Where Does The Locus Of Responsibility Lie When You’re Angry or Resentful
While finishing my latest book and preparing to teach an online class Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 2.0 as part of releasing that content, I’ve been pondering how spiritual teachings so frequently demonize anger and make us anger-phobic, when anger is the emotion we need most in order to protect our boundaries or protect the boundaries of vulnerable people who are getting their boundaries violated. It’s a necessary emotion for our integrity, because when someone crosses our boundaries, we need to be able to stand up for ourselves, and if we see someone else’s boundaries aggressively crossed, as we’ve seen with police brutality against innocent Black men, we’re supposed to be outraged.
But religions and New Agers tend to preach that anger is somehow a less than “spiritual” emotion and therefore something to suppress. While it’s true that uncontained anger can lead to violence and needs to be checked, properly contained anger gives us just the right fuel to help us shore up our boundaries and those we care about.
Resentment, on the other hand, pops up when we’re crossing our own boundaries, getting passive-aggressive, failing to say no when we’re a no, or saying yes when we really aren’t okay with whatever is happening.
This led me to think about the difference between anger and resentment when it comes to boundaries and responsibility. In narcissistic or coercively controlling relationships, the more narcissistic individual will tend to blame you for angering them if you set a boundary or say no, and they will resent you if you express needs. In the more codependent individual, they will tend to blame others for their resentment and blame themselves for someone else’s anger. Unwinding these unhealthy patterns usually requires treating the traumas that caused them in the first place, which is no easy task.
The way I see it, anger in reasonably healthy people is the emotion that flares up when someone else is crossing over your boundaries or when you need to make a request or set a boundary clearly. And thank God for it! If we become numb to our anger because it wasn’t allowed when we were children, or if we’re suppressing our anger because we’ve been indoctrinated to believe it’s a bad or “unspiritual” emotion, or if we’ve been using spiritual bypassing techniques to override or spiritualize our anger as a way to avoid conflict, we’re vulnerable to having our boundaries crashed through time and time again.
Resentment, on the other hand, is a signal in reasonably healthy people that we are crossing our own boundaries or failing to set and enforce a clear boundary somewhere. The draining, seething, brooding qualities of resentment feel different in my body than the more clean, energizing flames of boundary-protecting anger. When I’m feeling resentful, the stories I tell myself tend to get blamey, judgey, and plain old pissy. I might start feeling taken advantage of, as if the other person doesn’t appreciate me. When I’m resentful, I tend to inflate myself and start looking down on someone else, positioning myself as superior and the other person as inferior. I might start thinking negative things about someone I love, ascribing ulterior motives to them or distrusting them, or clenching my jaw when I think about that person. Resentment turns me into someone who is not generous in my assumptions or tending to my relationships carefully enough.
That’s always a clear signal to me that I’m crossing my own boundary somewhere. Resentment is ALWAYS my responsibility. Because it means I’m being overly generous beyond my resourcing or I’m not communicating a need or setting a boundary or I’m failing to say no when I need to. If I’m feeling resentful, this feeling will only escalate until my runaway parts start wanting to abandon this person, and if I’m not communicating how I’m feeling and I’m thinking about leaving, that’s not fair to the other person. They might have no idea I’m upset and it might blindside them if I just cut them off, without ever giving them a chance to behave differently.
Resentment is on the same spectrum as anger, but it’s a more passive aggressive version of anger. It tends to crop up when we’re saying yes but meaning no or when we’re expecting other people to read our minds- and they’re failing to do so. Resentment might be invisible to other people, whereas anger usually is evident to the other person. While expressions of anger are visible as a form of healthy protest, resentment might go unnoticed by the person you’re feeling resentful towards, especially if you’re plastering on a fake smile or saying you’re fine when you’re not.
When anger flares its fiery heat, it feels different. Sometimes the fire of anger means I need to set a boundary I haven’t made clear yet. I may not know where the edge of my boundary lies until someone steps over it and I get angry. So if I’ve never expressed where my edge is, it’s my responsibility to communicate my needs or edges.
