In Al-Anon, members use the word “gunnysacking” to refer to the habit of collecting resentments.

I find I am getting better and better at avoiding gunnysacking.  This does not mean I never have resentments, of course.  “It is a rare person who does not yield to resentment when he feels wronged by someone” (12 Steps–Think About It).  Rather, it means I’m getting better at recognizing the emotions related to resentment, and taking the time to figure out–or let Father point out–the roots of it in me.  Ideally I am processing these resentments before I have an opportunity to collect many of them in a gunnysack.

. . .I have no room for resentment in my. . .life.  I will not fight it with grim determination, but will reason it out of existence by calmly uncovering it’s cause.  ~12 Steps–Think About It

I have heard for years in recovery that “expectations are premeditated resentments.”  I have always taken that to mean I shouldn’t have expectations.  And yet, I didn’t know how to do that.  How can I approach a situation, or relate with a person, without having expectations for that situation or that person?  The answer is, I can’t.

Resentments I have collected in my gunny sack not only poison me, but my gunny sack leaks that poison onto every person with whom I relate.

I now know that this slogan does not mean “do not have expectations.”  It simply means, often situations and people will not live up to my expectations.  When that happens, I may feel resentment.  Rather than collecting up those resentments in a gunnysack and carrying them with me, poisoning myself and leaking that poison onto everyone else with whom I relate, I can take a different path.  I can be aware that unmet expectations can cause resentments, examine those resentments, expose the cause, and use the situation as a tool for growth.

It is important to note that resentments can happen whether my expectations are reasonable or unreasonable.  Some reasonable expectations might be:

  • I expect my children to be kind to one another.
  • I expect my friends to return my phone calls.
  • I expect my boss to go to bat for me when issues arise at work.
  • I expect My Love to keep a date.
  • I expect my students to complete and turn in their homework.

I can have completely reasonable expectations of people in my life, and yet not be surprised when they don’t always meet these expectations.  I don’t always meet other people’s very reasonable expectations of me, either!  If I do not let this surprise me, it’s easier for me to not take it personally.  I often fail to meet others’ expectations of me not because I am angry with them, want to hurt them, or feel they need punished, but instead just because I made a mistake.  If I can assume the other person has positive intent, it changes the way I respond to unmet expectations.

All done being rational and mature!

Someone pretty close to me has been failing to meet an expectation of mine for a few days now.  At first, I was doing really well with assuming positive intent (it’s not about me, my friend’s not doing it to hurt me, etc.), nipping the resentment in the bud, thinking about how I could serve my friend rather than nurse hurt feelings, and so on.  I was feeling all mature and recovered (ha!).  Unfortunately, these techniques only worked for a couple days.  I went to bed last night, and woke up this morning, royally pissed off at this friend.  No more did I have that nice relaxed, recovered feeling of calmly recognizing the resentment and laying it open for analysis.  I was furious.

. . .An Al-Anon member wrote: “The best antidote for resentment is the continual practice of gratitude.”

. . .When my emotions start to tell me that resentment may be slyly working its destructiveness on my serenity it is time to change the direction of my thoughts.   Thoughts direct feelings.  If we change our thinking, we change our feelings about what we’re thinking.  ~12 Steps–Think About It

So I tried this.  I actually wrote down this person’s name.  Then under it, I began to list characteristics of this person for which I am thankful.  I did not allow myself to stop until I got to ten.

It did work.  While I am still not happy with the unmet expectations, I am at the same time able to see how much good is in this person, how much this person is not doing these things to hurt me, and how much I love this person.  My anger abated enough that I can think rationally again, and enough that I can hear from Father on the issue again. . .and enough so that I can see my own part in it.

This recovery stuff is hard work.


6 thoughts on “Gunnysacking

  1. Tim Hurley says:

    What works for me is to replace; “I can’t” with “I won’t”.
    The latter is more honest.

    • I assume you’re referring to “How can I approach a situation, or relate with a person, without having expectations for that situation or that person? The answer is, I can’t.”

      Tim, I happen to know you have a lot of recovery 😉 So I’d love it if you’d elaborate. Can you approach situations or people without having expectations (even reasonable ones)? Can you do it always? Most of the time or some of the time? How have you gotten to the point where you can do this?

      For me, today, it feels like “I can’t” is the truth. I know, however, that feelings are lying bastards. So I’m open to learning that “I won’t” is indeed the truth, and also to learning how to change that to “I can” and “I will.”

  2. That’s a great suggestion and I’m going to try it. Writing it down makes the intention stronger.

  3. Laura says:

    Amy, I am not in recovery (not a drinker, ever), but so much of what I am reading in your posts resonates. I’m excited to have found your blog! Thank you for putting yourself out there.

    • Laura, my friend, I am gratified that my rambling remotely helps anyone but myself.

      And also, I must note that my recovery is not for alcoholism – I am not an alcoholic nor an addict. Al-anon is a program for friends and families of alcoholics and addicts, who typically have a disease called codependency – sort of an addiction to controlling other people. It’s very common for people to mistake Al-anon for Alcoholics Anonymous, but one is for alcoholics, and the other is for those affected by alcoholics.

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