Resentment as a defense against skillful Vulnerability

Lynne G. Tenbusch


My use of the term defense signifies behavioral and attitudinal attempts on the part of a person to protect her or himself from emotional pain extending from short term upset to a sense of psychic fragmentation or annihilation. My emphasis is on a real person struggling for psychic survival.  The defensively resentful person is one who suffers.

I will explore the idea of resentment as a protective posture, attitude or defense against the skillful vulnerability required to live a fully human life. I will suggest that an awareness of the inexorable fluidity of the human condition renders each of us vulnerable to the use of resentment as a cognitive and emotional sanctuary.  The compulsive chaos of life can entice us into the use of resentment to still the waters of vulnerability.

I will use Nietzsche’s concept of resentment as a framework for my ideas, with a brief outline of Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic to introduce Nietzsche’s thoughts. I hope to show that the use of resentment has evolved beyond that articulated in Nietzsche’s Slave morality.  Also, that my hypothesis about the use of resentment is in fitting with what Nietzsche had hoped for in his formulation of the possible evolution of humankind.

I will advocate that it is not just the victim of a violent attack or repeated psychic assault that becomes Hegel’s slave who calls upon Nietzsche’s resentment as an aid in psychic stability. I will briefly explore Ghent’s concept of submission and surrender as it relates to my premise. Finally I will apply a dialectic approach to the use of resentment and differentiate rapid cycling from a more solid state use of resentment.


For Hegel, self-consciousness or subjectivity requires a moment of encounter in which two potential subjects meet (The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) G. W. F. Hegel.1807).   Both are vying for subjectivity, and cannot reach it without the other.  Through this encounter, the strongest person will achieve self-consciousness, thereby becoming the Master while rendering the other a Slave, an objectified non-entity.  In Hegel’s formulation, only one person can realize subjectivity via the moment of encounter, which also contains within it the possibility of lost potential or objectification. Hence both are locked in an unequal relationship. In short, I can only achieve self-consciousness via your recognition of me. However that very recognition renders me vulnerable, as your observation of me translates me into an object for you, thereby compromising my subjectivity.


In Hegel’s dialectic, the slave is aware that the master identifies him as an object lacking personal power. Because the master frustrates the slaves’ desire to affirm his pure self-consciousness, the slave is locked into the situation of being the ‘other.’ This leaves the slave with chronic awareness of his otherness, creating fertile soil for nurturance of resentment. The master moves unreflectively through her life. However, being trapped in a powerless situation with no instinctual outlet, the slave can only turn inward to reflection. While the master remains oblivious, the slave becomes resentful and uses that energy to reevaluate the masters from being ‘good’ to being ‘evil’ and themselves from bad to good.

I note that Hegel’s dialectic is one of historical becoming wherein ultimately everyone achieves pure self-consciousness and the dialectic is resolved and history reaches its conclusion.  We are interested in the interim – the master/slave difference between independence and dependence.


Nietzsche’s abiding passion was the human condition. He concerned himself with psychological questions about how to live while fully embracing the fact of our mortality, and embeddedness in a world of immutable change. He wanted to understand how humans have become who we are, so that he, and later we, could visualize possibilities for further advancement. Toward that goal, Nietzsche engaged in a genealogical study of morality and presented the following results (Nietzsche, 1887). At the dawn of history, warrior tribes lived within a Master/Slave morality with masters characterized by physical courage, self-confidence, loyalty and ruthlessness. Slaves were considered weak, inferior, patient, humble and charitable. Because the warrior existence accorded with their natural instincts, the warriors lived without conflict. They identified themselves as good and believed that if something is good for them, it is good in itself. Bad was only a footnote, an unreflective addendum referencing ‘others’, the weak tribes they had conquered.

Because Slaves had no instinctual outlet, they turned inward. Thus, in a Freudian sense – which actually originated in Nietzsche– the slaves became repressed and developed an inner life wherein they imagined the vengeful overturn of their captors. This interiority became the birthplace of their resentment but it also nurtured mental development unnecessary to the masters.

