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Berry Street Education Model (BSEM) is excited to celebrate Dr Kerry Howells and her contribution to our collective work at Berry Street. Dr Howells prior research has informed our strategies in the areas of character strengths and gratitude. She has just released her new book Untangling You and has generously provided us with the following article to introduce the book through a question relevant to many of us: How can I be grateful when I feel so resentful?

This is the subtitle of my new book, Untangling you. In nearly all the discussions I have had about gratitude over the past few decades – whether in the context of keynote addresses, university tutorials, book clubs on my first book Gratitude in Education: A Radical View, or professional development workshops, a theme has consistently revealed itself. Often with pain in their eyes, participants ask “How can I be grateful when I feel so resentful?”

It is a question that I am deeply humbled by as it shows me that the person who is asking it is ready to make the first move. This is a big shift, as to give up our resentment can often feel that we are letting the other person off the hook, or condoning their hurtful behaviour.

And yet the person whom our resentment is hurting the most is ourselves. As Nelson Mandela says, ‘…resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies’. Unresolved resentment is toxic to our health, relationships, workplaces and society.

Based on 25 years of research on gratitude in a range of contexts, this book offers practical strategies to untangle difficult relationships and overcome resentment through practising deep gratitude. Although I focus on ‘everyday’ resentments, not resentment that arises from personal or collective trauma, I argue that it is often the unresolved everyday resentments that are at the heart of the larger issues.

No doubt you have experienced everyday resentment in your life: a sibling who appeared to be favoured by your parents; a neighbour who won’t deal with their barking dog; a workmate who was promoted ahead of you; a partner who doesn’t do their share of the housework or looking after the children… the list goes on.

These everyday resentments can keep simmering away, robbing you of joy and wreaking havoc on your health, relationships and workplaces. No matter how much you try to let it go, to be kind, to be the ‘bigger person’, you feel defeated because the pain is too great.

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.

While resentment isolates people from one another, gratitude brings them into a closer relationship, as they think about what they have received and how they can give back. Resentment alienates, but gratitude brings warmth, acceptance, joy and love to relationships. Resentment also drains our energy as we ruminate on what we feel has been taken away from us, whereas gratitude energises us and opens us up not only to what we receive but also to how we can give back. While resentment undermines and destroys relationships, gratitude builds and sustains relationships.

Knowing that it is the conceptual opposite of resentment can perhaps give us a new way to think about gratitude. It isn’t just about feelings or actions that help us be more thankful for what we have, or the familiar nice warm connecting feeling we associate with gratitude. Any action we take to move away from resentment can also be an act of gratitude. In other words, because they are opposite ways of being in the world, a step away from resentment is a step towards gratitude.

Importantly, this doesn’t mean that we use gratitude to cover up our resentment. This would be like putting a positive veneer over a negative situation that is crying out for attention. Rather, the approach I am advocating is that we take up gratitude as a practice, where we take small steps away from resentment and therefore towards gratitude.

Untangling you offers a wide array of gratitude practices that will help you to shift the dynamics of relationships that have been stuck in pain for a long time, even decades. I wrote this book to try to answer the question asked by my research and workshop participants, and with the hope that it can help people around the world take courageous action so that gratitude can play its important role in helping us to achieve more personal and collective peace and harmony.

You can find out more about Dr Howell’s book on her website.

By Dr Kerry Howells