Depression, anxiety and anger management get a lot of press, but what about bitterness? Things seem to be looking up for the bitter among us: The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has considered classifying bitterness as a mental disorder. A statistic reported at a meeting of the APA was that around 2% of the population suffers from chronic bitterness. That’s potentially 120 million sour and angry people!
Bitterness is resentment combined with anger. A bitter person feels entitled to something he or she didn’t get; maybe something 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 that 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 just anger. It validates the sense that, “I KNEW it would be this way!” Without realizing it, bitter people can bring problems upon 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.
A person who expects everything to go badly attributes little importance to the things that actually go well. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy, where, often without being aware of it, one creates a terrible reality by assuming that reality is terrible.
The best way to overcome bitterness is to make a strong commitment to placing reality above feelings. By rising above raw emotions, one can discover the possible errors in them and view reality more accurately. Part of that is a commitment to NOT being a victim. Imagine going through life feeling the way a victim of an actual 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. For example, “She makes me so angry” becomes, “I get really angry at her behavior. I can respond 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 must commit to thinking differently. I can hear you thinking that that’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 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 original feeling of hopelessness becomes bitterness.
And 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 is it rational? What do past unsatisfactory experiences have to do with people you now know, or people you haven’t even met? The only connection is 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,” and “What kind of people do I want to surround myself with?” Victims feel like they have no choices, when in fact there are always choices. We have the power to confidently exercise those choices while recognizing we won’t always make the correct ones. It’s a healthy alternative to playing the victim, and it can help cure bitterness permanently.
Michael J. Hurd