The Antidote to Bitterness

We read all the time about depression, anxiety and ‘anger management.’ But what about bitterness? Well, things seem to be looking up for the bitter among us: The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is considering classifying bitterness as a mental disorder. An amazing statistic reported at a recent meeting of the APA was that 1-2% of the population suffers from chronic bitterness. That’s a lot of sour and angry people out there!

Bitterness is an emotional state of resentment combined with anger. A bitter person feels entitled to something he or she didn’t get — maybe something very specific, or perhaps something as vague as ‘happiness.’

This feeling is ‘so common and so deeply destructive,’ writes Shari Roan in the Los Angeles Times, ‘that some psychiatrists are urging it be identified as a mental illness under the name ‘post-traumatic embitterment disorder.’ The disorder is modeled after post-traumatic stress disorder,’ she continues, ‘because it too is a response to a trauma that endures. People with PTSD are left fearful and anxious. Embittered people are left seething with revenge.’

Bitterness is more than anger. It validates the pervasive sense that, “I KNEW it would be this way!” Without realizing it, bitter people can bring problems on themselves. They start out expecting trouble or disappointment, and end up cultivating a view that everyone is somehow against them. When trouble does occur, they make it more important than it needs to be — and they assume it will happen again and again.

A person who expects everything to go badly will attribute little importance to the things that actually go well. This is called a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy,’ where one (often without being aware of it) creates a terrible reality for him- or herself by always assuming that reality is terrible.

The best way to overcome bitterness is to make a strong commitment to placing reality above your feelings. By rising above raw emotions, you can discover the possible errors in them and view reality more accurately. Part of that commitment is the attitude, ‘I will not be a victim.’ Victims are helpless and have no control over their lives. ‘Look what everybody’s done to me!’ Imagine going through life feeling the way an actual victim of a robbery or an assault might feel, when in fact you’re a victim of your own distorted emotions. Bitterness is the inevitable result.

Combat that feeling by changing the way you see yourself in relation to ‘the world.’ It may mean changing the way you word things to yourself or others. For example, ‘She makes me so angry’ becomes, ‘I get really angry at her behavior. I can respond to this by telling her, if I choose.’

Self-fulfilling prophecies are fueled by chronic bitterness and vice-versa. To escape that vicious cycle, a resentful person has to make a commitment to think differently. I can hear you thinking that it’s “Easier said than done” (and you’re probably right), but good mental health requires that reality take precedence over emotions when the two conflict. (Actually, I love it when people complain, ‘Easier said than done!’ It means they know we’re on to something.)

Bitterness can also be related to emotional problems such as depression. Start with the depressed feeling that it’s not possible to exert control over one’s life, and then pile anger on top of that. The psyche then attempts to reassert itself through the anger. But, without any attempt to correct the original problem that led to the depression, bitterness becomes the manifestation of that original feeling of hopelessness. The more hopeless one feels, the more bitter one gets.

Depression can stem from an attitude of ‘learned helplessness.’ Anger in the face of learned helplessness can actually be the beginning of the end of depression — a good thing, to be sure. But if the reason for the anger is not addressed rationally, it can spiral down into disappointment and bitterness.

What about disappointment? Some people conclude from one or two major disappointments that all of life will be disappointing. On the surface, this might seem understandable, but just how rational is it to think this way? What do the unsatisfactory experiences of last month or last year have to do with people you now know, or people you haven’t even met? The only connection between the two resides in the bitter person’s mind.

Psychological health requires NOT thinking like a victim. ‘Look what they did to me!’ can become, ‘I let them take advantage of me,’ or, ‘What kind of people do I want to surround myself with?’ Victims feel like they have no choices, when in fact there are almost always choices. We all have the power to exercise those choices, confidently and cheerfully, while still recognizing we won’t always make the correct ones. And that’s not the end of the world. But, as an alternative to being a helpless victim, it can help cure bitterness permanently.