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How People Become Bitter and Resentful

Burying emotions can leave you feeling empty and numb.

Osinskih Agency/iStock, 35007/iStock
Osinskih Agency/iStock, 35007/iStock

The Signs of Bitterness

When feeling unappreciated leads to consistent resentment.

By Seth Meyers, Psy.D.

Feeling bitter is the likely consequence of feeling invalidated and unappreciated in one too many situations and relationships.

Emotional bitterness refers to feelings of sadness, resentment, and anger—especially anger—that accumulate over time. It is a secondary emotion, outside of sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust, that can result from insult or injury. Feeling bitter involves mixed emotions, and it can be hard to identify and express in simple terms.

Becoming emotionally bitter is much like the progression of a child’s physical growth. Parents don’t notice how much their child gains in height each day, but there comes a time when they suddenly see how much their son or daughter has changed. Becoming emotionally bitter happens similarly but follows an escalating pattern until a difference is noticeable.

How do you know if you have become bitter?

First, consider how frequently you get irritated or bothered by little things. When a person becomes bitter, the most obvious effect is on their mood. Specifically, the bitter person’s baseline mood is often angry, disappointed, or irritable. The feelings don’t seem to have a clear root and are difficult to let go.

A simple way to measure this is to think about the past several days and ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10, how content and positive you felt, on average, each day. If you’re being honest, and your average numbers are low, that’s a sign you may be feeling bitter. An additional way to measure your bitterness is less obvious. Think about the past several days and ask yourself if you engaged in any of the following actions:

  • Sent an angry or frustrated email or left a similar voicemail.
  • Had a verbal conflict in your personal or professional life.
  • Had a negative emotional reaction to a stranger you encountered while driving or running errands.
  • Snapped at anyone in response to something they said or asked.

If you engaged in any of these behaviors in the past few days and also have a habit of doing any of these things regularly, you may be in a bitter spiral that requires attention.

A second important gauge of bitterness: You feel that others don’t fully understand you or appreciate what you do.

As a rule, the quality of all relationships suffers when a person has become bitter. While relationships are intended to be sources of support, encouragement, and openness, the bitter person comes to feel that relationships are frustrating and unsatisfying. Bitter individuals have lost faith and trust in others close to them, telling themselves that relationships are not worth the hassle because no one ultimately
cares enough about them. A simple way to assess whether you have grown bitter is to ask yourself the following questions based, again, on a 1-to-10 scale:

  • How appreciated by my romantic partner do I feel?
  • How appreciated by my family and friends do I feel?
  • If single, how appreciated by my last romantic partner did I feel?
  • How much do those around me understand and validate my feelings, especially my frustration or anger, when I share them?

These questions and the resulting data are important because they point to clear areas to focus on.

A third sign: You’ve come to believe that you may never feel truly happy.

When you consider unhappiness, you may first associate it with depression. Depression includes feeling unhappy, but often individuals who feel unhappy feel more angry or bitter than depressed. Bitterness is not only a mix of emotions but also an accumulation of disappointments across a lifetime.

It would be difficult for anyone to be positive and hopeful if they have experienced situations and relationships that leave them feeling misunderstood, overlooked, uncared for, or even erased. When a person becomes bitter, there’s often a sense of betrayal about how life has treated them. A victim mindset can take hold.

We have the feelings we have for a reason, and bitter individuals are no exception. Becoming bitter is the likely consequence of feeling invalidated and unappreciated in one too many situations and relationships. The problem snowballs when the hurt, bitter person gives in and gives up. Instead, taking action can make the difference between an isolated life and a connected one.

The tendency to overthink and feel emotions too acutely is part and parcel of bitterness. The next time you engage in either practice, shift to productive activity. Increase your sense of connection by calling a friend or talking more with a loved one than you normally would; ask how they have been doing lately. Be curious. Take inventory of your self-care practices that are peaceful and reflective, including outdoor walking and meditation.

The process of becoming a bitter person is sneaky and slow, making it difficult to detect while it’s happening. Ask simple questions to identify the difference between an occasional bad mood and a more severe pattern. Emotional bitterness doesn’t have to be permanent. A new approach to life and taking action can increase hope.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription.

Thepalmer/iStock, ArmAastas/iStock
Thepalmer/iStock, ArmAastas/iStock

How to Break Free of Resentment

An exercise in forgiveness.

