Resentments: People, institutions, and principles

We addicts have to get rid of resentment. It keeps us away from our Higher Power and from our fellows. The Big Book tells us it is “the ‘number one ‘offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” It also tells us that resentments fall into three groups: People, institution, and principles. Easy enough, right? But what exactly is resentment, and   if we’re going to be specific about it, how do we define people, institutions, and principles?

[In this post, we’re going to explore some real-life examples that can be found on many people’s Fourth Step lists. The mention of anything or anyone here is not intended as a judgement of anyone or anything nor an endorsement or a denunciation.]

The Big Book uses a couple words or phrases around resentment: anger, burned up, sore, grouch, and grudgeIt’s pretty clear that resentment begins with anger. But it’s equally clear that the anger remains potent and active over time. In fact, looking at the word resentment, we see the same thing. Re- is again. Sent- is related to sensing or feeling. Meant- denotes a state of mind or being. Put it all together, and we are in a state of feeling something again and again. Or as the dictionary might put it: “A persistent feeling of ill will.”

While that tells us what resentment is, and a little about how it functions, when we’re making our Fourth Step lists, how do we identify it? That’s not necessarily as simple. As addicts, we eat to cover up and subdue our feelings. We have spent so much time denying that those feelings still control us and telling anyone who will listen that we aren’t angry people. So we may have some difficulty admitting to resentment or locating it.

Sure there may be some instances where we have alarming clarity about a grudge we hold. But often we’ve used food to turn dangerous feelings of anger into disappointment, sadness, or just a numb and nebulous sense that something’s not right about the person or situation. We must be honest and thorough as we compose our lists, and members’ experiences suggest a few strategies for prying out names from our subconscious.

  • Contacts: Check the contact list on a cell phone, a rolodex, or an address book.
  • Yearbooks: Look at the pictures in your middle school, high school, and college yearbooks and don’t forget the teachers.
  • Directories: Church, business, or organizational directories are full of people we’ve had dealings with
  • Memory Lane: Imagine the streets in the neighborhoods you’ve lived in and look at the residents or workers in your mind’s eye.
  • Home Inspection: Consider the objects in your home, the people and businesses that sold them to you as well as any maintenance people associated with them

As we use these strategies, we can look for people, places, things, and ideas that pop out as uneasy for us. We might not even remember precisely why that unease lingers, but it will be revealed to us as we continue the Fourth Step. If we sense the unease in us, even in the case of grief, we can ask ourselves if there’s resentment associated with it and whether the feeling is anger that’s been transformed by us into something else more palatable.

So how do we differentiate between people, institutions, and principles anyway? And what about those things that seem like none of the above? Let’s start with people. Here are examples of what could go into the category of people:

  • Individuals we have met: Family, friends, coworkers, clients, people we do business with, the person who crashed into our car, antagonists/bullies, rivals, members of our church or its congregational leader, fellow students, teachers, our doctors, our lawyers, OA members, ourselves, God
  • Individuals we have never met: Celebrities, professional athletes, historical figures, world leaders, family members we never met, authors, business leaders, politicians
  • Non-human people: This may seem controversial to some, but we’ve got to put pets, plants, animals that have attacked us, and annoyances from the natural world somewhere (all that counts are thoroughness and honesty!)
  • Fictional people: Characters in film or literature, imaginary friends
  • Groups of people: School cliques, demographic segments (socioeconomics, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, location, citizenship status etc), professional groups (e.g. insurance salesmen, doctors, lawyers, politicians, CEOs), folks with certain beliefs (e.g. anarchists, liberals, white nationalists, tree huggers), people who engage in certain taboo practices of a greater sort (e.g. cannibals, pedophiles, murderers) or a lesser sort (e.g. jaywalkers, smokers, gluttons), and people who belong to organizations (political party members, members of social/fraternal organizations, and members of a specific religious membership).

That last item, the people who belong to organizations, leads us to institutions. It’s important to remember that the people who belong to an institution are people, but the institution is separate. Institutions has two important definitions to guide us:

  1. A society or organization founded for a specific purpose, including religious, governmental, societal, social, educational, and business reasons. Here we can list businesses, schools, universities, political parties, local benevolent groups (Rotary, Lions, etc), Boy Scouts, Congress, charity organizations, religions and their individual sects and their local places of worship, school boards, research organizations, professional associations, lobbying groups, support groups (yes, including OA), and the zillions of other contemporary, historical, or fictional organizations out there (the IRS, the Nazi Party, and the Legion of Doom respectively)
  2. An established law, practice, or custom. This one is a little trickier. It includes things like bills (the Mann Act), Supreme Court decisions (Roe v. Wade, Citizens United, or Plessy v. Ferguson) common law, marriage, the Constitution, one’s mortgage or lease agreement and similar contracts.

That bit about practice and custom verges closely on our final group, principles. These are fundamental truths and the codes of conduct or ideas that stem from them. The early bird gets the worm,” for example. But also the ideas behind it: industriousness, discipline, and responsibility. It’s easy to understand why this can get a little gray when compared to the practices or customs that we talk about in the institutions. Better ask God to let you know how to sort that one out.

