By Mike DuBose
It may be surprising to those who know me now, but I was once a bitter person. Like many others who fall into the trap of bitterness, I experienced suffering in my past. This sent me down a self-destructive path of unresolved anger and resentment for decades.
My desire to understand my painful childhood—and the feelings it caused within me—drove me to enter the field of psychology. Eventually, drawing upon both my faith in God and the knowledge I gained pursuing my psychology degree, I came to see how bitter I had become. I made the choice to forgive everyone who had wronged me, which freed me from my prison of resentment and anger. Now, I’m thankful even for the tragedies in my past, because they helped shape me into the person I am today!
Although I can never regain the years of happiness I lost to bitterness, I can help others who are suffering from it change course and take their lives back. That is why I have written this two-part series. In it, I’ll explore how to recognize bitterness, understand its causes (and effects), and overcome it to live a happier, fuller, and healthier life!
What Is Bitterness?
Bitterness is discussed at length in Christian literature and the Bible. The Old Testament story of Cain and Abel underscores the dangers of letting resentment fester within oneself, and verses such as Ephesians 4:31 exhort believers to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Present-day religious figures also warn against this harmful emotional state. Dr. Adrian Rogers, pastor of Love Worth Finding Ministries, said, “Bitterness blows out the candle of joy and leaves the soul in darkness.” According to evangelist Billy Graham, “Every destructive emotion bears its own harvest, but anger’s fruit is the most bitter of all. Uncontrolled anger is a devastating sin, and no one is exempt from its havoc. It shatters friendships and destroys marriages; it causes abuse in families and discord in business; it breeds violence in the community and war between nations.”
But what is bitterness, exactly? Religious and scientific sources alike say that it is a complicated emotion with pain and anger at its core. Biblestudytools.com defines bitterness as “anger and disappointment at being treated unfairly,” noting that it is “synonymous with resentment and envy.” In a recent Psychologist Today article, psychologist Seth Meyers wrote that “feeling bitter draws from a subset of multiple feelings, including sadness, anger and disappointment.” Another psychologist, Stephen Diamond (also writing in Psychology Today), defined bitterness as a “chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment” that “is one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions.”
What Causes Bitterness?
Bitterness is rooted in hurt and anger (often justified…at first). There are many situations in a person’s life that can lead to bitterness, and everyone reacts differently, even if they go through similar experiences. The following life circumstances (and combinations thereof) may compel a person to become bitter: experiencing physical, mental, and sexual abuse or neglect; parents withholding love or affection; parents favoring one child over another; being held to unrealistic expectations by others; experiencing injustice, rejection, or unfairness; and sudden events that drastically change one’s life (such as premature loss of a loved one or other tragedy, parents divorcing unexpectedly, or loss of a job or promotion). Of course, anyone who goes through negative experiences like these will likely feel anger and sadness—it’s a normal part of being a human being. It’s when a person refuses to deal with and move past these experiences that the problem arises. If they insist on holding onto the anger, replaying the hurt over and over again, then bitterness and resentment take over their lives.
What Does Bitterness Do to People?
Bitterness is the archenemy of hope. It sucks away joy, keeping us mired in past hurts and slights, whether they are real or just perceived. Because we are unable to move forward, we cannot enjoy all of life’s possibilities and cannot live to our fullest potential. Even when good things happen in our lives, the constant state of anger in which bitter people live robs us of the capacity to celebrate. As Maya Angelou once said, “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host.”
Bitter people have critical, negative views on life. They speak frequently about how they believe they have been wronged and seem to revel in their status as “victims.” They often exhibit aggressive, argumentative, and temperamental behavior, and may even displace their anger, directing it unfairly toward others. Although they may have low self-esteem, they may also be perfectionists, and their unrealistic expectations of themselves and others can lead to conflict. Some may even turn to substance abuse to cope with the pain and anger tied to resentment.
Living in a state of bitterness and resentment is bad for your interpersonal relationships, including friendships, family relationships, and romantic relationships. Psychologist Leon F. Seltzer warned in an article for Psychology Today that bitterness can “create or deepen an attitude of distrust and cynicism—qualities that contribute to hostility and paranoid thinking, as well as an overall sense of pessimism” that “prompts others to turn away from you.” Being around someone who is constantly negative is emotionally exhausting, and eventually, even the most devoted friends or partners may leave a bitter person behind to save their own mental health. This can cause a bitter person to become even more isolated and resentful. It’s not surprising that Seltzer also says bitterness can lead to “long-lasting anxiety and/or depression!”
On top of all of these dangers, bitterness can present physical health hazards as well. Those who stew in bitterness, repeating negative experiences over and over in their minds, keep themselves in a constant state of stress, lowering their defenses against a wide range of illnesses. A Johns Hopkins Medicine article noted, “Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions.”
The Bottom Line: Living in a state of bitterness is unhealthy on many levels, and resentful individuals may experience mental, physical, and relationship troubles. To summarize a theory from the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, individuals with unresolved conflicts may be unable to move forward in life. When we choose to hold on to resentment, we cannot progress…but the good news is that we all have a choice. Read my next article for ways to overcome bitterness and move on to a happier, more positive, more fulfilling future!
Mike DuBose has been an instructor for the USC’s graduate school since 1985, when he began his family of companies, and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional published business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Surb Guram, MD.