In short, the slaves, via resentment, translated the ‘good’ characteristics of masters into evil traits of sinners. Thereby the noble virtues of the warriors were re-valued as the evils of cruelty, arrogance and pride, while the required attributes of slaves – patience, humility, charity, and reverence for authority – became the prevailing virtues of good people. Christianity finalized the ’slave revolt’, in morality with the offer of a heaven into which only the meek had access, and from which they could watch their earthly masters suffer.

I agree with Ridley (1998) who emphasized that it is not the creativity of resentment through which the slave overturns the masters’ power. Rather it is the overcoming of resentment which opens space for further productive agency. This view clarifies Nietzsche’s hope that humans would strive for a style of consciousness deriving from resolution of resentment. Nietzsche believed that a consciousness derivative of overcoming would reflect greater spiritualization or organization of instinctual drives, with increasing courage to embrace this life fully, in spite of our lack of definitive truths (Ridley, 1998).

(The foregoing is a very surface treatment.  Further I note that Nietzsche’s depiction of the evolution of master/slave morality may be generously flavored with fiction. He was vehemently opposed to positivist history, and believed that humans need myth, not alleged facts. Hence, Nietzsche refused to cite sources, use footnotes or restrict himself to purported truths, per requirements of philological scholarship.)


Nietzsche concluded that slave morality rests on a fundamental disposition of resentment, which constitutes its defining feature (Kaufman, 1967). Outrage and a sense of injustice also typify resentment, which cannot be sequestered from power in that it grows in the soil of powerlessness. Slave morality defines itself by what is outside, whereby all forms of otherness become a target for resentment.

Nietzsche further avers that the resentful person lives in the past while resisting life in the present moment. On my interpretation of that view, the resentful person, while closing herself off from perceived threats, also deadens her ability to differentiate potentially trustworthy individuals and truncates her involvement in the world. She then paints all people within a specific group or characteristic with a negative brush. This encapsulation becomes receptive ground for the growth and sustenance of resentment, through which she continues experiencing herself as a victim, externally controlled by someone or something else. Nietzsche’s goal for humanity was advancement beyond reliance on resentment. His belief that the moral evolution of humanity rests on a culture of discipline fueled his hope for a synthesis of master and slave characteristics. For Nietzsche the most important aspect of any morality is the ability to educate ones spirit.


Within philosophy and psychology we find many conceptions of agency. I use the term as a reference to the felt sense of having the capacity to take appropriate action in the service of protecting one’s physical and emotional integrity. I will use agency and personal power interchangeably. Vulnerability refers to the potential for being or feeling defenseless against psychological or physical intrusions.

I will use Webster’s definition of trauma as “…a painful emotional experience or shock, often producing a lasting psychic effect”. (Webster, 1996)

I define resentment in the Nietzschean sense of a psychological state instantiated when someone is unhappy with his situation but feels, or is, incapable of improving it, thus turning to the creation of interior scenarios wherein the object of their resentment is disvalued and judged to be inferior.


In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche (1887) contended that all beliefs are based on need, not “Truth’ with a capital T, because there are no abiding truths. For him, truths are simply errors that we have forgotten are errors (Truth and Lies).  Nietzsche is now famous for his statement, “God is dead” (Nietzsche, 1883) by which he meant that the death of metaphysics took with it the possibility of unconditional truths, those foundational beliefs that provide a sense of safety, in turn allowing one to feel that she stands on a firm edifice rather than struggling for balance on waves of change.

For Nietzsche everything we take to be true is a necessary fiction. He deemed these beliefs ‘necessary’ for containing the relentless flux and uncertainty of our world.  As humans we need some points of certainty to still the waters of change and navigate the menacing realization that nothing is stable.  Absolute beliefs become tools for management of these contingencies. We can create totalizing versions of the ‘other’ to nurture resentment in the service of psychic survival.  We saw that, on Nietzsche’s view, this is exactly what the ancient slaves did. Their categorical belief in the masters’ evil steadied their world.


