Bitterness is, in many relationships, the root of all disharmony; its origins often seem mysterious, tied to events buried in the past, its nature is inherently irrational, and it seldom responds to comfort and reassurance. Likewise, few people are well-equipped to deal with this destructive force, whether it appears within themselves or a loved one, as it has been chronically under-studied and under-treated. It is thus often left to fester, acting like a slow poison which gradually seeds envy, jealousy, anger, and defensiveness.
Left too long, bitterness often gives rise to vicious arguments full of hurtful words, the kind that leave deep and lasting scars on relationships and which may ultimately precipitate their end. It is therefore important to recognize bitterness early on, and to approach it with the right mix of compassion, logic, and realism.
While expressions of bitterness tend to vary from person to person, in general, those struggling with chronic bitterness display the following traits:
Verbal Tirades and Hurtful Remarks
Often bitter people feel so slighted by the world that they resent others' happiness; this can lead to a hurtful tendency to “purge” their sense of injustice through verbally lashing out at others. While the bitter person may not always realize it consciously, he or she often in effect is attempting to lower others to his or her emotional level—enforcing a dysfunctional form of “fairness”.
The accumulation of anger and unresolved pain can eventually develop into true hatred. This hatred is not always interpersonal; bitter people may also funnel their anger into causes (such as hate-oriented groups). Either way, the feelings are often disproportionate to the situation or outright inappropriate.
No matter how often others may walk on eggshells, try to atone for perceived slights, etc., often a bitter person will continue to harbor at least some anger. Bitter people often seem, in general, impossible to “please”. This is due to the fact that the cause of their bitterness is no longer something present in the external environment; instead, it is the internalized remnant of old pain.
Due to the fact that bitter people see themselves as being victims, they have a difficult time experiencing gratitude and may lapse into periods of feeling sorry for themselves which may not align with their current situation (i.e. wallowing in self-pity even when things are going well).
When people are harboring stored-up anger, they inevitably wind up looking for releases for that anger, and if no release readily exists, they will create one—usually through initiating confrontations. Bitter people will sometimes resort to making inflammatory remarks, doing provoking things, etc., specifically to get a rise out of others. This, of course, only generates more bitterness over the long-term; the more people are (rightfully) frustrated with the bitter individual, the more he feels as though the world is against him. The person gets overwhelmed with anger. This can easily lead to a condition called anger overload, in children this condition triggers frequent meltdowns and temper tantrums.
In an effort to combat their perceived victim-hood (a state which is often accompanied by feelings of helplessness), bitter people are hyper-aware of perceived slights, and often seeks to act out retribution on those they believed have neglected, hurt, disrespected, or ignored them. While they might view this behavior as defensive in nature, it usually appears offensive and uncalled for, as the “crimes” which the bitter person believes have been committed against her may be either minor or completely imagined.
As the bitter person sees everyone else as being the problem, she is usually unreceptive to suggestions that she needs to change her own behavior, or that she is to blame for some of her own problems. Bitter people can be highly creative about finding ways to prove how it's “everyone else's fault”.
Envy and Resentment
Bitter people are far too mired in their own pain and anger to take any joy in the success or well-being of others—sometimes even when dealing with their own loved ones. Instead, they look at what other people seem to “have” and use it as more evidence to support their idea that they have been short-changed by life. They often fail to see how others have, in fact, earned their success fairly, or worked to attain a better quality of life. Bitter people feel entitled to what others have, even if they are too busy wallowing in self-pity to really try to attain the same things.
Bitter people are so consumed by their cycle of anger, self-destructive actions, guilt, and helplessness that they seldom have time to think of others' needs or wants. They are also often quite emotionally “needy”, without giving back in like kind.
Where Does Chronic Bitterness Come From?
As frustrating as bitterness is, and as inexplicable as the actions of some bitter individuals are, it's important to remember that chronic bitterness invariably springs from intense pain, from some manner of emotional injury that was severe enough to make the person “freeze” in a place of anger and hurt. Keeping this in mind is both better for the bitter person and better for the one trying to deal with him, as it helps the individual on the receiving end to understand that the behavior is not personal.
The emotional damage which provoked the bitterness may have been an event which was obviously traumatic in nature, or it may have been the cumulative effect of many years of maltreatment, such as through parental neglect or bullying by peers. In either case, once bitterness sets in, it is very hard to get rid of.
Dealing with a Bitter Person
In order to help a bitter person, realize the role his bitterness is playing in his life, creating problems and sabotaging friendships and relationships, you have to help him realize that he is indeed bitter and that his state is likely masking old pain. This, of course, is highly challenging, as it will involve him having to admit that he is part of the problem, something the vast majority of bitter people strongly resist doing.
In order to accomplish any real change, it's usually essential to help the bitter person to see that you are not his enemy; instead, you are there to act as an ally against bitterness, because it not only hurts you, it also hurts him. To do so, you will need to confront the bitterness—and not the person—repeatedly and calmly; for example, when he makes a hurtful remark, rather than arguing with him, try to see what in his past might have contributed to him reacting that way and patiently discuss the possible trigger with him. Alternately, you might try to explain why and how his hurtful behavior will come full circle to impact him negatively.
By separating the actions from the individual, you can help the bitter person see that he is not his behavior, and that his bitterness is neither his friend nor his protector; it's an insidious enemy, a slow poison which is gradually destroying his life.