Your Emotional Brain on Resentment
How Resentment May Stop Trauma But Propel Alienation and Violence
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 says 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 unjustly 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?
Neurological Theories of Emotion
According to some neurologically-based theories, emotions –in order to facilitate function, adaptation, and survival– are the embodiment of appraisal systems that are pervasive to all levels of the brain. There are countless studies showing that regions in the brain, specifically in the limbic system, are associated with each of the main emotions (the primary ones).
Anger is associated with activation of the right hippocampus, the amygdala, and both sides of the prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex. Anger is part of the well-known sympathetic fight-flight response that gets the body ready to attack. The question then is, how come resentment as a consequence of anger (and rage) is not reactive?
In contrast to anger and rage, resentment is a passive phenomenon, because of the suppression of the affect that precedes it. As I mentioned previously, the expressive suppression of resentment (as a regulation strategy) involves reducing the expression of anger in the face as well as controlling the negative feelings experienced by the body.
That suppression brings up parasympathetic activation as the numbing factor as a way to put the brakes on the sympathetic command to “fight.” This double activation of the autonomic nervous system produces dissociation, which could be the explanation for the intentionality’s “secret” split.
Appraisal Theory of Emotions
Another interesting concept associated with the study of emotions is the concept of valence. Valence refers to the value associated with a stimulus, expressed on a continuum from pleasant to unpleasant or from attractive to aversive.
Appraisal theory favors a multifaceted view of valence, proposing that emotions emerge as a consequence of events being appraised on multiple criteria. An appraisal consists of a subjective evaluation of (real, recalled, or fictitious) events or situations (Shuman, et al. 2013), that can be processed consciously or unconsciously by different cognitive systems.
Every experience has a “valence” in terms of whether it has a positive or negative reaction. If you experience joy, that is connected to a type of activation in your brain with a positive valence. The more joy, the more neurons will carry that positive valence. The more times you experience joy, the stronger that positive valence circuit of neurons will become, and at some point, an automatic response to stimuli similar to the ones you experienced as joyful will be taking place.
That’s, generally speaking, how the brain learns and programs itself to react. That’s part of learning: the brain remembers what’s important, what’s pleasurable, and what’s painful, and thus learns what to do after.
In terms of brain activity, we can assume that every time we experience resentment we are activating the limbic brain and re-experiencing the emotional charge that was already stored as an accumulation of anger. That forms a very strong circuit. This circuit is fated to be continually repeated with the activation of all the emotions involved. It means that the valence of resentment is highly negative because it involves many neurons firing up a negative response, and the act of “remembering” more of that valence — unpleasant, undesired, hurtful– over and over again.
According to some evolutionists, emotions evolved to play diverse adaptive roles, and to serve as biologically vital sources of information processing.
Under this lens, we can appreciate that resentment has redeeming features, as all emotions do. Resentment, as a protective mechanism, can be understood as an effective tactic to stop the autonomic nervous system from dysregulating on a permanent basis.
As I mentioned before, suppressing expression of affect is an aspect of emotion regulation. If we assume that resentment comes after anger gets activated but doesn’t succeed in providing defense — as the fight-flight primes us for — it gets suppressed and accumulates in the form of impotence. Thus, holding a grudge can be the solution for attaining temporary safety, and to passively work on finding a way to overcome that impotence or subjugation. This strategy is effective if we compare it with trauma, which is another defense strategy.
This is how trauma develops: after traumatization, the brain reacts automatically to any stimuli that resemble the traumatic event — or the cause of fear — in order to make sure the person doesn’t get defeated once more. The brain reexperiences the fear and the emotions felt during the traumatic situation. The impotence to fight back could resemble defeat.
During traumatization, not being able to fight back and feeling helpless activates a more extreme defense where the system goes into immobilization and collapse. If those extreme strategies can’t bring the person back into resilience, trauma stays as a mental disorder.
This is how resentment stops trauma from developing: while in trauma, the person’s evaluation of the situation was that of defeat; in resentment, the person’s evaluation of the situation may be defeating “for the time being” but, internally, the system will stay in fight mode instead of collapsing in order to generate options to act-out that anger and to avoid the feeling of being subdued.
Instead of giving up and submitting –as happens in traumatization– an alternative “defense” will be set into action in the form of resentment so the person can stay afloat.
In that scenario, resentment would be a silent –but still adaptive– way to manifest defeat without revealing it, or better yet, without accepting defeat completely. Not accepting defeat would mean –in terms of neurobiology– avoiding a shut down of a lot of the body’s functionality in order to “stay” even if most of the vitality –and “soul”– of the person goes away, like what happens in trauma.
Primed Defense Mechanisms Theories
Priming is a nonconscious form of memory that involves a change in a person’s ability to identify, produce, or classify an action as a result of a previous encounter with that action (Schacter et al. 2004). Resentment becomes primed as “habitual” and it consumes enormous amounts of mental energy because of its characteristic of being pervasive, which could be more damaging than reparative. Strong habits are influenced by cues associated with past performance but are relatively unaffected by current goals.
Consuming thoughts and desire for revenge, retaliation, annihilation, vengeance, and so forth, could become the way the brain operates while idle. In extreme cases, resentment would drive the resented individuals’ thoughts and actions to the extreme of them actually losing themselves, and the sense of who they are or what their values are, which could lead to damaging mental disorders. I wrote an article about how resentment may spoil your sexual life.
Resentful people could become ruled by their emotions, whether conscious or unconscious, which, in turn, would motivate them to commit violent and criminal acts.
The Irony of Resentment
As an irony, becoming obsessed in order to overcome subjugation may be self-subjugating. Additionally, if the goal of retaliating is never achieved, the sense of defeat that wanted to be avoided could appear at any given point, activating more extreme autonomic nervous system defenses that could culminate as trauma, or any other mental disorder like depression.
If the fear of abandonment was what propelled the acting out of the anger while abused, the resentment will propel the person into isolation and disconnection.
If oppression was the reason you repressed your voice, the acting-out of resentment could be the reason to play the game of the oppressors, giving them the arguments they need in order to continue to exercise injustice.