I propose that skillful vulnerability is an attitude of openness toward that which presents itself, including the attendant possibility of emotional offense. It constitutes an embrace of connective involvements with full knowledge of the necessary prospect of being aggrieved, frightened or terrified at some points during our passage.  Along with Nietzsche I submit that a full affirmation of life necessitates vulnerability. The only escape from the full force of potential injury is psychic fragmentation, resentment, or skillful vulnerability. Further, I suggest that the openness of such vulnerability is founded on a sense of agency as described above.


Immanuel Ghent’s (1990) differentiation between submission and surrender comes to mind wherein surrender is openness to life and relationships, while submission consigns one’s agency to the other.  I suggest that surrender is the channel on which vulnerability flows. Surrender encompasses a state of openness characterized by personal agency. In contrast, submission necessitates a renunciation of one’s ability to act. Submission can be either a prelude to, or a manifestation of, powerlessness.

Because surrender is foundational to the embrace of inexorable flux, it is requisite to engagement in the life changing process of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy for both analyst and analysand.

While it renders one vulnerable to hurt, it allows the more ecstatic experiences of life as well as the quiet sensation of connectedness.  I propose that Ghent’s surrender, is the preface to and commensurate with skillful vulnerability, and that experienced victimhood is comparable to the powerlessness of requisite submission.

Submission, on the other hand is reactive to a perception of the ‘others’ superiority in the Nietzschean sense. Submission reinforces the dialectic by inverting one’s position from personal mastery to slavery. On this view, submission breeds resentment, because it entails concession of one’s personal power. At the risk of reductionism, I offer the working image of surrender permitting mastery and submission paralleling slavery.

Nietzsche’s Ubermensch or Overman has been interpreted in a variety of ways. My reading depicts the Ubermensch as a person who embraces life’s emergencies with vulnerably facilitated by agency. She/he demonstrates skillful vulnerability in that the organization of her drives sanction satisfaction of instinctual, emotional and intellectual needs, while possessing agency that disallow intentionally harmful acts.


I propose that the tension around agency plays out in our homes, on the streets, in corporate boardrooms and even local running clubs. We routinely face the challenge of maintaining personal power while the relief of resentment offers itself. We need not subscribe to Hegel’s dialectic within which only one person can maintain subjectivity. Nietzsche anticipated that our beliefs – those necessary and sometimes absolute fictions – would regularly surrender to new perspectives. I hope to demonstrate that we have, indeed, evolved beyond the master/slave duality to a dialectic tension between resentment and agency wherein if one feels robbed of personal power, it does not capture the totality of his experience.

Consider a person who has been beaten, raped, witnessed a parent being killed. Let us assume that the ‘victim’ of said traumatic experience has the option of obtaining help, and transforming his ‘identity’ from victim to survivor.

But he can also find sanctuary in resentment as partial guarantee against present and future vulnerability. Some of you may have had patients who were unable to move beyond an agonizing identification with what has been perpetrated upon them. Many things may be going on for that person, but surely one is the existential state of objectification and powerlessness. In such a situation, resentment offers an asylum. Rendering others ‘evil’ while detaching from involvement via resentment can provoke a sense of power and safety. It may be one’s only safe harbor. As a very primitive working hypothesis, we might also conceive of this posture as an illustration of Ghent’s submission.


I hypothesize that many, if not most, people move from a position of agency to a felt sense of powerlessness without remaining tethered to either position. This involves the use of what I will call ‘agency in reserve’, the same source from which resentment grows. We continually engage in the dialectic tension of revaluing ourselves from victim as object to subject with agency; from the necessary hurt of skillful vulnerability, to recovery of equilibrium; from an attitude of submission to the reclamation of surrender. I note that for continuity of language I write in dualistic, subject/object terms but do not therein, imply that my examples are totalities.

A situation: the felt humiliation of a man learning that his wife has a lover may propel him toward resentment as a tool for navigating his unraveled world. Given that resentment originates from psychologic agency, which can give rise to freer agentic state, we can imagine how he could reconstitute himself with only temporary reference to resentment or none at all. My idea is that ‘agency in reserve’ facilitates this rebalancing from the felt sense of lack to the experience of stabilizing subjectivity.  Agency resides in the work of resentment and gives rise to movement of the dialectic out of that same resentment.

