“Bitterness is unforgiveness fermented.” (Gregory Popcak)
The Cause of Bitterness
All bitterness starts out as hurt. And your emotional pain may well relate to viewing whomever (or whatever) provoked this hurt (generally, your assumed “perpetrator”) as having malicious intent: As committing a grave injustice toward you; as gratuitously wronging you and causing you grief. For anger—and its first cousin, resentment—is what we’re all likely to experience whenever we conclude that another has seriously abused us. Left to fester, that righteous anger eventually becomes the corrosive ulcer that is bitterness.
Fellow Psychology Today blogger, Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., defines bitterness as “a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment,” and deservedly regards it as “one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions.” I’d add that if we repeatedly ruminate over how we’ve been victimized, our “nursing” our wrongs may eventually come to define some essential part of who we are. Take hold of our very personality. And so we’ll end up becoming victims not so much of anyone else but, principally, of ourselves.
Such is the inevitable result of becoming obsessed with blaming someone (or something) else for our misery—rather than refusing to permit external hindrances or setbacks from blocking us from pursuing our goals. But frankly, it’s all too easy to hamper ourselves by falling into the trap of righteously obsessing about our injuries, or outrage. For doing so—and proclaiming our innocence and virtue in the face of such deeply felt abuse—does afford us the gratification of feeling that we’re better than, or morally superior to, the source of our wrongs.
The Cost of Bitterness
Yet the benefits of retreating into acrimonious victimhood—or rather, “defaulting” to the stance of woeful bitterness—invariably carries a high price tag. It can:
So the question is: Do you really want to see yourself as a “victim,” with all the implications of helplessness embedded in that defeatist label? Consider that if you obsessively ruminate on the righteousness of your anger, your wrath will only become further inflamed. For it exists in the first place to mask your underlying emotional distress by prompting you to focus not on the personal injury you’ve suffered—and certainly not on what you need to do to heal that hurt—but on the one who so wronged you. Besides, you don’t really have any control over the other person. Finally, your personal power is pretty much limited to yourself. Even in the face of the gravest injustice, redirecting your focus inwards is precisely how you go about empowering (or reimpowering) yourself.
The Cure for Bitterness
Virtually every writer who has weighed in on the subject of bitterness has discussed its ultimate remedy in terms of forgiveness. For forgiveness alone enables you to let go of grievances, grudges, rancor and resentment. It’s the single most potent antidote for the venomous desire for retributive justice poisoning your system . And if this impulse hasn’t infested you physically, it’s at least afflicted you mentally and emotionally. So learning—with or without loving compassion—to forgive your “violator” facilitates your recovering from a wound that, while it may have originated from outside yourself, has been kept alive (and even “nurtured”) from the venom you've synthesized within you.
If, fundamentally, anger intimates an almost irresistible impulse toward revenge, then forgiveness is mostly about renouncing such vindictiveness. And it can hardly be overemphasized that when you decide to forgive your perceived wrongdoer, you’re doing so not so much for them but for yourself. It’s your—not their—welfare that’s primarily at stake here. For, as already suggested, the longer you hold onto your anger, the more you’ll sink into the destructive quagmire of ever-cycling feelings of hatred and resentment. And the more, over time, your anger will “mature” (or congeal) into bitterness.
It’s as though you’ve somehow cultivated your anger as some sort of analgesic and, rather than devoting yourself to actually healing from your hurt, you’ve instead become addicted to numbing it through a painkiller. And the supreme irony of this situation is that to have your painkiller (i.e., your anger) continue to work, you must keep your wound fresh and open. Yet if you’re ever to transcend your wounding experience, both your pain and its painkiller have to be allowed to “expire.”