But if I’ve already expressed my needs or boundaries, the clean heat of anger usually means someone else is crossing a boundary I’ve set or failing to follow through on an agreement we’ve clearly agreed upon together. In that situation, anger is usually someone else’s responsibility, not mine- because they’ve done something to hurt me or cross a boundary after I’ve made my boundaries clear.
As long as I’ve previously communicated my boundary and someone else has agreed to respect it, the only thing I’m responsible for when a boundary has been breached and someone else is overstepping it is how I uphold that boundary and hold someone to account with non-violent dignity, without letting my anger cause me to become abusive. If I keep letting them get away with crossing a boundary, and I let them get away with it over and over, that’s on me. But the anger related to the broken boundary is appropriate anger- because someone else has done something unethical, out of integrity, insensitive, unkind, or betraying of trust. That doesn’t entitle me to behave badly, but it does entitle me to be firm and fierce in holding my boundary.
If someone crosses a boundary and instead of saying something or doing something, I suppress my healthy protest and let my anger simmer, it’s likely to turn into resentment. In the clean moment of the boundary breach, my anger is a healthy signal to shore up the boundary, reset the boundary, and if need be, enforce some sort of the consequence on the person who is overstepping my boundary, such as dialing the intimacy dial down, insisting upon a couple’s therapy appointment, or taking away some sort of privilege so the other person feels the sting of the breach.
Safe enough people might need you to reset the boundary one or two times because they didn’t hear you, understand you, or get the memo clearly enough the first time. But if someone can’t or won’t respect the same boundary time and time again after you’ve communicated your needs and boundaries clearly, that person is not a safe person and you need to protect yourself and stop protecting them, even if it means ending the relationship.
What I’ve said so far about anger and resentment applies to reasonably healthy, reasonably safe people, not excessively entitled or narcissistic people. When someone is high up on the narcissism spectrum, anger is frequently not simply the result of having their own boundaries crossed. Anger often shows up because they are having a hissy fit because they don’t like someone else’s boundary or want to respect it. This is not a reasonable kind of anger that protects boundaries; it’s an unreasonable anger that protects their undue entitlement.
With those with narcissistic wounding, resentment is not necessarily showing up because the narcissist is crossing their own boundaries so much as it’s arising because someone else is making a perfectly reasonable request and they feel put upon. That kind of resentment isn’t necessarily a sign that they’re crossing their own boundaries so much as it’s an emotion that shows up as a side effect of how entitled they feel not to show up for the people they’re close with, all while feeling entitled to get their own needs prioritized over the needs of the other person.
So where does the responsibility lie regarding anger and resentment when we’re dealing with unhealthy people or if you’re the unhealthy one? If you’re reasonably healthy and someone else is crossing your boundaries repetitively, it’s your responsibility to keep holding and enforcing the boundary. If that doesn’t work, it’s your responsibility to create more distance from that unsafe individual who can’t respect your boundaries.
If you’re reasonably healthy and you’re feeling resentful, it’s your responsibility to figure out where you’re being overly generous or throwing your own parts under the bus or saying yes when you mean no or not speaking up for what you need. It’s not the other person’s fault if you’re not communicating your needs, if you’re saying yes when you mean no, or if you’re giving beyond your resourcing and capacity. Resentment is your signal to do the “YOU-turn” and come back to yourself and figure out what your own parts need, so you can communicate clearly. It’s not fair to blame the other person if you’re the one not making requests or not setting or enforcing clear boundaries.
If you’re utilizing your anger and resentment to try to set clearer boundaries with more narcissistic types, you do not need to take responsibility for the other person’s choice to cross a boundary. That’s on them. If they get angry because you are holding the boundary, that’s on them. If they don’t like the boundary, you can certainly negotiate the boundary to see if there’s a better compromise that works for you both. But sometimes, especially with the more narcissistic types, they’ll never like your boundaries- because they feel entitled to things they’re simply not entitled to- and they’ll blame you for your boundaries and expressed needs. They prefer to think they’re limitless and tend to get triggered if you set limits. Your “NO” makes them feel out of control, and they don’t like that. But that’s not your fault; it’s theirs.
