Anger involves outrage followed by action, as you decide how best to handle your situation.
Bitterness can feel worse than anger because it involves feeling helpless. Referred to as ’embitterment’ in psychology circles, bitterness happens when you feel there is no action left to take because everything is out of your control.
While it might be true you can’t change what happened that has left you bitter — you can’t undo it if you were in an accident, or get back the promotion that your colleague won instead — you can take action to move forward in your life and away from bitterness.
Is overcoming bitterness worth the effort? Bitterness not only causes symptoms of trauma like sleeplessness, fatigue, and lack of libido, it can in the long term lead to low self-confidence, negative personality shifts, and an inability to have a healthy relationship. So it’s worth looking at.
[For more on the symptoms and effects of bitterness, read our article on “Why Bitterness is a Real Psychological Concern.”]
12 Ways to Overcome Bitterness
So what can you do if you are stuck in the bitterness trench and can’t climb out? Here are 12 ways to start dealing with your resentment.
1. Do a serious re-evaluation.
Bitterness thrives on sympathy. And often, in telling our story to others, we stop telling the truth to ourselves about what really happened and what is truly upsetting us.
Ask yourself good questions to dig deeper into facts and feelings. Journalling can be a great tool here (as can a counsellor who is trained at asking powerful questions).
What about the situation really upsets you when you go through it? What are the details that actually haunt you, versus what you tell your friends bothers you because they all agree it should?
If you were the victim of fraud, is it losing the money that has upset you, or is really being made to look stupid that has you bitter? Are you upset your partner left you for another, or is the truth that you wanted the relationship to end but are bitter that their new partner is wealthier or more attractive than you?
Re-evaluate the thing that was actually lost, too. Do you still want it? Is it still attainable? Or is it all something you really have long since outgrown?
You’d be surprised how many people hold a grudge over the loss of something they discover they no longer even want.
2. Put your story on hold.
As for that story about what happened to you – what would happen if, just or a week, or even a few days, you take a break from telling it?
Telling the story of what happened to you to those whose job it is to help you, or because you are trying to find new and positive ways to deal with your situation, is one thing. But telling the story of what happened to you again and again in a negative way to everyone you meet is often a form of keeping yourself stuck in victimhood.
It might be harder than you think to not mention what happened to you at all for some time, but give it a try. Enlist friends to keep you on track, or try putting a rubber band around your wrist and ‘pinging’ it just enough to cause you a sting each time you find yourself telling your story again. This is thought to train the brain away from entrenched patterns.
3. Take what responsibility you can.
As for that victimhood that your story generates – if you are a victim, you are helpless.
If can see your hand in things, it means you had power then, and still have it now.
Of course not all situations contain personal responsibility. If you are bitter that a loved one died in a senseless war, there is nothing you did to make that happen.
But many people who are bitter know they had a part in what took place, but are too ashamed to admit to it.
Remember, the point of acknowledging your responsibility in what transpired is not to blame yourself, which is counterproductive, but to reclaim your personal power.
if you are bitter that you lost a substantial amount of money in a scam, where there signs you chose to overlook, or research you knew you should have done but chose not to? Did you ignore warning signs and jump into an unwise relationship? Or ignore your friend’s warnings that your partner was a cheat?
4. Stop spying.
Unfortunately, today’s technology and social media provides the perfect fodder for bitterness if there are other people involved. Spying on the person who triggered your upset is really a form of self-torture that involves comparing yourself to others unfavourably, and inevitably it lowers self-esteem.
Spying on others can also be addictive. If you can’t stop spying, you might need support. Tell a good friend, seek a support group (if it’s an ex you are spying on, a love and romance addiction group could help, for example). If you feel out of control, you might want to talk to your GP who can refer you to a counsellor for a round of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
5. Face up to your hidden fears.
Bitterness often is a perfect disguise for a fear of change or of failing. If you deal with the fear, you won’t need the bitterness anymore.
For example, if you are claiming you will never do the PhD you dreamed of because you were scammed out of all your savings, you might discover that actually, you are terrified you aren’t smart enough to finish the PhD. Is it possible you are holding on to your bitterness about money when you could work on your confidence, take a student loan, and get on with your dreams?
6. Forgive – but only at your own pace.
Forgiveness is a great psychological release – but only if you are ready and it’s real.
Fake forgiveness can be a way of just denying how you feel, or even hold you back from processing emotions and situations.
(Read more in our article, 12 Reasons Why You Can’t Move On).
7. And don’t forget to forgive yourself, too.
This might be the hardest but most important part of moving on from bitterness.
It’s possible to hold on to bitterness for a long time so you can focus your anger on someone else, because the truth is you are furious at yourself, and that feels too hard to face.
Finding ways to reframe what happened in ways that show yourself compassion can be a great release.
If you feel overwhelmed at this thought, again, don’t be afraid to seek support. Bitterness is a hard thing for anyone to get over, and sometimes the strongest thing you can do is admit you need help. You might want to try a round of compassion-focussed therapy, a new kind of psychotherapy exclusively geared to help you be easier on yourself.
Or, start now by reading our article that explains 10 Ways You Can Show Yourself Compassion.
8. Step into the now.
Bitterness often consists of “dining out” on the awful thing that happened to you, and fantasising about revenge or thoughts of where you’d be now if things had gone differently. In other words, it lives in the past and the future.
Get into the now moment by concerning yourself with current opportunities and goals that are about you and a positive future.
One of the best techniques for staying now centred is mindfulness. A tool now used by many therapists with their clients, it trains you to constantly check in with your feelings, become conscious of the thoughts that are distracting you, and learn to notice the good things right in front of you.
9. Branch out.
Bitterness tends to fade in the face of excitement and joy – in other words, new and better experiences. Explore a longtime interest, re-connect with others, choose some new things to put into your life.
10. Set mini goals for yourself each day.
Bitterness is a powerful tide, and best intentions to do things like try new things and be mindful can soon be caught in its tug. The way around this is to not just make big goals, but also small goals every morning that keep you on the road away from bitterness.
From meditating for ten minutes to doing the research to find three possible schools that offer the language course you are interested in, make sure your goals are achievable. Feeling a failure is the opposite of what you want here. Use SMART guidelines for your mini goals just like you would with a larger goal.
11. Try a new perspective.
A mood of embitterment can have us seeing life from a very narrow perspective indeed. A great coaching tool to help you move forward in life is to imagine what the situation you are struggling with would look like from a different viewpoint entirely. Read our piece on How to Change Your Perspective for some great advice on seeing your life in all new ways.
12. Seek support.
Yes, we keep saying it. But the truth is that bitterness can be quite the battle to move on from. And sometimes the strongest tactic and easiest way forward is to accept help. If your friends and loved ones are great listeners with no agenda, perfect. But if you need an unbiased viewpoint and a place you don’t feel judged, again, try a support group or a counsellor or psychotherapist.
Do you have a tactic for letting go of bitterness we didn’t mention? Why not share it below?