Firstly, this isn’t a post about eliminating citrus fruits or a flavoured alcoholic beverage. I’m talking about the emotion bitterness — visceral resentment, longstanding grudges and deep-seated indignation. And that’s just the start of it.
I’ve had an aversion to writing about this for a while. Perhaps it’s too private or esoteric, but I think that many of us go through life carrying some underlying bitterness and resentment without really knowing how to tackle it.
If left to grow, it can become habitual, and once it’s a habit, you begin seeing the world through a negative lens. Sooner or later, you find yourself unwittingly perceiving things negatively in entirely unrelated circumstances, clouding your judgement, limiting your growth, and discouraging you. You will see wrongdoing everywhere, and a veil of cynicism will blind you to what is right.
Plus, bitterness is also pretty demanding. It’s an exhausting way to live on top of all the other things you have to manage. It restricts you from applying your talents to the best of your ability.
So, you’ve got bitterness in your life, but why? Everybody has their own story, but ultimately it is often a manifestation of two primary, instinctive emotions: fear and disappointment.
Bitterness is your minds way of saying, “That was horrible, I don’t want you to go through that ever again, so I’m going to remind you about it at any given opportunity.” Essentially, it’s an evasion strategy, blinding you from seeing what is really in front of you.
When I reached my early twenties, I had a fair share of bitterness entrenched into my psyche. All the uncomfortable, awkward and sometimes frankly upsetting periods of my life congregated into my long-term memory, popping back into my mind at random and refusing to budge: Broken friendships. Painful romances. Strained family relations. Infuriating work colleagues. Losses. Betrayals. Fuck-ups. The list could go on.
Sure, I had good reasons to be bitter, and I’m sure you do too. There was no doubt in my mind that people had wronged me but, after a while, resting in my cesspit of self-righteous judgement and sanctimony began to feel a little futile and self-sabotaging.
Deep down, I knew that recounting these experiences wasn’t getting me anywhere — continually recalling others wrongdoings doesn’t make those wrongs any more right.
Indeed, we can search for our part in things and attempt to make them right, but what happens after that? Do you feel any better?
When we encourage damaged parts of ourselves to reopen, we don’t have to resort to casting a self-righteous mask over events. There’s a series of steps you can take to mend yourself off of the bitterness and back to healthy functioning.
Letting go of bitterness is nothing less than an act of personal freedom. Choose to let go of your bitter instincts, even though you have all the reason in the world to hold on to them because, in the end, you’re only hurting yourself.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that it will kill your enemies.” — Nelson Mandela
So how do we cleanse our system of bitterness?
Accept that you’re still bitter, and it’s a problem.
Accepting that it’s an issue is the first step to overcoming any bitterness. You know that, to some extent, this underlying bitterness and resentment are contributing to your ‘bad days’.
You can only begin to tackle the problem when you acknowledge and accept it. Accept that bitterness is there and understand that it is just a thought, a frame of mind, and can dissipate just as quickly as any other thought.
At one time, it was real, but now it’s only kept alive by the thoughts in your mind, and that, in and of itself, is very empowering.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ― Viktor E. Frankl
Stop telling the story to your family and friends.
When you’re hurt, it’s very reasonable to look for people to lean on. You revisit the situation and describe whatever happened to those you trust. Getting support from others is a perfectly natural way to respond to a poignant, painful phase in your life.
The trouble with this approach is that it can lead you to focus, to an excessive degree, on the pain you endured. Initially, it may feel comforting to gain friends’ sympathies and support, but repeating the same story over and over again keeps you in a victim state of mind. It can exacerbate your pain while removing space to explore how to move past it and heal effectively.
A victim mentality makes you feel powerless. It won’t help you move forward. For these reasons, you should try to avoid talking about the cause of your bitterness unless you’re seeking professional help.
Take an honest look at what responsibility you may have had in creating the situation.