This exemplifies Nietzsche’s formulation of Will to Power as agency (Solomon, 1990). In resolving the dialect of resentment one advances the spiritualization or organization of drives, works out new perspectives and moves on toward Nietzsche’s free spirit or Ubermench. Being open to the human condition of compulsive contingency, one embraces vulnerability, calls on resentment when necessary, and then utilizes the same agency to move beyond it. Thus one surrenders to life’s vagaries and pursues the path of emotional evolution that Nietzsche envisioned.

The slaves developed resentment in order to cope. But they went further – they expanded their interior life creating an agentic experience. It was not resentment that reversed master/morality. That just tilled the soil and planted the seed. It was the overcoming of resentment which harvested personal agency.


Jane meets with her boss and feels undervalued; Joe has his last analytic session and leaves feeling abandoned and unsteady from the loss of the emotional bond with his analyst. Both Jane and Joe reflected on the injury, resourced their ‘reserve agency’ and steadied themselves. Jane needed just a few hours with no reference to resentment. Joe took twelve months and the temporary use of bitterness for relief. Neither became wedged.  Stability was within reach of both. We might call this rapid cycling of the dialectic.

Susan feels neglected and unappreciated by her lover. If this contemporary feeling resurrects unresolved issues, Susan may need the assistance of resentment for stabilization. If she is not holding close a past betrayal, she can, after some reflection, regain her equilibrium as subject with only temporary use of resentment or none at all.

Jack feels upset about not being invited to a high level business meeting, but after some consideration realizes that the circumstances make sense. He has used the source of agency that inspired resentment in ancient slaves to move beyond it. He called upon his original agency to re-create a state of mind beyond bitterness.

These illustrations are of people who have, at times utilized the original font of resentment for navigation to a re-formulated mode of consciousness founded on reclaimed agency. They utilized the creative cradle of resentment – the one Nietzsche proposes as the original resource for slaves – to propel them back to a more skillfully vulnerable state. I do not present this as dualistic. There are many shades of, and timeframes for, the use of resentment. I am putting forward the idea that in the above scenarios, both people maintained or reclaimed subjectivity. They resourced animosity as a temporary haven, but reflected and burrowed below that ever ready resentment to the original creativity, and generated a more cohesive subjectivity.

I suggest that dialectic tension is ever present, if out of awareness, in most people and requires periodic address. The dialectic is fluid, each time moving the person to a more integrated state of surrender, agency and skillful vulnerability.  For someone with an ‘agency in reserve’ or readily accessible subjectivity, this movement may flow without resentment, with only an unconscious use of it, or with conscious temporary use of resentment.  I submit that these scenarios reflect what Nietzsche longed for when he began his genealogic study.


The earlier referenced victim of rape may require more chronic use of resentment.  In a situation of severe trauma, the victim lives on the slave side of the dialectic longer and perhaps with wider application.  Maybe all men become evil. Perhaps all women are just after the money. The greater length and depth of the state of powerlessness engenders recruitment of more consistent antipathy.

With sustained dependence on resentment, one relinquishes the full flow of engagement. A survivor of past torture may experience stimuli that rip open emotional scars, propelling her back into the primary experience of slavery. She may enlist antipathy for longer periods, perhaps forever, and embrace it as her shelter from disorganizing emotions. This may be her only refuge. Because Nietzsche’s aspiration for humanity was passionate entrenchment in life, he would have felt deep compassion (not pity) for this suffering person, while hoping for her future access to movement beyond resentment.

I have proposed that master/slave dialectic is never fully resolved. The tension is our frequent companion, and the enticement of resentment lives rent free at the edge of our consciousness. However, this inducement can also propel us toward ever increasing baselines of agency, surrender and skillful vulnerability. This, I think, is what Nietzsche imagined as the conduit to formation of the ‘free spirit’ and the Ubermensch.

In closing I submit that the human condition of living in an ineluctable flow carries with it an ongoing struggle for life on the subjective side of the dialectic. The enticement of resentment as an illusory safe-haven is ever-present. Our challenge is not succumbing to its lure as a safe-keeper. Nietzsche wrote in the service of such progression.


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Lynne G. Tenbusch may be contacted at:

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