For years, I had a recurring dream that a cat or some other small animal was biting my hand and would not let go. I called it my "cat dream." I would shake my hand to get the cat off me, but it held on tightly with its teeth. I never understood what this dream meant until I read a passage by psychologist Fritz Perls and I knew what the dream was about:
resentment. Perls says,
Resentment is the psychological equivalent of the hanging-on bite – the tight jaw. The hanging-on bite can neither let go, nor bite through and chew-up – whichever is required. In resentment you can neither let go and forget, and let this incident or person recede in the background, nor can you actively tackle it. (p.48)
I continued to have the cat dream long after I had my epiphany. But now I was privy to its coded message. Whenever I had the dream, I knew it was my signal to do a mental scan for lingering resentments. "Ah yes, yesterday when So-and-So cut me off and would not let me finish my sentence…" Resentment. Or, "Now I remember, when So-and-So ignored me the whole night…" Resentment. Small issues (small "animals"), maybe, but ones I was apparently still "holding on to." Actually, the dream showed me that I was not holding on to resentment, resentment was holding on to me! Once I identified the resentment, I knew the task at hand (pun intended…) – express my anger, or feel my feelings and let it be.
I have never liked the edict to "just let it go." Here I am in my dream, trying desperately to let go of this thing. The more I try to "shake it off," the more strongly it clings. What we resist, persists. Letting go requires an active doing that is not usually available to me when I am in the middle of strong feelings.
In the middle of a feeling like resentment, I prefer the counsel to "let it be." Can I find some stillness and let this anger be there? Can I feel it fully and not resist it? Can I find my breath and find acceptance of what is? I don't have to like it, but can I stay present to it?
Alternatively, is there something I need to say to So-and-So to clear the air? Can I express my anger to this person? Or, can I express what I am feeling by writing, drawing, dancing, singing, moving?
The word "resentment" comes from the Latin word sentir, meaning "to feel," and the prefix re, meaning "again." Resentment is about feeling something again and again, without any resolution. It is a tenacious little animal. Fritz Perls calls resentment the "unfinished business par excellence."
I haven't had the cat dream in many years. Do I still experience resentment? Oh yeah. I'm just a little quicker to see it, a little slower to try to fling it away, and a little more willing to just let it be.
Perls, Frederick S. (1969). Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Lafayett, CA: Real People Press.