How to Understand and Handle Bitter People
Emotionally bitter individuals can be frustrating, but understanding them helps.
Posted Oct 07, 2019
In order to better understand a concept, it's often helpful to first define it. The emotional feeling of bitterness is a complex mix of different emotions. Ekman, Friesen and Ellsworth (1972) identified six basic human emotions: surprise, disgust, happiness, sadness, anger and fear. If you think about bitterness, you probably realize that the feeling isn't restricted to just one of those six basic emotions.
Some theorists conceptualize emotional bitterness as resentment, and resentment is probably the closest emotional construct to bitterness. Resentment, it is widely established, is associated with anger, and the cumulative effect of it, in particular. Bitterness may be best described as the mix of two of the core emotions discussed previously: anger and sadness.
Part of what makes bitterness a complex emotion is that it also includes disappointment, or the experience of having been disappointed as a pattern of behavior over time. Disappointment, is a complex emotion, too, because disappointment involves sadness, but it also includes other layers. If you think about disappointment, you realize that anger may be in that mix, as well (feeling angry that things didn't work out better or that your particular needs did not get met).
As I've outlined, emotions are difficult to define with precision as the parameters of a given emotion are not the subject of a natural, fact-based science. Yet it's reasonable to conclude that the feeling of bitterness involves a mix of emotions, and that feeling bitter draws from a subset of multiple feelings, including sadness, anger and disappointment.
Take a moment and consider one person in your life whom you consider to be a bitter person. Most likely, your assessment is based on the perception that that particular individual is often angry, sad and disappointed, and that the individual can be negative and create negativity and conflicts in their social interactions.
The effect of being around someone who is emotionally bitter is as complex as the bitterness construct itself. Bitter people can trigger in others a range of emotions, many of which are negative and upsetting.
Bitter individuals tend to have conflictual social interactions with many people, not just you. In relationships, whether personal or professional, it's natural and socially expected to take things personally. In other words, if a particular individual is talking to you, why wouldn't you take what they say personally? The most crucial point to remember with bitter individuals is that their negativistic personality style dictates the bulk of their interactions with everyone - not just you. Without the empathy that is expected of grown adults and given their tendency to operate from a blaming perspective, it follows that the individual's social interactions would largely be negativistic and complex. After all, most men and women have incorporated social conventions as a function of socialized development.
Bitter individuals break with what is expected socially and developmentally from "normal" adults. Because bitter men and women do not subscribe to or are not able to accept and follow what is expected in adult, social interactions, these individuals tend to have troubled and conflictual relationships in multiple spheres of their life. Though it's counterintuitive, it's crucial to remember that bitter individuals' behavior reflects a pattern that has nothing to do with you and has more to do with their own accumulated anger, sadness and disappointment.
Bitter people can engage in passive-aggressive behavior, and being on the receiving end of such behavior is often frustrating. Passive-aggressive behavior refers to indirect resistance to the demands of others, meaning that the individual engages in behaviors that are, at root, negativistic and angry, but delivered in a nuanced and confusing way. In lay terms, people are often offset by passive aggressive behavior of others because being on the receiving end of negativistic and subtly hostile behavior is confusing and unclear, and also upsetting. Bitter men and women often resort to passive-aggressive behavior as an outlet for the angry, sad and disappointed feelings that rule them.
Bitter individuals often operate from a blaming and non-empathic perspective. In their personal and professional relationships, bitter men and women often blame others when things go wrong or when things do not work out as they wanted or expected. Because their drive to assign responsibility externally and to blame others trumps the socially-sanctioned expectation of fairness in relationships, they do not show empathy for others in many situations.
In short, bitter men and women are so preoccupied by the set of negative feelings they live with that they do not have enough of a proverbial clear head to practice mutual respect and acceptance of others' feelings and needs. People in close personal and professional relationships with bitter individuals often feel that they can't ever "win" with these people; they always end up feeling that nothing they do is ever good enough or they inevitably get dragged into confusing and annoying conflicts or mildly tense interactions.
Bitter individuals will inevitably negatively impact you if you engage with them in any meaningful way when they are triggered. It's important to note that men and women who have become emotionally bitter are not necessarily bitter, passive-aggressive and conflict-seeking all the time. Like anyone, they have good and bad moments, but they simply have more bad moments than good ones. The key is to notice when the individual's mood has been negatively triggered; these are the moments when they are prone to engage in conflicts and to try, consciously or unconsciously, to induce the same negative feelings in you. Bitter men and women feel a mix of powerful negative emotions that they can't handle or "sit with." As a result, they seek to offload these negative feelings on the nearest object so they don't have to "carry" them alone any longer. Though bitter men and women would be hard-pressed to admit it, my clinical experience tells me that seeing that they have upset others is, in the most confusing and seemingly sadistic way, somewhat gratifying for them. In other words, they may feel better because they made you feel worse.
As frustrating and negativistic as bitter men and women can be, summon your patience and compassion and remember that happy people — those who feel loved, cared for, and respected — aren't negative and don't mistreat or upset others as a pattern. The bitter man or woman — again, though they'd never admit it — must emotionally hold and carry an overwhelming amount of anger, sadness, and disappointment, and they often secretly feel anger toward themselves, and are enslaved by it.
While they are not what others colloquially refer to as "bad" people, the reality is that they are emotionally injured individuals. These men and women haven't yet figured out how to handle their own negative feelings in a way that allows them to meet the normal expectations the vast majority of adults have for social interactions. The healthiest approach is to avoid the bitter individual when they are triggered.
If that individual is someone you are required to depend on — a parent, boss or co-worker — not engaging is frequently not an option. In these instances, understand that the best way to approach the interactions is to constantly remind yourself of these points throughout the interaction: Your dependence on that person will not last forever; you must distract yourself in the moment by thinking of other things so that you don't internalize the negative emotions being thrust onto you; you need to focus on and even visualize a future in which that person won't have the same power or control over you.
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Ekman, P., Friesen, W. and Ellsworth, P. (1972). Emotion in the human face: guide-lines for research and an integration of findings. New York: Pergamon Press.