Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Another Toxic Emotion: Bitterness


                                            ANOTHER TOXIC EMOTION: BITTERNESS


Last month we looked at the problem of emotional numbness. Today our topic is a serious problem which can affect an individual and then spread to family and friends, coworkers and the general public.  Just think of a bitter drink and you’ll have sensations of distaste, revulsion and rejection.  A bitter person inspires such emotions. Let’s look at some descriptors: unhappy/depressed, angry, hostile, resentful, dwelling on past wrongs, stubborn, wounded, moody, lashing out at others, ranting about wrongs, carrying emotional baggage, stuck in a rut, blaming others, stereotyping and scapegoating, agitated, negative and critical, defensive, holding grudges, raging, maliciousness. Not a pretty picture. If this is you, it’s a miserable existence. If you constantly interact with a bitter person, you’ll be miserable also.  An online article by Peter Michelson states that, “bitterness feeds on the carcasses of festering memories.”  Yuck! 


If you are a bitter person, you probably developed this attitude over a long period of time. You may have been seriously or grievously hurt, you may have been bullied as a child or adult, you may be sensitive to social injustices. There are many reasons why individuals develop this predominant feeling.  Either you never received help and support for these issues or you were too angry and hostile to accept assistance. Over time, the bitter person begins to feel that he or she is right and becomes highly critical of others. While bitterness starts with a negative outlook, it takes control and consumes someone, then spreads and infects others. Bitterness causes social relationships to sour and in fact the bitter person is often rejected by others.  As you picture the emotional and physical states of bitterness and resentment, you understand the internal conflict, the need for vigilance and defensiveness about the bitter ideas, the anxiety and negativity, tension, fear and sleeplessness of the condition. A true statement: bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting that the other person will die. In fact research has shown that the internal poison of bitterness does cause physical ailments and at times a shorter life span: yours!


Do bitter individuals receive help? Very few view themselves as having a problem. The cause of their distress is always something or someone else, or at least that’s the way they see things.  If you are chronically bitter, listen up! Even though you may have very valid concerns, a bitter attitude will cause you increased misery and will drive away potential sources of help.  Your emotional bitterness will in fact become an ongoing cause of the problems you are experiencing now.  All aspects of your life will eventually suffer, especially your social relationships, your health and your emotional stability. Bitterness will always chase away love in your heart and your life.  The first and most important step, then, is seeing that you are a part of the problem. In most cases, in fact, you are the only part of the problem that you can control and change now. While the original fault lies elsewhere, most likely that person or persons won’t change. You are responsible for your life and happiness now, and you need to let go of the bitterness.


I recommend a four step process to help you move out of this oppressive state of being. While recognizing your loss and the importance of these problems in your personal development, realize that it’s time to grieve these losses.  Send love to yourself and shed some tears over the injustices done to you as a child and over your lifetime. The next step would be to take action, take control of your problems and seek assistance for yourself.   Make a conscious effort to stop the ruminations and expressions of bitterness in your life. Instead, seek more satisfaction now, in your day-to-day existence, because the past cannot be changed. The third step is forgiveness. Oh no, you’ll say, the problems are too real and the “bad guys” remain unpunished. The therapeutic concept of forgiveness is to recognize injustice, then let go of the anger and resentment. This type of forgiveness will not affect the right/wrong elements of your issues. I have articles on my website about forgiveness as well as a Hawaiian-based solution called Ho’oponopono. There are beautiful meditations with music which will chip away at your bitter shell to open you up to healing and love vibrations. The last step would be to recognize and develop an attitude of gratefulness for the positives you have in your current life. A bitter attitude will poison all the positives around you while gratitude will open you up to happiness and joy in your life.


If you are reading this article and you are beginning to store resentment about a small issue, take heed! You don’t want to continue on this path to chronic bitterness. Be grateful that you’re not the person portrayed herein! Stop, realize your problem, choose happiness over bitterness, then resolve the issue or let it go.


The moral of the story was also found in my last article: “Wake Up and Smell the Roses!”