By Mike DuBose
As explained in the previous segment of this two-part series, bitterness is a deadly trap that poisons the mental and emotional health of those who fall into it. Due to the suppressive effect that constant stress has upon the human immune system, resentment can harm sufferers’ physical health, too, making them more susceptible to a host of dangerous diseases! When a person is bitter, it also impacts their interpersonal relationships, in many cases making it hard for friends, spouses, and coworkers to be around them and isolating them further from others.
Although holding on to anger and resentment is bad for the body, mind, and soul, it’s shockingly easy to do. Bitterness is rooted in unfair, disappointing, or painful experiences that would make any human feel hurt, angry, or sad. While most people are able to feel those emotions and then leave them behind, those who become bitter hold on, refusing to forgive the offenses (real or imagined) and miring themselves in misery.
One of the first steps that a bitter person can take to reclaim their life is to recognize that their resentment is a problem. But what comes next? What should a person do if they realize they have become bitter? Through research and my education in psychology, as well as first-person experience, I’ve identified some ways to move beyond a painful past and let go of bitterness for good. While not all of these strategies may be necessary in every situation, it is usually helpful for people who struggle with bitterness to try one or several of them.
Acknowledge that it may take time to heal: Although we often seek quick fixes for our problems, there is no “magic pill” that will make bitterness and resentment immediately disappear. Interpersonal conflicts involve complicated emotions, and in some people, bitterness has been festering for years—it won’t just go away overnight! However, acknowledging the emotional wounds that have been causing your bitterness is the first step toward treating those wounds, releasing your resentment, and living a happy life.
Write down all of the things that you feel bitter about: It can be painful, but I believe it is worthwhile to make a list of all the negative experiences you’re dwelling upon, no matter how long ago they happened. Include the names of the people who have offended, neglected, or abused you as well as their actions, trying to stay as objective as possible (as if you were an outside observer looking in). Many people don’t even realize what is causing them to be unhappy, so identifying these situations can be a valuable early step in the healing process. It can also help you decide if you’d like to try to repair relationships with those involved or if it is best to move on without them in your life. Detailing why you are resentful about other people’s actions can also sometimes reveal important truths about your expectations—they may be perfectly reasonable, or perhaps you need to reconsider what you ask of others somewhat!
Commit wholeheartedly to forgiveness: It takes a lot of work (and may take a long time) to completely forgive others who we feel have harmed us—but it’s actually ourselves who we help the most when we let go of bitterness! Forgiveness starts with the acknowledgement that people (ourselves included) are flawed and sometimes make the wrong choices. We can choose to forgive these mistakes, freeing our souls in the process, or we can dwell on them and relive negative feelings over and over. As psychologist Dr. Leon F. Seltzer wrote in a recent Psychology Today article, “Forgiveness alone enables you to let go of grievances, grudges, rancor, and resentment…Alter your attitude to free yourself of the bondage that, regrettably, is inherently linked to your bitterness.”
You don’t have to completely forgive past transgressions immediately, but the sooner you take the first steps to forgive, the better. It helps to be mindful of your feelings: when memories of past hurts surface, acknowledge that they were painful, but resist the urge to wallow in sadness and anger—this will not make you feel any better. Instead, remind yourself that the experience was in the past and shift your thoughts to something peaceful, joyful, or inspiring instead. You will train your mind to stop replaying negative memories, and you will have resentful thoughts less frequently. Eventually, you will be able to release most of the anger and hurt associated with the experience and look at it objectively. Then, you can make the choice to forgive the person who hurt you and free your soul from that pain.
Express yourself. Often, resentment is fueled by a feeling of “unfinished business”—never getting an apology after a painful incident or feeling that a conflict is still unresolved. To help bring about a sense of closure, write a detailed letter to each person who has hurt you describing your view of the situation, how you feel, and why. If needed, read and refine the letter over the course of several days. Then, destroy it. The purpose is not to send the letter, but to gain a deeper understanding of why you are resentful about the issue, document your emotions, and then let those feelings go.
Talk to a professional. Some situations that spark bitterness may be deeply traumatic, and it may not be possible to move past them on your own. There is no shame in that—just as you’d visit a doctor to set a broken arm or treat the flu, seek a trained expert to help guide you through the process of reclaiming your happiness! Dr. Fredrick Mau (hypnotist and therapist) and Dr. Josh Fowler, MD (psychiatrist), are excellent professionals in Columbia, SC.
Pray: As a Christian, I believe that if God created the universe, He can help me…and you! My faith tells me that God requires forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32) and that Jesus wishes us to pray for our enemies and those who have hurt us. It’s hard to hate someone when you are praying for them! Regardless of what religion you practice, it is very soothing to turn over your sorrows and hurts to the Creator. Try asking for healing through prayer and meditation, and you may be surprised by the amount of peace it brings to your spirit.
Channel your remaining anger into something productive: If you’re holding onto a lot of anger (or even rage), it may not feel like quite enough to release those emotions through calm activities like writing, therapy, or prayer. In such cases, it can be helpful to expel negative energy through physical activities like taking a boxing class, running, or lifting weights. Several studies have indicated that exercise can improve mood, and you’ll also reap health benefits as an added bonus!
If you’d like to keep them in your life, initiate a conversation with those who hurt you. As psychologist Dr. Fran Walfish said in an article for UpJourney.com, “Talking is the glue that holds people and relationships together.” If you think there is potential to rebuild a relationship with the person who has offended you and you want to do so, request to meet with them to talk. Write out detailed notes explaining why you are upset and rehearse the conversation beforehand to make sure you are able to communicate your thoughts clearly when the time comes. If speaking in person is not possible, consider sending them a carefully-worded letter that explains your feelings and invites further discussion.
Of course, you should use caution when considering meeting with someone who has hurt you in person. Former abusers, for example, could become violent, so face-to-face confrontation is not advisable. Make sure that the relationship is truly one you want to keep and that it would be healthy for you to do so. If the person is not remorseful about their actions and is likely to hurt you again, it’s best to forgive them (for your own sake) but move on without them in your life.
There may also be instances where the person you’d like to speak with is no longer living. In those cases, although you cannot have a conversation with the deceased, you may still gain some closure by visiting their gravesite and speaking about how you feel. It may take several visits, but it worked for me!
Step away (kindly) from those who are harmful. Unfortunately, some people seem to enjoy making others miserable. (Many times, it’s these people who are hurting the most internally—although that does not make it ok for them to hurt others!) When you identify one of these folks, be nice, but don’t let them trample you. Maintain boundaries to protect yourself and your emotions in a kind but firm manner.
The Bottom Line: Conflict is an unavoidable part of life. No one is immune from pain, and even if someone looks happy on the outside, we all have our struggles! But although we may not always be able to choose our circumstances and we can’t change history, we do have a choice in how we respond. We can choose to let our unhappy pasts control us and make us (and others) miserable, or we can resolve to move forward, forgive, and strive to be happy. What choice will you make?
Mike DuBose, a former licensed counselor, is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been an instructor for the University of South Carolina’s graduate school since 1985, the year he began his family of companies. 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.