So what about items such as food addiction, earthquakes, and racism? These fall into that gray area between institutions and principles. With a disease (addiction or cancer) or condition (such as poverty), we can probably safely put them into principles. Why? Because they are, ultimately, ideas and theories about the actions of our minds and bodies rather than prescribed practices or customs that we are “supposed to” follow. Earthquakes, similarly, are an idea about the behavior of our physical world but not societal prescriptions. They certainly aren’t codes of conduct, but for some people they do create a set of actions or behaviors that are crucial to staying alive. Then there’s racism. That’s a hard one because racism is often described as a system of oppression, which makes it a practice or a custom, especially in those areas of the world where it affects governmental or institutional policy. On the other hand, it is an idea as well that begets a system or set of behaviors. It could reasonably go in either list. We just have to ask God where to put it.

So that’s a crash course on the lists we make for the Fourth Step. The most important thing to remember about making this list is to pray before we pick up our pen, asking God to guide our thoughts and push our pen. That way, we can feel more confident that what’s coming out is accurate and that we don’t have to censor ourselves. We can’t leave out our basest resentments because we’re afraid someone else will judge us for them. The whole point of the Fourth Step is to get rid of the stuff inside our minds, hearts, and souls that distances us from one another. Besides which, our disease needs only one resentment to use as leverage against us in its fight to keep us enslaved by food.

 

What is self-seeking anyhow?

What the heck is this “self-seeking” thing we hear about in meetings? The term gets bandied about quite a bit, and we know it’s something to do with our behavior, but what’s the difference between self-seeking and selfishness? Or self-seeking and self-centeredness? And most important, why is it crucial that we recognize our self-seeking behaviors and tendencies?

The Big Book introduces the word self-seeking in its discussion of Step Three. In fact, it uses the a form of the word three times from page 61 to page 67. On page 61, in the example of the actor who wants to run the entire production instead of just doing their part, the Big Book describes how this person can be either gracious or cruel in trying to make things go their own way:

What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well?

Here the book tells us, by the actor analogy, that when we try to exert control over situations or manipulate them for our own purposes we are being a self-seeker. By extension, self-seeking has something to do with the actions we take as self-seekers.

Here it comes again on page 62:

Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate.

One of the four items in the series above is materially different than the others. Fear, self-delusion, and self-pity all occur in our minds and directed at ourselves. But self-seeking, as we discovered on page 61, connotes an action, and those actions affect others directly. Self-seeking is the stepping on other’s toes that we do, and even its urge is different than those other three things. As we are about to find out, it is a product of them.

On page 67, we learn that to be truly free from our resentments, we must recognize and admit to the part we play in them. We have our list of resentments and the effect they’ve had on us, and we now turn the lens of inquiry onto ourselves:

Referring to our list again. Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes. Where had we been selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and frightened? Though a situation had not been entirely our fault, we tried to disregard the other person involved entirely. Where were we to blame? The inventory was ours, not the other man’s. When we saw our faults we listed them in black and white.

Let’s look deeply for a moment at these instructions. At the topmost level, we are acknowledging our part in a situation that involved resentment. And from the looks of it, we will always have some part, minor or major.

Once again, we see that self-seeking is different than its mates selfish, dishonest, and frightened. Those are states of mind, but self-seeking indicates action. What if we asked these questions in a slightly different way?

  • Selfish: What did I want?
  • Dishonest: What lie did I tell myself?
  • Frightened: What was I afraid of?

Those three things all point inward toward us, ourselves, not outward toward the world. And then,

  • Self-seeking: What did I do to get what I wanted or feel better?

This time, we aim our will at the world around us, and we do something that affects others. Sometimes the actions and effects are big: cheating on a spouse, punching someone, cutting a person out of our life. Sometimes, however, the action and effect is subtle: judging someone harshly, staying home from school or work, pitying ourselves. These actions, which seem as though they are pointed at ourselves actually effect others. How? By separating us from them, be they family, friends, or the world. Through behaviors like these we lose effectiveness at work, presence in relationships, and even financial resources.

What is the number one most popular self-seeking behavior in OA? Eating, of course! It’s our primary coping tool. If we can’t get what we want in a situation (and sometimes even if we do), we eat away our feelings. It’s how we feel better in the moment. Turns out it’s a lousy coping mechanism. While we eat at the person we’re angry with, our resentments inside of us remain very much alive and wriggling, so we need more and more food to keep them at bay.

Here’s two more visual ways to think about it.

First, imagine that you’re writing your Step 4 inventory, and at the same time your father is too. You each make a list of people you resent, and guess what, you’re each on one another’s lists! Shocker!!! You both have resentment around the time that dad wouldn’t let you borrow the car. You each follow the three-column format on page 65. On your resentment you list dad’s name in column one. In column two, you note that you resent his not letting you borrow the car. In column three, you write down that it affects your personal relations and fear. Then when you ask yourself Where was I self-seeking?, you answer I took the car without permission. Here’s the kicker: Dad wrote your name in column one, and in column two he wrote Took the car without permission. In other words, the answers we give to the question of Where was I self-seeking? produce resentments for other people.

Second, and simpler. Imagine you are pointing your finger at someone else in anger. The finger you point at them represents your self-seeking actions. But the other three fingers on your hand are all pointed back at yourself. They represent selfishness, dishonest, and fear, the things we do to ourselves that drive us to act out.

So what is self-seeking? It’s the acting out we do when we don’t like how life is treating us. It’s what we do when we are unable to be our best selves. Its how we’ve done most of the instances of damage that litter our lives. And ultimately, it is what we’ve done instead of trusting and relying on God.