Resentment and Forgiveness: Which Brain Are You Building?

“Your resentment trains you to see evidence of your rightness.”

Briana and Dr. Peter Borten (The Dragontree)


The above quote was part of my meditation material this morning. In 1939, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) identified resentment as a significant issue for persons with a substance use problem, and science has since produced significant research supporting the need for healthy habits regarding the brain and resentment and forgiveness both in the initial stages of recovery and for relapse prevention. In my work with high functioning persons with a substance use disorder **, their family members, and other persons in recovery in Katy, Texas, I find that developing the habit of forgiveness is almost always needed and beneficial.

Personal Experience

I’ve had 2 goosebump worthy epiphanies regarding resentment and forgiveness. One was approximately 27 years ago, in my first year of sobriety. I lived in Orlando, FL, and my parents lived an hour away. I would go see them about once a month. How can I say this nicely? I can’t, so I’ll just say it (I own it at the end, so it’s ok): My mom used to annoy the heck out of me.

I would get in my Ford Escort and I’d head to their home, the whole time mentally rehearsing exactly what my mom would say, do, and how she’d say and do it. While with my parents, a day that typically consisted of lunch and shopping, I’d wait for my mom to “do” the things I anticipated. She’d deliver, too! I’d check them off like bullet points in my head as she told “that story” or made “that” snarky remark or interacted with my Dad “like that.”

a cheeseburger to support the lunch talked about in the text where the author has lunch with her parents while learning about forgiveness

I’d fold back into my Escort and head to Orlando, accompanied by my review of the day which was full of exactly what I anticipated; my Mom behaving in the ways that annoyed me. Only on this particular day in 1991, it was different. I realized that it was not my mom making me miserable. It was not “this” or “that” story. It was not her snark. It was not the tone she used with Dad. It was me. It was me that filled the hour before seeing them with the thoughts that breed nothing but more negativity. It was MY brain, not her behavior, that dripped annoyance onto the cheeseburgers at lunch. It was my attitude, not hers, that consumed me on the way home.

I had been giving up my power; I had forfeited my sanctuary.

Would you jump forward with me about 23 years? I accept a job as Program Manager for an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP, a level of substance abuse treatment that meets 3-4 times a week). I was expected to jump right in and work (which was fine, I had run a sister program a couple of years before). IOP is often structured with “chemical dependency education” being the first half and “process group” the second. The education component cycles through a series of topics. The topic for day 1 of the position was about Forgiveness. I had presented the Forgiveness topic dozens of times. As I was presenting the material and flipping through the slides, the fact washed over me that I had a long list of people I had not forgiven. And that lack of forgiveness was hurting ME. I continued to interact with the crowd, but I was also very aware of my lack of forgiveness…

  • The divorce and custody battle had been over a long time – on paper but not in my heart and head.
  • The young man who t-boned me the year before putting me in the hospital for 2 stays, resulting in a wheelchair, walker, cane and continued pain had only hit me once in 2013.

There was more, so much more. Embarrassingly much more! I knew better. I knew the statistics related to health and forgiveness.

Let’s Look At The Word Resentment

See, here’s the thing. When you break down the word “resentment”, you get:

Re = as puts it: a prefix, occurring originally from Latin, used with the meaning “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or with the meaning “back” or “backward” to indicate withdrawal or backward motion

Sent = latin root for “feel”. Think about words such as sentiment, senses, sensitive.

When you resent, you “re-feel.” That is significant because your brain responds to the thought train with the appropriate neural activity and chemicals. Your brain says, “Oh! So-and-so hurt me. Let’s marshal up some stress chemicals, anger chemicals, and depression chemicals in response.” And your brain begins hard-wiring areas associated with that “thing” (person, place, thing, event). This hard wiring grows each time you re-feel. However, your brain doesn’t experience each “refeel” as a memory; your brain and body experience it as if it were happening for the first time. Your brain literally responds in current time because that is what your “re-feeling” demands it to do.

It’s not the original offense or offender; we do it to ourselves.

serious man in an airplaine with a drink, thinking and symbolizing not forgiving

So, What Should I Do?

The solution is forgiveness. Not (necessarily) because “they” deserve it, but because you do. You deserve the neurohealth available when you forgive. Lack of forgiveness and the habit of resentment are associated with (and this list is just a start):

  • Increased depression
  • Suppressed Immune function
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Anxiety

I have a theory that spiritual disciplines such as forgiveness, volunteering/service, prayer, meditation, study, and even fasting, show up in nearly all religions because they are physiologically beneficial.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you, and now you are wondering how do you go from the habit of resentment to breaking the pattern? You’ve already started by looking at the damage accurately.  We don’t typically have immediate and easy power over the “first thought” that comes into our brain. But we DO have power and choice about what thoughts we feed, water, and grow.

a collection of plants to support the idea that we can choose what thoughts we grow

A Helpful Tool

The next step is to choose 2-3 thought content options that you are going to grow instead. Whenever an offending thought comes, select one of the carefully selected alternatives and feed THAT thought. Good thought options are powerful happy memories, scripture, inspirational thoughts, poetry, lyrics, music, or a moment of accomplishment. Thoughts that have more than one sensory input are stronger and more powerful.

Smart Recovery has some good, helpful resources that you can check out to help build healthy thinking patterns. It can be helpful to have help when changing thinking habits. I work often with professionals with a substance use problem, high functioning alcoholics, high functioning addicts, and their family members. Developing the skill of forgiveness is both a recovery and relapse prevention tool that I can help you develop and  I’d welcome the opportunity to help you realize more joy and happiness.  


This blog will at times use quotes that mention addiction, substance use disorder, alcoholism, alcoholic, addict, and drug addict. Some of this research used is useful and necessary even though clinical language has progressed to remove stigma and present person-first. When possible, I will use substance misuse, substance abuse, and substance use disorder interchangeably to refer to the diagnosable, criteria based clinical disorder. When referring to a person who has a disorder, I will use “person with a substance use disorder” or similar phrasing to establish person first orientation and de-emphasize stigma and disease identity. However, at times, terms will be used that will be consistent with the time frame in which they were utilized to provide context and demonstrate ideas.

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