Do resentments kill?

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Two recent experiences reminded me of the commonly cited Twelve Step saying: “Resentments kill.” This post will explore those two experiences and connect them to Twelve Step wisdom about resentments.

First, what is a resentment? A simple definition is a hurt, disappointment, anger or other negative emotion that persists over time. At their worst, resentments don’t go away; they grow bigger and more intense. I think of the Latin root re-sentire which means” to feel again. Sadly, when resentments take over, I feel them again and again.

One recent example had to do with some volunteer community work in which I am involved. I was working with a government agency on a project and thought we had a firm agreement there would be two deadlines for applying for a community grant. After letting other leaders know of the two successive dates and beginning work to prepare applications for both, I learned there was now only one application date and it was in two weeks.

I attempted to clarify this and confirm that there would be a 2nd later application deadline with the government official in charge and was told there was only one date for now. The implication was it was out of his hands. In a nanosecond, my mild frustration went to outrage. I tried to call my government contact and fortunately didn’t reach him. I started writing an email full of anger, blame and sarcasm. Then somehow what I call a moment of grace occurred. I decided to take a breath and call another community leader and discuss the situation and ask for advice. After talking with her, the voice of a Twelve Step friend and conversations about similar situations appeared in my head. It said: “Why don’t you wait a day or two? This will look different to you in a couple days.”

So I said a little prayer to let go of my obsessive thinking about this for the weekend and decided to revisit it Monday. Meanwhile, over the weekend, our community newspaper arrived with an article implying there would be a second round of grants. On Monday, I relooked at my draft email and started over with more compassion for the government contact and their situation. I simply stated my request that they confirm the second deadline soon so groups had ample time to apply. I got a reply from the government contact the same day setting the second application date.

One might call this a communication breakdown, rather than a resentment. What made it a resentment was that my reaction was way out of proportion to the event. I have a thin skin about being disrespected. Small matters become huge because I re-feel past hurts without immediately being aware of the reason.

My second example of how resentments kill may seem a stretch and perhaps an unkind judgment. Consider this: recently CBS and the Recording Academy rebroadcast a 2022 tribute to Paul Simon. Occurring at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, any Simon and Garfunkel fan would love it. Paul Simon sat in the audience and watched as renowned performers like Dave Matthews, Brad Paisley, Brandi Carlile, Billy Porter, Rhiannon Giddens, and others brought his legacy of hit songs to life. It was a walk down memory lane, and a delight for anyone who loves his music, as I do.

And yet, as the camera flashed on Paul Simon throughout the evening, his demeanor had a heaviness and sadness to it. Despite these accolades, he didn’t look like a happy person.  I may have been wrong. He may have some health challenges, or perhaps that is his personality? Out of curiosity, I googled during the concert his relation to Art Garfunkel. What I found was sobering. 

Simon and Garfunkel broke up in 1970 over artistic disputes. Despite their disagreements, they did appear together once in 2010. However, since then, they have both continued to say angry, hurtful things about each other. I wonder if Paul Simon is an example of how resentments kill the spirit and then sometimes the body? Despite being successful, I wonder if he enjoys it, and how much this old resentment haunts him? Don’t know, pure speculation.

Resentments don’t need much fuel to grow. The mind loves to focus on the negative and continually replaying it and making it worse. In my experience, there is no simple or straight path out of resentments. Friends may encourage “forgive and forget”. That is a lot easier to say than do.

Ultimately, with any addiction or troubling behavior, there is a moment of implied surrender. At this point, there is some vague recognition that I am hurting myself more than anyone else with this resentment. I am then willing to let go, ask for help, and perhaps even pray.

One of the oft-quoted traditions in Twelve Steps is the “resentment prayer.” Found in the story Freedom from Bondage in Alcoholics Anonymous (p.552), the author tells that by praying for health, happiness and prosperity for the resented person every day for two weeks, the resentment is lifted. One doesn’t have to want to say this prayer or mean it. All one has to do is do it. And the situation begins to change.

If you don’t buy my Paul Simon example, let me suggest you look at some of our elected officials present and past and how resentments seem to warp their views and lead to harm in the world. When I say that resentments kill, there is no limit to the negative consequences that may arise personally, in families and in the world from long-held resentments. 

What have you learned about the power of resentments and how to let go of their life-sucking power?


  1. Ginger Harris

    Yes! And underlying every re-sentiment is a fear. Perhaps a fear that because the rules changed, you would not get the grant. Perhaps a fear that others would side with Garfunkel rather than Paul.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Ginger, for reminding us how fear drives resentment. The co-founder of AA, Bill Wilson, summed up his fears this way: Fear of losing what I have or not getting what I want. Fears indeed fuel resentments. Be well.

  2. sally mac

    What grieves me about Simon and Garfunkel is the time and talents we as fans have lost. We want our musicians, stars, and celebrities to behave and deliver. Could be, we expect more of them than we can manage ourselves.
    Theresa of Kalkutta most likely controlled her resentments, but she wasn’t a singer/songwriter….

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally, indeed we are all human and are doing the best we can. Amazing what it takes to realize we have more choices than we can see on any given day. Peace!