Confronting the High Cost of Bitterness

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Do you recognize these 9 characteristics of a bitter person? Have you experienced the toll that bitterness can take on relationships? The real secret to dealing with bitterness is learning to let go.

There is perhaps no greater challenge than dealing with bitterness. There is no rationality to it. And often there appears no way to assuage it. The toll bitterness can take on relationships is legend. And bitterness is also poison for the person who harbors it. Yet, our understanding of this all too common phenomenon and how to deal with it effectively is still woefully inadequate.

The word bitter comes from the ancient Greek meaning “sharp or pointed.” And as anyone who has been on the receiving end of a bitter person with a penchant for ‘sharp-tongued’ remarks knows, words — especially carefully crafted, hateful, scornful words — can often cut quite deeply.

Persons harboring bitterness frequently display the following characteristics:

Verbal and Emotional Cruelty
A bitter person might temporarily purge their inner hurt and anger by saying things and doing things that hurt the feelings of others. Somehow, it makes the bitter individual feel better for a minute to see someone else suffer as they perceive themselves to be unfairly suffering.
Sometimes feelings of anger and inner pain rise to the level of genuine loathing. The more chronic or intense the bitterness a person has, the more likely they are to develop feelings of hatred.
Sometimes, there is simply no pleasing a bitter person. Although others might be manipulated at times into attempting to soothe the pain they’re in, the bitter person cannot really be placated by an external source because the root of their unhappiness is strictly internal.
The bitter person often feels cheated by others and short-changed by life in general. It’s almost impossible for such a person to experience genuine gratitude because of how much they feel they’ve been denied their due. They often feel so sorry for themselves that it’s very hard for anyone else to feel sorry for them.
When a person is chronically bitter, they’re often in the process of looking for a fight. If no immediate opportunity exists for a battle, they might just provoke one. They’ll say or do something to get a ruckus started. After it’s over, they feel a little better, while almost everyone else is only embittered toward them.
Frequently on the lookout for perceived slights, bitter people often look for ways to get back at those they view as having neglected, abused, disrespected, or ignored them. Vengeful and spiteful, they seek to cause anguish in the lives of those whom they view as being insufficiently caring or concerned about them.
Pathological Pride
From the bitter person’s point of view, it’s the world that’s done them wrong and deserves the full expression of their righteous wrath. Bring their hateful behavior to their attention, and attempt to get them to see how it’s led to their alienation from others, and you’ll only find yourself proving their point about how uncaring, insensitive, and hurtful others can be.
Animosity and Resentment
It’s hard for the bitter soul to experience joy at the success or well-being of others. Instead, the bitter person views the good fortune of someone else as more evidence that they have not been given a fair shake themselves.
Infantile Narcissism
The bitter person simply cannot see beyond their immediate wants. They are inherently emotionally needy. And the intensity of their neediness severely impairs their capacity to be mindful of the needs and feelings of others.

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Bitterness settles in when someone encapsulates and ‘freezes’ in place anger over emotional injuries that were suffered in the past. Many times, however, the bitter person’s perception of injury and the extent of their angry response to the original insult seem grossly out of proportion to the reality of circumstances, which argues for a constitutional component to the development of bitterness. And once bitterness sets in, it can easily become consuming. It’s a most dour frame of mind and heart that colors our perspectives and influences our actions. It makes us do and say the most irrational and self-defeating things. Yet despite how much we are better off without it, once bitterness takes hold, it’s very hard to get rid of it.

Reckoning with bitterness is a most delicate art. The person who already feels unduly mistreated and misunderstood cannot help but have a hard time being receptive to the notion that there’s ultimately something wrong with them. Confronting the bitter person is perhaps the most touchy and risky enterprise you’ll ever undertake. But as stressful as it might be, such a confrontation is preferable to enduring a relationship that maintains the status quo. As difficult as life is for those in relationships with bitter people, it’s worse for the bitter person himself. Life for the afflicted individual can’t really begin until they find it in their heart to let go of what’s been eating away at them. So, if you’ve been dealing with a bitter person, and you really care, try mustering the courage to lovingly, respectfully, but firmly confront the bitterness head on. After all, the bitter person is not your enemy. The bitterness itself is the real culprit — for both of you. And don’t expect a warm reception or immediate results. Just like the bitter person needs to do with his own encapsulated and frozen anger, you also have to just let that go.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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