Wallowing in the Lap of Bitterness

Bitterness feeds on the carcasses of festering memories.

Bitterness is rat poison we feed our memories. It’s the tedious self-torture of desolation row.

Bitterness cavorts with evil. It causes people to disown their children or to seek revenge, while it sends others off on maniacal shooting rampages. It shatters the political unity of great countries. And it ravishes joy with its lust for malice.

Bitterness is stupidly self-inflicted by people who refuse to be open to understanding, knowledge, and compassion. Even when bitter people manage to avoid doing evil to others, they do evil to themselves: They prefer to defile the carcasses of festering memories than to dance at the festival of life.

Our mind, when it lacks consciousness, can easily interpret old or new memories to conjure up negative emotions. Bitterness is produced when we indulge in these emotions until our splurge of intemperance scorches the soul. To make matters worse, we can hold on to those painful interpretations as if they were the family jewels. “That which is bitter to endure,” said historian Thomas Fuller, “may be sweet to remember.”

Some resolutely bitter people mindlessly jitter about on their tiny plot of moral decay, hardly knowing the range of freedom that extends beyond their emotional boundaries. Others can recognize their bitterness but are unable to divest themselves of it, in part because they believe their sullen rancor is a valid or legitimate reaction to what they perceive as the hurts and injustices inflicted by the cruel world and the malice of others.

“Whenever one finds oneself inclined to bitterness,” wrote social critic Bertrand Russell, “it is a sign of emotional failure.” Indeed, it’s a sign of emotional weakness and psychological ignorance. Bitterness is really just one symptom of how unconscious conflict in our psyche is processed. It’s one of the many forms of suffering we endure for not being sufficiently astute about the battleground of our psyche. It’s the path of least resistance to recycle old memories in such a way as to accumulate the negativity that in turn becomes bitterness. In other words, we’re active producers of certain negative emotions that produce our bitterness. What are some of these negative emotions?

We can produce bitterness when we react to emotional conflicts that involve inner passivity, loss, rejection, criticism, betrayal, abandonment, and feelings of being devalued. Let’s start with inner passivity. People can feel bitter about failures and disappointments in their careers. Their bitterness is usually directed at “bad luck” or the insensitivity of others, though at times it circles back to haunt us as self-condemnation or self-hatred. We attack ourselves for allegedly having been foolish, lazy, or stupid. Yet the real culprit behind our misfortune or failure is often inner passivity, which is our identification with a weakness in our psyche that causes our lack of initiative, vision, and drive.

Philosopher Paul Valéry described the bitterness produced through such passivity:

Latent in every man is a venom of amazing bitterness, a black resentment; something that curses and loathes life, a feeling of being trapped, of having trusted and been fooled, of being the helpless prey of impotent rage, blind surrender, the victim of a savage, ruthless power that gives and takes away, enlists a man, and crowning injury inflicts upon him the humiliation of feeling sorry for himself.

People entangled in such suffering are convinced they’re helpless pawns of larger forces that restrain and trap them in hopeless inertia. Their resentment accumulates over time until it finally boils over into bitterness. Any comfort they might find in the notion that their failure wasn’t their fault is overwhelmed by the inner need to blame others or circumstances for their plight. The pain of bitterness is inwardly accepted in order to produce a cover-up and maintain a semblance of self-respect.

The American Psychiatric Association had considered adding bitterness to its next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The condition would have been identified as a mental illness under the name “post-traumatic embitterment disorder.” This manual, the diagnostic bible of mental illnesses, is a list of emotional symptoms and their characteristics. Unfortunately, the manual fails to expose the source in our psyche of the many symptoms it identifies. So including bitterness in its pages would have done nothing to liberate people from the painful condition. It would, instead, inspire the pharmaceutical industry to produce another money-making pill.

As mentioned, bitterness is a product of emotional conflict in our psyche. Our intelligence and knowledge, not pills, liberate us from this pain. Take the example of people who become bitter over financial loss. When such loss becomes a painful, lingering emotion, the individual is indulging in the loss. He or she is emotionally entangled in the feeling of loss and won’t let go of that feeling, even though holding on to it is obviously painful. It’s not the loss in itself that’s causing the pain. It’s the individual’s unconscious determination to use the loss as a way to suffer. The following unconscious defense produces the bitterness: I’m not indulging in the feeling of loss; look at how bitter I am that the loss has occurred. (Note how, through our defenses, we’re determined to cover up what’s really going on.)

This individual, on one hand, wants to feel gain instead of loss; on the other hand, this person is unconsciously choosing, through the experience of loss, to suffer with old unresolved feelings of being deprived, of missing out on something of allegedly great value, and of being a lesser person because of the loss. Bitterness is a symptom of the unconscious wish to cling to this suffering.

We want to expose or make conscious this unconscious choice we’ve been making to suffer. When we expose this unconscious folly, we’re strengthened emotionally. We see the inner “games” of self-suffering and self-defeat. Now, as we absorb this new awareness, we’re able to step away from our emotional entanglement in inner conflict and liberate ourselves from bitterness.

The same principles apply when people feel bitter over experiences of rejection, criticism, betrayal, and abandonment. We begin to recognize our participation in the cultivation of these negative feelings. If, for instance, we felt rejected as children, we’ll be inclined to replay this emotion in the new contexts of our life. We’ll actually expect rejection and go looking for it. For instance, we feel when pursuing a romantic relationship that we sincerely want love—but unconsciously we can be stalking the old familiar rejection.

We can sometimes feel that holding on to our bitterness is a fight for justice. In other words, if we drop our bitterness we’ll thereby acquit the cruel, insensitive person or persons who contributed to our suffering. This is a rationalization for our wish to hold on to our suffering.

Some experts believe that forgiveness is an antidote for bitterness. Sometimes forgiveness of others is appropriate, but often such forgiveness in itself fails to recognize our own role in having created a bad situation in the first place. (Read, “The Mayo Clinic’s Bogus Psychology.”)

Finally, vanity or egotism can contribute to bitterness. Our vanity and self-centeredness make us easily offended at even minor slights. As these offenses pile up, we’re likely to become bitter. Here we want to understand that vanity and egotism are byproducts of underlying self-doubt. We’re sensitive to feeling devalued because, deep down, we harbor self-doubt in our psyche. We can become upset and then bitter when others, from our perspective, treat us with disrespect. The bitterness arises, though, because of our emotional attachment to feeling disrespected.

Our existence is precious. We know this truth and feel it when we liberate ourselves from vanity and unresolved negative emotions. This achievement washes away all bitterness.