Don’t Let Your Anger “Mature” Into Bitterness
Bitterness: What’s Its Cause, Cost, and Cure?
Posted Jan 14, 2015 Psychology Today
The Cause of Bitterness
All bitterness starts out as hurt. And your emotional pain may well relate to viewing whomever (or whatever) provoked this hurt (generally, your assumed “perpetrator”) as having malicious intent: As committing a grave injustice toward you; as gratuitously wronging you and causing you grief. For anger—and its first cousin, resentment—is what we’re all likely to experience whenever we conclude that another has seriously abused us. Left to fester, that righteous anger eventually becomes the corrosive ulcer that is bitterness.
Fellow Psychology Today blogger, Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., defines bitterness as “a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment,” and deservedly regards it as “one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions.” I’d add that if we repeatedly ruminate over how we’ve been victimized, our “nursing” our wrongs may eventually come to define some essential part of who we are. Take hold of our very personality. And so we’ll end up becoming victims not so much of anyone else but, principally, of ourselves.
Such is the inevitable result of becoming obsessed with blaming someone (or something) else for our misery—rather than refusing to permit external hindrances or setbacks from blocking us from pursuing our goals. But frankly, it’s all too easy to hamper ourselves by falling into the trap of righteously obsessing about our injuries, or outrage. For doing so—and proclaiming our innocence and virtue in the face of such deeply felt abuse—does afford us the gratification of feeling that we’re better than, or morally superior to, the source of our wrongs.
The Cost of Bitterness
Yet the benefits of retreating into acrimonious victimhood—or rather, “defaulting” to the stance of woeful bitterness—invariably carries a high price tag. It can:
- Prolong your mental and emotional pain—and may even exacerbate it;
- Lead to long-lasting anxiety and/or depression;
- Precipitate vengeful (or even violent) acts that put you at further risk for being hurt or victimized—and possibly engulf you in a never-ending, self-defeating cycle of “getting even” [And in this respect, see my earlier post: “Five Biggest Problems with Revenge and Its Best Remedies.”];
- Prevent you from experiencing the potential joys of living fully in the present—vs. dwelling self-righteously on the past wrongs inflicted on you;
- Create, or further deepen, an attitude of distrust and cynicism—qualities that contribute to hostility and paranoid thinking, as well as an overall sense of pessimism, futility, and unhappiness. Moreover, such a bleak, negative perspective prompts others to turn away from you;
- Interfere with your cultivating healthy, satisfying relationships, and lead you to doubt, or disparage, your connection to others;
- Compromise or weaken your higher ideals, and adversely impact your personal search for purpose and meaning in life;
- Rob you of vital energy far better employed to help you realize your desires, or achieve goals that you coveted earlier;
- Undermine your physical health (by engendering such problems as insomnia, high blood pressure, back pain, headaches, or abdominal conditions). For the chronic anger that is bitterness can raise your stress baseline, thereby taxing (or “overloading”) your immune system;
- blind you from recognizing your own role, or responsibility, in possibly having been vindictively harmed by another; and
- by keeping you in a paradoxical state of “vengeful bondage,” erode your sense of well-being.
“Bitterness is unforgiveness fermented.” (Gregory Popcak)
Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has additionally taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant both to corporations and publishers.