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The Psychology of Resentment: How Success Can Breed Negativity

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In our pursuit of personal growth and success, it’s essential to be aware of and understand the emotions experienced by those around us. As we reach for our goals, we might unintentionally trigger feelings of resentment in others who may feel overshadowed or left behind in the process.

Have you ever noticed that when you start achieving your personal goals or finding success in your business or other endeavours, some people around you seem to harbour resentment towards your accomplishments? It can be both puzzling and hurtful when success attracts negativity from others.

Unravelling the roots of resentment

Resentment is a multifaceted emotion that surfaces when someone feels wronged, undervalued, or left behind. Although there is no one-size-fits-all explanation for why people resent the success of others, several studies have attempted to identify the underlying reasons. One such study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, discovered that people are more likely to resent those they perceive as having an unfair advantage or undeserved rewards.

Envy plays a significant role in resentment towards success as well. A 2017 study suggested that envy could be connected to the way our brains are wired. The researchers posited that witnessing someone we know achieve success activates our brain’s reward system, which can evoke feelings of envy. Consequently, this emotion may prompt a person to resent the successful individual, even without being in direct competition with them.

Cultural factors can also play a role in shaping people’s reactions to success. The tall poppy syndrome, a term that originated in Australia, offers another perspective on why individuals might resent successful people. This phenomenon refers to the tendency to criticise or undermine high achievers. A 2015 study revealed that tall poppy syndrome could stem from a fear of being outperformed or overshadowed, suggesting that individuals may resent successful people because they feel threatened by their achievements.

Moving beyond cultural influences, psychological theories can also provide insight into why people develop resentment towards success. Social comparison theory, proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, posits that people often evaluate themselves by comparing their abilities and accomplishments to those of others. When someone else appears more successful, it can trigger feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, leading to resentment. This theory illustrates how the success of others can negatively impact our self-esteem.

How to handle negativity in a healthy manner

  • Recognise the emotion. Understand that resentment towards your success is a natural response to your accomplishments. This recognition allows you to empathise with others’ feelings and maintain a balanced perspective.
  • Practise self-compassion. Prioritise your mental well-being, particularly when facing resentment from others. Be kind to yourself and focus on your personal growth and achievements, remembering that you are not responsible for others’ emotions and reactions.
  • Build a supportive network. Surround yourself with people who celebrate your success and genuinely want the best for you. They can help counteract the negativity that may arise from resentment, creating a positive and safe environment.
  • Communicate openly. If you feel comfortable, consider talking with the resentful individual. Openly discussing their feelings and concerns may help alleviate the negativity and foster understanding.
  • Focus on your goals. Keep your attention on your objectives and work diligently to achieve them. Remember that success is subjective and should be defined by your aspirations, not the opinions of others.

Takeaway

Resentment towards success is a complex emotional response that can arise from various factors, including envy, tall poppy syndrome, and social comparison theory. Research indicates that our brains may be wired to feel envy when witnessing others’ success, which can lead to resentment. By understanding the psychology behind these emotions, we can manage negativity in a healthy and balanced way.

To cope with resentment, it’s crucial to recognise the emotions involved, practise self-compassion, build a supportive network, communicate openly, and concentrate on your own goals. By doing so, you can continue to grow and achieve success in your personal goals, business, or other endeavours while maintaining your mental well-being and nurturing positive relationships with those around you. Understanding and addressing resentment towards success will help you better navigate the complexities of human emotions and maintain a healthy balance in your life.


Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.

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