Imagine a tree which has been planted over an object. The tree’s roots will eventually wrap itself around this object, penetrating any open spaces so that over time, the object and the roots become indistinguishable from one another, and you cannot separate them without destroying the object, the roots or both.
This is bitterness. It is a nasty, corrosive, destructive feeling. The object is hurt, anger, frustration or pain which your heart grows into and around. At some point, you must excise both the object and the roots. Fair enough, but how?
It takes a good amount of desire and persistence to rid your life of bitterness. Think about how you became bitter in the first place, even if it is about something small because those roots never stop growing and you may wake up with a very serious bitterness problem if you aren’t careful. With serious reflection, you can begin to dig into the ground to get rid of bitterness.
If you’re reading this thinking, “I’m not bitter about anything”, firstly, I’m envious that you are bitter-free and secondly, I suggest reading because you may be able to pass this on to someone who can use it. Plus, you never know what information will turn itself into a personal resource one day. It’s possible, as well, that you may also be in denial of your bitterness.
As with all healing, admitting there is a problem is the first step.
I’m still bitter about something that happened in sixth grade. I’m not sure it really affects my life, but in my head it stands as the first time I felt personally assaulted by an unfair situation that I could not control. So every time I feel out of control and burdened by it, I’m reminded of when another girl cheated to win Class President. It still makes me hot inside.
Then, of course, there is the greater burden of bitterness from which I currently suffer. I’m hoping that in sharing it with all of you, you will be able to follow me in the path to forgiveness and, ultimately, peace.
Sixth grade bitterness if fairly simple and I think I just hang onto it for comedy’s sake. I think it would still pain me to be kind to her if I came across her. What you’re probably thinking is “let it go!” and I kind of want to, but that instance serves as a reminder that people who seem nice, aren’t always nice and the people most deserving don’t always win. I also learned that people cheat and sometimes there isn’t anything you can do about it. I chose to be bitter; others might have chosen another path. I didn’t run for office again until sophomore year of high school and then, I ran unopposed. The second time I ran against someone else, I lost again. Debilitating for my self-esteem as it was, I didn’t hold a grudge against the winner this time, but mostly because he didn’t cheat. I also was able to take solace in the fact that he wasn’t a very good class president. As for the sixth grade cheater, she came into the bar I worked at about eight years ago and was utterly unrecognizable. When she told me her name, I was so astonished that anything I might have said to her about the election swiftly flew from my brain. But the bitterness remained. I overcharged her entry and pocketed the difference. It made me feel better.
Unfortunately, present-day bitterness doesn’t have such a simple solution. I moved to Israel because I met the man of my dreams who would one day become my husband. He’s everything I was looking for, he just didn’t live where I wanted to live. We decided we would stay in Israel until he finished his job. The longer I stayed, the more I started feeling angry that I was missing out on so many things in the United States. I missed birthdays, engagements, weddings, fun weekends, New Year’s, and Halloweens. I was missing all these memories my friends and family were making without me and I didn’t feel like I was making my own; mostly because we weren’t. There was no reflection of my life in the US when I was living abroad. The only thing in common was me and I was becoming less and less of me the longer I stayed away. I felt like I was wasting two good years of working and saving because the jobs I could work there paid dismally.
I was frustrated constantly by almost everything. Even now, I find it difficult to maintain patience with a system when I am unable to succeed. I used to be able to approach a trying situation with a cool head and find the best solution. I got to a point living abroad where I couldn’t complete any simple action alone, like making a doctor’s appointment or mailing a package home. It’s incapacitating to take away one’s function in a society and every inconsistency frustrated me to no end. I won’t rant about the banking system; aside from being ludicrous, it is inefficient and illogically organized.
These feelings of anger and frustration continued to grow unabated because instead of being able to deal with them through various forms of infrastructure like friends, family, religion, or exercise, as I was used to doing in the United States, I was isolated and alone fighting a losing battle against an enemy I couldn’t see and couldn’t hope to vanquish.
I hoped, fruitlessly, that when I returned to the United States to live, I would be able to shake off these feelings. Anger and frustration simply would not go away. Even when I was able to go to the bank at 2:30 in the afternoon without checking if it was open because I knew it would be, I was plagued by latent anger that once I hadn’t been able to do it. Anger and frustration caused physical pain which was still bothering me and stopping me from completing certain tasks like getting out of bed or going to the gym, which would surely make me feel better.
I had to reevaluate what was happening to me. Why wasn’t I happy here when all the things which caused anger and frustration were far, far away?
While researching this to see what others had to say I found someone had written that bitterness is the result of powerlessness in the face of anger. If that doesn’t hit the nail on the head, I’m not sure what else does.
