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Playing by the Rules


We learn early in life that we’re expected to play by the rules. Board games, card games, playground games, sports games all teach us how to do it. We’re reminded throughout life that we fare better when we cooperate. Most of us prefer to avoid the punishment which results from not following the rules. But many of us secretly resent feeling confined by the restraints imposed by rules. We fudge if we can, like creeping above the speed limit if we don’t see a patrol car on the horizon. We all have our notions of what is right and fair in life and when something or someone bucks the system, it raises our hackles.

Of course, playing by the rules is much easier if we get to create them. For many years, my mother played Scrabble incorporating a rule that didn’t exist in the official list. When I finally called her on it, she resented having to let go of that made-up rule which had worked in her favor for so long! But it didn’t keep her from continuing to play. Sometimes when we don’t get our way, when we can’t set the agenda and make up the rules, we’d just as soon not participate at all.

Professor and author Brené Brown compiled an extensive book on human emotions published in 2021 and titled Atlas of the Heart. In it she admits that she initially believed that resentment was akin to anger. She writes, “I mostly felt resentful toward people whom I perceived to be not working or sacrificing or grinding or perfecting or advocating as hard as I was.” It wasn’t until she was in a conversation with another emotions researcher that she learned resentment is related to envy.

When we compare ourselves to others and others to ourselves, we run the risk of slipping into resentment. We believe it’s the right thing to do to play by the rules, so we cluck our tongues at others who don’t. We think it’s proper to dress appropriately, so we formulate snarky comments in our head about those who don’t. We hold strong opinions about what is fair, so we are quick to put down anyone who violates our standards. Brown defines resentment as “the feeling of frustration, judgment, anger, ‘better than,’ and/or hidden envy related to perceived unfairness or injustice.”

It can be tricky stuff to figure out what goes on inside of us as we engage and are engaged by others of our kind. But it’s important work. The next time our hackles get raised by something or someone, we might wonder if we just slipped into a patch of resentment and then ask ourselves what manner of perceiving we were doing that got us there.

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