and to end the friendship, but to try to expel the woman from her circle. She might even have to cease being in contact with those who have remained good friends with her:

I wonder if you’re so hung up on your resentment because you never got mad at her for that. You use words like “devastated” and “heartbroken” to describe how you felt when you learned of her duplicity, but you don’t mention anger. You write about your desire to save the friendship by attempting to work it out, but you don’t say you considered the possibility that she wasn’t worthy of your friendship. Meanwhile, your ex-friend was apparently remorseless. She didn’t want to work it out because she wanted to continue sleeping with your ex-boyfriend. She froze you out so she could let herself off the hook. You don’t have to forgive her for that.

It’s about how she constructs her social circle, not how she tells herself stories. So, Strayed is mistaken here:

Steve and I often encourage people to revise the stories they’ve told themselves about themselves that keep them from moving forward, and I think doing this in regard to your ex-friend is key. Right now your story is that she betrayed you, deceived you, then dumped you. What if you decided to change the last part of that narrative and dumped her? Instead of focusing on forgiving her in your heart, focus on purging her from it. Quell the voice inside of you that asks why she rejected you and replace it with an assertion of your rejection of her. Every time vengeful or negative thoughts of her come into your mind, push them away and think, I’m grateful that this false friend is no longer in my life. It’s a subtle shift, but a powerful one. I know because I’ve had to do it myself. It requires intention in the beginning, but before long it’ll be second nature. And best of all, it’ll be true.

Unfortunately, this is yet another exercise in psychic gymnastics. Reconstructing her social life, to the point where she never again hears the name of either the ex-boyfriend or the ex-friend… will help rid her mind of her resentment.

3 comments:

Sam L. said...

She says he was her ex. She broke up with him. Then her friend took up with him. Seems to me she is her own problem (if I can't have him, no one I know can have him). I don't see her as betrayed by her friend.

Douglas Williams said...

Right? Does no one say “You broke up. He’s fair game. Learn to accept that others are entitled to their own lives without regard for your feelings of entitlement.”?

Anonymous said...

A friend is respectful of the romances and ex-romances of a friend. That has always been a part of friendship. By her behavior, the ex-friend obviously cancelled any friendship they had, and also showed low integrity. Losing this "friend" was not much of a loss. It might help her to realize that.