Accepting responsibility may seem like an unfair strategy. There are indeed some situations where you may have had no control, but in most cases, you do. If you don’t take at least some responsibility, you won’t learn from the experience.
Taking some of the responsibility allows you to take back power and grow: were there any red flags you ignored? Did you give too much trust and expectation? Were there any shortcomings on your part?
By looking at your contribution to the problem, you can acknowledge that you may have had a choice, and we're not powerless. It will also move you out of a victim mindset and into one where you’re willing to face up to your frailties and learn from them.
Find the lessons.
Gaining perspective is a valuable tool; it allows you to find some meaning in bitterness. Often, instead of paying attention to and acknowledging what did go well, what was a success or what valuable lessons we learnt from it, we tend to focus too much on the upsetting and painful side of things.
Finding meaning and learning the lessons can be beneficial and therapeutic, and there is always a lesson that time may present us with. Moments of pain can be a perfect chance to reframe old experiences.
How did you grow from it? What did you learn about yourself? What strategies are you going to implement to become more resilient in the future? Are you tougher for having gone through this? Do you have a better idea of what you value in life or whom?
The growth opportunities are there for you and can help you to shed a positive light on a negative situation. A coach or counsellor can support this rule if you find it difficult.
A lot of us go through life with very high expectations. It’s not a bad thing per se, but sometimes we have high expectations of other people, which can be problematic.
I’m sure a lot of us consider ourselves thoughtful, generous, fair and understanding. Maybe you go out of your way to help others and expect them to do the same. However, sometimes, for whatever reasons, they don’t.
Bring down your expectations a little bit so that you’re not perpetually feeling disappointed that people in your life are not being something or doing something that, in all likelihood, they weren’t offering in the first place.
For years, I held too high an expectation of my dad. I expected him to be something that he wasn’t. Consequently, our relationship was awful. Since then, I’ve removed the expectations and focused on connecting with him through our common interests and hobbies, expecting very little but instead focusing on our mutual ground. Currently, I would say that we’ve never had a better relationship.
Don’t get this confused; I’m not saying you should rid yourself of expectations, but you should be mindful that very high expectations can be frustrating. When relying on others, it’s better to expect less and be pleasantly surprised than expecting a lot and feeling disappointed.
This is can be so powerful, but it can be intensely challenging to forgive, and I understand that. Why should you forgive somebody who wronged you in such a senseless manner? Most people have trouble forgiving when they feel hurt because they think it condones the other person's behaviour, but forgiveness doesn’t have to be something we do for others — it’s something we do for ourselves. Not forgiving someone is analogous to being confined in a prison cell, serving time for someone else’s crime.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened was okay, and it doesn’t mean that person should still be welcome in your life. It means that you’ve made peace with the pain, and you are ready to let it go.
However, two key ideas should be kept in mind when looking to apply forgiveness in the face of the foulest behaviour.
We must consider how the person you’re bitter towards got to this place of reckless indifference and cruelty. Each disturbing thought has a long history behind it. They have become like this because of deep-seated flaws in their development, which they did not choose themselves.
Perhaps they are vile, but they go to this place because they have been conditioned to do so. In this sense, to forgive is to understand the roots of selfishness, ignorance and carelessness.
But, let’s not forget that there are difficult things about each of us too. In some spaces, quiet spaces, that you overlook, you also are an imperfect individual.
We must forgive because, one day, we will need forgiveness.
Choose to forgive the people who have belittled, shamed or rejected you. It’s hard, but do it for your own sake. Forgiveness, experienced sincerely, will remove bitterness from your heart.
Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” It takes courage to face pain head-on, forgive, and let it go.
Finally, having self-compassion is important. When we have had something happen in our lives that causes bitterness, we feel frustrated and angry with ourselves. Recognise you are human, and that involves making mistakes as part of the learning process.
Ultimately, bitterness and resentment are natural parts of being human. Rather than self-loathing for having feelings that linger beyond their desired expiration date, we can acknowledge that they lead us onto the path of finding peace within ourselves.