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By Dr. Gregory Popcak, Catholic Exchange, March 28, 2019
No one wants to be bitter. It sneaks up on us. Bitterness is unforgiveness fermented. The more we hold onto past hurts the more we become drunk on our pain and the experience can rob us of the joy we can find in anything. Bitterness occurs when we feel someone has taken something from us that we are powerless to get back. We hold on to the hurt in an attempt to remind ourselves and others of the injustice we’ve experienced in the hopes that someone will save us and restore what we’ve lost.
Unfortunately, bitterness only makes our sense of the injustice grow. It does nothing to heal the wound caused by the injustice. In fact, it causes the wound to become infected with anger.
Bitterness: Wrath’s Little Sister
Bitterness is wrath’s little sister. Where anger can be just and moral if it propels us to seek solutions for the wrongs we have experienced or witness, wrath is a deadly sin because it becomes anger that feeds on itself and adds to wreckage caused by the original wound. Bitterness does this too, but instead of burning down the house with everything we value still inside, bitterness is quieter, slowly poisoning our life until we lose it one joy at a time.
Here are some things you can do to start overcoming bitterness.
Forgiveness does not mean pretending everything is “OK.” It doesn’t mean forgetting the hurt either. According to St. Augustine, forgiveness is simply the act of surrendering our desire for revenge; that is, our desire to hurt someone for having hurt us. Forgiveness is the gift we give ourselves that enables us to stop picking at the scab and start making a plan for healing.
2. Make a plan
Forgiveness allows you to free up the energy you need to begin healing the wound. If the person who hurt you is willing to work with you, begin mapping out exactly what changes or effort you would need to see from that person to let you know that it is safe to reconcile. If you are on your own, focus your energy on making a plan for how will you strive to regain as much of what was lost/taken from you as possible. The more you strive to find alternative ways to recoup your losses, the less bitter you will feel even if the hurt persists.
It can be tempting to give into feelings that “there’s nothing I can do” but resist the temptation. In fact, if you feel this way and can’t think of solutions, talk to a professional to check your math before deciding that you just need to grieve your loss. If, after consultation, you find that there really is nothing you can do to reclaim what was lost or taken from you, focus your energy on developing new goals that will help you reconstruct a compelling future.
3. Stop Dwelling and Retelling
When we are hurt, we have a tendency to turn the painful events over and over in our head or tell anyone who will listen about our pain—even over and over again. It is fine to talk to people we think can help us heal the hurt, facilitate reconciliation or help us rebuild our lives, but other than that, we should do what we can to stop dwelling on the story of our injury ourselves and stop speaking of it so freely to others. W
hen we are tempted to “dwell or retell” the best course of action is to refocus on what we can do — today — to take at least some small step toward refining or actualizing the plan we’ve developed in Step 2. The more you are focused on solutions, the less you will experience the sense of powerlessness that comes from ruminating on the hurt.
4. Seek Grace
It can be next to impossible to heal some wounds without God’s grace. Bitterness causes us to shun God’s grace in favor of obsessing over the wound.
If you are holding on to bitterness I encourage you to take it to confession. Please don’t be insulted by the suggestion; I know that you are the victim and you have a right to your pain. Still, holding on to anything except God’s love, mercy and healing grace can separate you from God and the life he wants us to have. Confession can open your heart to receive the healing that God wants to give you. It can help you surrender the pain and powerlessness and begin to discover new options.
Stop hoarding your hurt. Make your desire for healing official by taking your tendency to dwell in the powerlessness to the confessional and seek the grace to leave it there.
5. Seek Professional Help
If the bitterness won’t let go even after you’ve tried all of the above, it’s time to seek professional help. Working with a professional can help you see possibilities that your pain has blinded you to and give you new tools to heal the wounds that are holding you back. If you have a faithful professional in your area that you have worked with before, it may be time to reconnect. If not, I would like to invite you to contact me through the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about our telephone counseling practice.
Healing is possible with the right resources. Hebrews 12:5 says, “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” You don’t have to be bitter or consumed by feelings of powerlessness and sadness. Take action today to cooperate with the grace God is giving you to break free of the bonds of bitterness. You can discover that with God’s help, there is so much more to life than pain.