By Robert Enright, Ph.D.

Someone treats you with disrespect, and you feel resentful. Such an initial reaction is common and good because you know you are a person who deserves respect. Yet, if the initial resentment lasts indefinitely, it can eventually chip away at your happiness and self-esteem. This will make you miserable. Shedding resentment is healthy.

Sometimes we hang onto unconscious resentment from decades ago. These resentments can be part of our current mindset, shaping who we think we are and affecting our level of well-being.
Here is an exercise to assess and remove resentment.

  1. Diagnose people and incidences that have felt hurtful.
  2. Assess your current level of resentment.
  3. Take steps to rid yourself of these resentments, using a "forgiveness landscape."

This landscape refers to the people who have seriously treated you unjustly. When people first construct this landscape, they are often surprised at the number of people on the list as well as the depth of the remaining anger, even from decades ago.

When we are treated with deep unfairness, our anger is slow to dissipate. Sometimes we push that anger aside and think we have moved on or forgotten it. However, anger can be hiding deep within the heart, and the only way to be rid of it is through forgiveness.

Examine your forgiveness landscape and see how many people in your life are still in need of your forgiveness. Ask yourself these sets of questions.

The first set: Think back to your childhood. Is there anyone who was very unfair to you? If so, what is your anger level now on a scale of 1 to 5—with 1 signifying no remaining anger and 5 signifying a lot of anger?

More specifically from your childhood, are there any incidents with your parents that still make you angry? Think about other family members or peers or teachers. Is your anger still high when you recall the incidents?

The second set of questions: Focus on your adolescence. Following the pattern from the first set of questions, add coaches, employers, fellow employees, and romantic partners to the list. Do any of these people still make you angry enough to rate them 4 or 5 points?

The third set of questions: Who in your adult life has made you significantly angry, in the 4- or 5-point range? Add partners, children, relatives, friends, and neighbors to the list.

Rank them in order, from people who least offended you to those who most offended you. Look at this list to see your forgiveness landscape. There is your work, on this roster. Start with people low in your ranking order. Pardon them first; you have less anger toward them, so they are likely to be easiest to forgive. As you work up the list, your forgiveness expertise will sharpen; this is good preparation for forgiving the most challenging people, the ones at the top of the list. Set yourself free.

Robert Enright, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of many books, including Forgiveness Is a Choice.

Do You Feel Empty and Numb?

Understanding emotional disconnection.

By Imi Lo

The world around me feels unreal.
I am watching life go by without being in it.
I don’t know what I am feeling or cannot find the words for it.
I feel disconnected from my body.

Emotional numbness is a kind of internal emptiness that permeates the entire being and strips a person of joy and vitality. There is a loss of control over thoughts or actions. This numbness finds its origin in a part of our personal history that is too painful to reach. It is in our nature to defend against pain. Once we have experienced a physically or emotionally painful situation, such as being betrayed, we will defend against it—we don’t want it to happen again.

In the face of traumatic physical, emotional, or relational experiences, we have three responses: fight, flight, or freeze. If disconnecting from others to avoid getting hurt is fleeing, then numbing our emotions may be freezing.

When faced with extreme situations, such as rejection, abandonment, or shame, the body and psyche go into a numbing mode as part of that freezing response. This comes from our instinct to survive the most difficult circumstances. When things overwhelm us, disconnecting might be the only way to preserve our sanity, or even our lives.

However, this protective reflex sometimes remains for much longer after the actual danger has passed. Emotional numbing tends not to be a conscious choice; you may not even be aware of the pattern-building until after it becomes your normal way of functioning.

Initially, emotional disconnection offers a sense of pseudo-equanimity, a steady pleasantness that also allows you to put up a socially acceptable persona. This protective shield seems useful at first: You will feel that the pain has gone away and that you can get on with life. Although the pattern started as a way of protecting you, it can eventually morph into your hiding from yourself or denying your needs altogether.

It is best to approach your numbness with compassion. Get in touch with yourself. Don’t bypass or suppress your sadness; move closer to it and digest it. Your emotional numbness does not have to run the show. If you find yourself using this shield when you feel numb, just being aware of this pattern can help. Your numbness will no longer be an unconscious, destructive force.

Imi Lo holds Masters' degrees in mental health and in Buddhist studies and is the author of Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity.

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