It’s not your responsibility to avoid angering someone who feels entitled to things they’re not entitled to. That’s their responsibility- to respect your boundaries and get into therapy to straighten things out for themselves. Most grandiose, entitled, narcissistic individuals will never do that, but those who are lower on the narcissism scale and more humbly willing to admit when they have a problem might be willing to get help and learn how to respect your no, accept your limits, self-regulate their own anger and resentment, and cooperate with helping you get at least some of your needs met.
Sorting out where responsibility lies can be hard for people more on the codependent end of the spectrum. Codependent types tend to take responsibility for everyone else’s feelings, appeasing and accommodating to avoid angering anyone in a conflict avoidant way. But in doing so, they’re typically not taking responsibility for their own resentment or accepting responsibility for throwing their own parts under the bus and experiencing “backlash” from those neglected parts and the needs they’re entitled to have protected. Then more codependent types get resentful and start seething inside- until they get completely fed up and either blow up or walk out, without warning anyone or asking for what they need. The codependent type’s work is to take responsibility for their own resentment but not take responsibility for upsetting someone if they say no or set a boundary.
If someone entitled doesn’t like your no, that’s okay. They can have a tantrum if they want. But indulging someone who is blending with young tantruming parts does not help that person grow up and learn to contain their own anger. While reasonably healthy people will feel anger when their boundaries are crossed, unhealthily entitled or narcissistic people may feel anger when someone else sets a boundary or enforces a boundary they don’t want to respect. Instead of simply respecting the boundary, they may blame the person who set the boundary or blow up if the boundary is reinforced. But that’s out of line.
Unhealthy people may also feel resentful when someone else is making a reasonable request of them, feeling put upon if they’re asked to inconvenience themselves in any way. Resentment that arises because someone you’re close with is expecting you to show up for them when you only want to take one way is something that needs to change. More codependent types need to learn to be less generous and more well boundaried, willing to disappoint people if need be in order to prioritize getting their own needs met. More narcissistic types need to learn to be more generous, checking their resentment and learning to stretch to give to others and take from others less.
This is a process, to straighten out the compass around anger and resentment and put responsibility where it belongs. It tends to get messy in the middle but with the right help, we can all learn to appreciate our healthy anger and the warning signs of our own resentment so we can communicate more clearly about what’s okay and not okay. Many New Agers and fundamentalist religious types have their compasses backwards, using spiritual bypassing techniques that demonize anger to let narcissistic types off the hook of accountability time and time again and to spiritualize and justify boundarylessness. Everything gets easier when we straighten out that twisted compass, honoring healthy anger when someone else crosses our boundaries and using our resentment as a signal that we’ve crossed our own boundaries and need to firm things up.
If you feel angry because someone else crashes through your boundary over and over, whose fault is that anger? If you feel resentful, who’s fault is that? If you act out in unhealthy ways based on your anger, whose fault is that? If you blow up or walk out without warning because of your resentment, whose fault is that?
In spiritually bypassing circles, people tend to victim blame, trying to convince the boundary-violated victims that it’s somehow their fault. And the indoctrinated teachings try to coerce victims into letting perpetrators of abuse off the hook of accountability, so the most narcissistic individuals can get away with whatever they want without consequence. But that’s backwards.
Let’s straighten this out and put responsibility where it belongs. Do you tend to take too much responsibility for not angering or disappointing people? Do you resist taking responsibility for your resentment and blame others instead? Do you feel entitled to get what you want too much the time and expect others to take responsibility for your feelings? What would it take to start to straighten all this out so you’re taking responsibility for what’s yours but not taking responsibility for the work someone else needs to do in therapy?
We’ll be talking about this- and other aspects of deprogramming any anger-phobic, spiritual bypassing, conflict avoidant indoctrination in the upcoming online program I’m teaching Spiritual Bypassing Recovery 2.0. I taught the 1.0 version of this back in 2020, but since then I’ve written an entire manuscript to help people off ramp from spiritual bypassing, without throwing the baby of spirituality out with the bathwater.