I had let the feelings grow and mature into bitterness. Once I had recognized that I was bitter, I wanted to rid myself of those destructive feelings. As I said before, this is easier said than done. But, if I ignore the bitterness, it will surely continue to grow and one day will rear its ugly head when I am least expecting it. Bitterness will surely ruin more than just memories or a casual encounter with a past acquaintance. Bitterness can cripple one’s life, driving away those we love and making us unable to move forward to a new and happy place. It is important to remember anger and frustration simply to contrast it with love and fulfillment. If you have pushed the extremes of unhappiness, your capacity for happiness is equally as distant from static so suffering isn’t all for naught. It’s not much comfort at the time, but there it is: silver-lining.
Dealing with bitterness begins with admitting that you’re bitter. It’s such an ugly characteristic so many people will deny it simply to avoid aligning oneself with a distasteful trait. It’s much simpler and faster, though, if you can find a way to say, “Yes. I’m bitter. There I’ve said it. And it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The road diverges here. Have you identified the source of your bitterness and gotten rid of it? In my case, I left Israel and moved back to the United States, albeit with alternative consequences. So the source is no longer layering anger at powerlessness upon itself. But, the bitterness grows. If your source of bitterness is ever present and your feelings of anger at powerlessness are growing and building, you have to find a way to combat it. If you cannot simply remove the cause, then fight it. Find ways to empower yourself daily and celebrate the times when you feel strong, when you’ve taken control of your life. Sometimes it can be expressed as something small like making a positive choice or avoiding a negative one. Revel in your accomplishments because combating powerlessness is a daily battle. It’s easier to avoid a negative choice, but proactively choosing a positive choice is more difficult, but by no means impossible. Choose! Act! Celebrate!
If your bitterness has been lingering over a past action or situation in which you have already removed the source, but the roots of bitterness have continued to grow, you must make a decision. You must decide to empower yourself with the ability to let go and forgive. In some cases, life or circumstance is the cause for bitterness. Some people attribute this to God. In other cases, you can point to a particular person or institution as the root of your anger or frustration. It is comforting to retain this bitterness because with it, you feel like you are punishing the other person. News flash: You’re the one who continues to suffer. Bitterness can actually turn into physical pain, which the “source” of your bitterness does not feel. You do. So the idea that holding onto your bitterness inflicts some sort of consequence on the cause is completely unfounded. Only you can choose to let go. It will feel so good, but it will be so hard. Don’t go into this thinking that all you have to do is say enough! I forgive you! You have to make constant decisions, sometimes daily, to let it go. Every time bitterness starts creeping up, you have to cut it off at the starting point. It’s not about pushing it down, because bitterness will grow and grow until the surface is the only place it has left to go. Bitterness will come out. You have to deal with it, daily if necessary. Eventually it will become easier to forgive. Eventually you will have forgiven and your bitterness will be gone. But, this is a battle that cannot be won in a few days.
If you feel yourself becoming bitter, stop. You may need to verbally tell yourself to stop. Imagine the roots and you are hacking away at them. They will simply continue to grow if you ignore them. You must confront bitterness when and as it arises.
The next step is to continue to empower yourself so feelings of powerlessness go away. Recognize every time you are powerful, when you make a decision for yourself. If something large and obtrusive stands in the way of accomplishing your goals, find another way. I like to believe that there are always possibilities.
If you find yourself pushing a large rock and it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, you might find you’re trying to push it through a wall. Some efforts will always go unrecognized and prove fruitless. It’s the way of life. Abandon those efforts. When you keep trying and trying and trying, sometimes giving up is your first step to success. It certainly was in my case. I know there are many people who think I gave up and that I should have stayed in Israel; but they weren’t in my shoes. Similarly, you’re the only person who has to walk your path. It’s up to you to decide when it’s time to say enough. When you do, you’ll find satisfaction in having made a decision that conserved your resources and stopped you from expending them in an unrewarding mission.
Fill your time with activities you find rewarding and meaningful. There is a vast resource on the internet if you’re looking for a new hobby. I suggest geocaching; it’s easy and relatively cheap. Perhaps a book club is your style or a cooking class. Perhaps you’d be happy with a part-time job or volunteering. Maybe you need to learn a new skill. Find a new passion and engage in it wholeheartedly. The results are at least two-fold: you find contentment and success as well as battling powerlessness because you’ve chosen this path and found success in it. Revel!
A final thing you must do to combat bitterness is the hardest, by far, and is the subject of blogs, books, radio, talk shows, bible studies, classroom lessons, sermons, storybooks, and countless other mediums.
From forgiveness, we can glean understanding. Once we understand why something happened, or can see a positive result from something we see as a negative impact on our lives, we are able to come to terms with it. Until that time, it is difficult to understand why we were made so powerless. For now, you’ve got tools and I would even suggest searching the subject of bitterness because there are many other tools to fighting bitterness, but it’s important that you do. Nobody wants to be a bitter old bitty. At some point, people will begin to avoid you and you’ll be left all alone with your bitterness. It is imperative that you do something and the time has never been better than right now.