By Mark E. Smith
Have you ever truly thought about bitterness and its toll on an individual? Hurt and anger are common emotions we all experience when a person or circumstance causes us emotional pain. However, bitterness exponentially ups the stakes, taking us to a place where our life and mental health are consumed by it. Bitterness is among our most self-defeating emotions and mindsets – and difficult to overcome once in its grips.
Dr. Stephen A. Diamond puts it well when he writes, “Bitterness, which I define as a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment, is one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions. Bitterness is a kind of morbid characterological hostility toward someone, something or toward life itself…. Bitterness is a prolonged, resentful feeling of disempowered and devalued victimization.”
Beyond those disturbing characteristics that can consume our life, bitterness is unique in that it’s an emotional state and mindset that we place upon ourselves – at least in the beginning, that is. Others or circumstances, of course, can make us angry or cause us hurt – we can’t control that in the immediate. However, bitterness, in fact, is of our own creation based on our not letting go of then pain or resentment. Then, if left to fester, bitterness can take over our life, becoming a diagnosable mental health issue (known as Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder [note the root word of “bitter” in that diagnosis]). Therefore, bitterness is like getting stuck on an ever-revolving hamster wheel, trapping us in an addictive cycle of …well …bitterness.
I recently spent time with an acquaintance who frequently brought up an ex-partner in our routine conversation. The pain and anger were tangible each time the ex was interjected, so I assumed the breakup was within the past weeks or months. I finally asked how long they’d been apart? The startling answer: six years. Firstly, I felt empathy for the hurt this person was feeling, as it was palpable, and I couldn’t fathom anyone living in such pain for six years. But, I also thought to myself, holding on to this bitterness will prevent you from ever welcoming a new, loving relationship into your life.
I’ve likewise witnessed life-defeating bitterness evolve from anger toward circumstances. Living and working in the disability community, I encounter individuals from time to time who’ve held on so tightly to the negative emotions surrounding disability that they blame it for everything wrong in their lives. Disability experience can be frustrating, but it need not fester to the point of bitterness and constant self-victimization. When it reaches such a catastrophic point as bitterness, joy is drained from life, where one is stuck in the destructive mode of resenting life itself.
Bitterness is so dangerous because we often don’t know we’re in that space – that’s how consuming it can be. When embedded in bitterness, we have our lives focused on a target, upon which we thrust blame for virtually everything, and don’t realize how it slowly destroys us.
I found myself in the grips of bitterness in my late teens, and looking back, it was such a harrowing experience. I was on the verge of graduating high school and my resentment toward my biological father was simmering into bitterness because he wasn’t in my life. While I tried to focus on what otherwise should have been an exciting time in my life, my bitterness toward my father consumed much of my thoughts. Fortunately, through counseling and introspection, I was able to realize that my father wasn’t hurting me – he wasn’t even in my life – rather, I was hurting myself with smoldering resentment. Looking back, I was fortunate to break that self-destructive mindset of bitterness, but it wasn’t easy and ultimately took years of processing to get to an accountable, peaceful place in my life regarding the emotions surrounding my father.
While I broke a cycle of bitterness early in my life, and learned the importance of avoiding such dangerous emotional paths, the question remains: how do we universally break a state of bitterness?
The first answer is, we need to recognize that we are bitter. If we’re hyper-focused on how someone or a circumstance has wronged us, and still seething years later, to the point that it taints our thoughts and world view, there’s a problem. It’s at this point where we merely self-victimize. What happened, happened, and we need to let go of it.
Now, a lot of literature on the subject of bitterness, both secular and nonsecular, speaks of forgiveness as the ultimate salvation. The psychology world defines forgiveness as, “mustering up genuine compassion for those who have wronged us.” While this is great for some, modern psychology doesn’t believe it’s universally required – nor should it be in certain circumstances – in order to live without bitterness. There’s tremendous power in simply allowing the past to be the past, and living with gratitude for what today offers. We’ve all been wronged at points in life in ways we can’t change, but why hold onto that when we can release it? Again, this doesn’t mean we must outright forgive in order to find peace. If someone or a circumstance harmed us, we have every right to forever acknowledge the wrong. For instance, as a father myself, I see my father’s behavior as totally inexcusable till this day; however, he’s long deceased and I focus on being the best father I can to my children rather than dwelling on my father. My point is, we can let go of pain without forgiving someone’s wrong or a circumstance. A friend of mine, who experienced a spinal cord injury at the fault of a drunk driver, once said, “I can never forgive the drunk who hit me, but why would I focus on what that accident took from me when I can focus on all I still have?”
Emotional pain and hurt inevitably enter our lives at points. Bitterness doesn’t have to. Let us not necessarily “forgive” or “forget,” but move on in the present, where we remove the power from others and circumstances – bitterness! – and confidently control our own lives with grace and happiness.