As I’ve bulleted above, any bitterness still dominating you will only augment the injury you’ve already sustained. So what’s your choice here? In your mind, or with family and friends, you can continue to berate, or castigate, the one who harmed you. Or, you can choose to become not problem-focused but solution-oriented and contrive to put your ill-treatment behind you.This might seem like a no-brainer, but in fact it may not be that easy to relinquish your “superior” position of righteous victimhood. Still, if you’re up to the challenge, here’s what you need to be reflecting on:
Did the person who hurt you really consciously intend to treat you maliciously? Did they really have a personal vendetta against you? Or might their motive simply have been self-interested—that is, being so centered on their own particular needs and desires, they were oblivious to your own? Typically, your offender’s prime motive wasn’t to gratuitously cause you pain but—albeit single-mindedly—to achieve their own ends. And if they did wish to hurt you, might it be possible that their motive was retaliatory? That they perceived you as earlier having hurt them? . . . and having done so intentionally? In which case, their harming you back would have seemed altogether just to them.
Keep in mind that your protracted anger or rage is essentially interpretive. If you’re to move beyond your acrimony, you need to amend your extremely negative assessment of their behavior. And to the degree that you might actually have contributed to their (possibly vengeful) act, it might be time to ask yourself whether you conceivably had some blame in their harming you. The main thing here is to alter your attitude to free yourself of the bondage that, regrettably, is inherently linked to your bitterness. You need to be willing to regard the other person anew—not as villainous, which may conveniently have served to justify your bitterness, but as (first and foremost) insensitive to your feelings or general welfare. Being able to reperceive them in this light—as far from admirable yet innocent of any premeditated malice—can’t help but facilitate a crucial attitudinal shift softening your resentment.
But it’s also key to realize that even if the other person has been guilty of intentionally hurting you for no reason other their own perverse satisfaction, it still makes sense to forgive them. Whether they’ve displaced their rage toward someone else onto you, or whether they’re totally devoid of any empathy or common decency, your bitterness nonetheless causes you far more harm than it does them. And your taking personally what they did also represents an irrational distortion of their motives. So in such instances forgiving them is really about letting go of your retaliatory rage simply so that you can move on to enjoy—even savor—whatever satisfactions life continues to offer you.
The simplest plan that I’ve seen for implementing the intention of regaining your emotional equilibrium through abandoning your resentment and bitterness is from James J. Messina. Here, considerably abridged and reworded, and with my own bracketed additions, is his five-step plan:
(1) Identify the source of your bitterness and what this person did to evoke your resentful feelings;
(2) Develop a new way of looking at your past, present, and future—including how resentment has negatively affected your life and how letting go of it can improve your future;
(3) write a letter to this person, describing [their] offenses toward you, then forgive and let go of them (but don’t send the letter) [Note, by the way, that choosing to renew your tie to the individual who seriously offended you is totally separate from your choice to forgive them.];
(4) visualize your having a better future having neutralized the negative impact of resentment; and
(5) if bitter, resentful feelings remain, return to Step 1 and begin again. [For it may be only through diligently repeating this process many times that you can at last forgo the almost instinctual drive (if only in your thoughts) toward retribution and revenge.]
Concluding Quotations on Bitterness
I think the following quotes forcefully sum up many of the points I’ve tried to make here. So I’ll close this piece with them:
‘“Anger is a short madness’ (Horace) but bitterness is anger that has been boiled, simmered, and then found so unpalatable that it has been thrown into the deep freeze of our unconscious psyches.” (Elizabeth Spring)
“It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness, and a mood of helplessness prevail.” (Lech Walesa)
“I know from personal experience how damaging it can be to live with bitterness and unforgiveness. I like to say it’s like taking poison and hoping your enemy will die. And it really is that harmful to us to live this way.” (Joyce Meyer)
“Something my mum taught me years and years and years ago, is life’s just too short to carry around a great bucket-load of anger and resentment and bitterness and hatreds.” (Kevin Rudd)
And finally, alluding to just how seductive the retaliatory self-righteousness of bitterness can be, this simple edict:
“Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Note 1: If you found this post informative, and believe others you know might as well, please consider sending them its link.
Note 2: If you’d like to check out some of my other posts for Psychology Today—on a broad range of topics—click here.
Note 3: I’ve published many other posts that relate to the boomerang emotion of anger. Here are their titles and links:
© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.