“The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.”
~ William James
I grew up in the 1960s as the eldest of five children, with a father who was often absent and a mother who struggled with her own worries and demons. She always had to work hard to make ends meet, which meant that there was very little of herself that she could bring to parenting. I saw the closeness my friends had with their mothers and imagined how it would feel to be nurtured by that intimacy, but all I felt was rejected and neglected because mine had very little energy or time to give to me. My mother and I would argue often. I never felt that she understood me, nor I her. I learned resentment till I knew it well: for me, the taste of resentment was the bitter indignation of being treated unfairly. It coursed through me like a toxic stream until all hope of reconciliation was abandoned. And there we stayed, together but alone, our relationship all but broken, for year after wasted year.
I knew there was a problem – of that I had no doubt – but I had absolutely no idea what to do about it.
I knew there was a problem – of that I had no doubt – but I had absolutely no idea what to do about it. My pride and stubbornness blocked any way forward. I was not going to be the first one to take the initiative to pick up the phone, to make the first move. I was the one who had been wronged; I was the one owed an apology. Until my mother tried to make amends, I was not prepared to forgive her.
I carried this murky feeling with me wherever I went. It cast a dark shadow over all my relationships, and eventually the parenting of my own daughter. It sat in a pit at the bottom of my stomach. I just couldn’t see that there was any way to release myself from it.
Oddly enough, the key to a new understanding of how I felt came from my experience as a young academic teaching a philosophy course to groups of students who had to take my course for their degree. They resented the fact that they had to do a compulsory subject they had no interest in. Eventually out of sheer frustration I asked them why they didn’t take the opportunity to learn something new. Their response changed my approach to teaching, my career and my life.
They said they wanted to be engaged but they didn’t know how. I responded that while they didn’t have a choice about doing the course, they did have a choice about how they were going to approach it. So we started exploring their feelings of resentment and how these were playing out through complaint and dissatisfaction. I invited them to reframe their feelings to ones of gratitude. Surprisingly to me at the time, they wanted to know more.
The ease and enthusiasm with which many of my students spoke about gratitude stood in stark contrast with the glaring absence of gratitude I felt towards my mother.
When I asked what they felt most grateful for, a common answer was “my parents”. This left me feeling deeply pained that I didn’t feel this about my own mother. The ease and enthusiasm with which many of my students spoke about gratitude stood in stark contrast with the glaring absence of gratitude I felt towards my mother. I started to wonder if this was so significant that it blocked my ability to truly feel gratitude for all the other aspects of my life.
This realisation haunted me for some time until I decided to actually do one of the practices I had been recommending to my students: write a gratitude letter. I sat against a tree in a tranquil spot for a good half hour before I could bring pen to paper. I felt ashamed when I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I had thanked my mother for anything. Where could I start? When I wrote the first line – that I was sorry that I hadn’t really thanked her for giving me life – the tears started to well up. I started sobbing when I wrote the next line, saying that because she had given me my life, I was now able to be a mother to my own daughter. Then the floodgates opened for many of the other things I was grateful for in my life – my friends, my studies, my students, my love of swimming in the sea – all because of her.
When I visited my mother a week or so after sending her the letter, she hugged me and cried, and thanked me for my words. She told me she felt better than she had for a very long time. I told her that I had the same feeling. As we sat down to dinner, I felt a softening of both our hearts. From that moment, our relationship gradually grew stronger and more harmonious right up until her sudden death six months later.
I discovered through this experience that it was gratitude that let the light in.
It was from this point on that I started to truly feel grateful, to feel what I call ‘deep gratitude’. Not only for my mother, but for many other things in my life. I had tried counselling, meditation and numerous self-development courses to resolve the negative feelings inside me, but I discovered through this experience that it was gratitude that let the light in. It helped us both move past our resentment.
The illuminating power of gratitude
One of the most important roles that gratitude can play in our lives is to illuminate where we feel the opposite: it’s often the only thing that can bring resentment to light so that we can do something about it and address its negative impact on our lives. If you have underlying resentment about someone it’s impossible to genuinely express gratitude to them.
In the process of trying to sincerely practise gratitude, you become aware of those you feel effortlessly grateful for and those for whom it seems impossible to muster any gratitude – which for me, was my mother. In the act of writing a gratitude letter to her, I realised how much my resentment had stopped me from seeing any of her goodness or acknowledging what she had done for me as a mother.
Looking at gratitude as the counterpoint to resentment helps gratitude to be more real and more attainable. This is why – no matter what the context where I present my work – the questions I most often hear are: “How can I be grateful when I feel so resentful?” or “How can I let go of my resentment in order to practise gratitude?”
I know how hard it can be to make the first move when we feel another person has wronged us.
I have written a book to try to provide some answers to these questions. I know how hard it can be to make the first move when we feel another person has wronged us. But, as I see it, this humble questioning prefaces a commitment to try to change, to try to repair the relationship, to take action rather than waiting around for the other person to change or apologise.
Yet as intuitive as these questions are, in a sense we can reverse their order: practising gratitude is itself crucial to the freedom of letting go of resentment, and not the other way round. In other words, the question, “How can I let go of my resentment in order to practise gratitude?” can also be phrased as “How can I practise gratitude in order to let go of my resentment?”
I need to emphasise that practising gratitude isn’t about trying to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Gratitude should never be used to try to wipe out our resentment or as a way of putting a positive veneer over negative situations that are crying out for our attention. My journey with my mother took time. The newfound acknowledgment of the gratitude I had for her gave me the insight and courage to push through my resentment and make my relationship with her more important than my grievances. It wasn’t a quick fix though as my resentment was quite entrenched and I needed to untangle it over time.
The power in being able to see gratitude and resentment in each other’s light can offer a new way forward in relationships which are fractured or where we feel pain because of past hurt. It often takes courage and humility, but every time we move away from resentment, we are taking a step towards grateful living and giving the relationship a chance to heal.
Excerpted from Untangling you: How can I be grateful when I feel so resentful? by Kerry Howells, (Major Street Publishing, 2021). Posted with kind permission of the author.
How might gratitude help you heal a relationship in your life where you feel resentment? We invite you to share your reflections below.