Dealing with the ‘cancer’ of bitterness


– stop destroying yourself

Some years ago, we were excited to be moving house as a young couple. We decided to refurbish the chairs in our living room so that they would look nice and new. The task was given to a man I will call Zorad, who was recommended to us. Zorad came for the furniture and was to bring them back in three weeks. As is the norm, we made an advance payment to Zorad. We really trusted the highly recommended ‘expert’.

After the three-week wait had elapsed, we tried reaching Zorad – but his phone was either switched off or when it did ring he would refuse to pick up. We were sorely disappointed and our trust was broken. An author says, “Broken trust is like melted chocolate; no matter how hard you try to freeze it, it will never return to its original shape” – this describes exactly how we felt.

We did not know that Zorad would never return the items, and we stayed without furniture for a whole year. Finally, we decided we needed to get a new set. I was hurt by this turn of events and started harbouring bitterness, anger and plotting my revenge against Zorad. I was overwhelmed, however, by this nagging question, “How long was I going to be bitter and allow this negative emotion to control me?”

A statement I read off a wall somewhere said ‘bitterness is a prolonged form of suicide’. A bitter person is gradually eaten up by the cancer known as bitterness.

We all have the choice to live with bitterness, revenge and anger, and suffer the consequences on our health, our relationships and our lives.

The Cancer of Bitterness

We will focus our attention on one of the most destructive emotions, bitterness, which has ruined many lives, marriages, families, organisations and even nations. Let us first discuss some of the reasons people hold onto bitterness and move on to discussing how to prevent it. Lastly, we will provide some ways of dealing with it.

  • The first suggested reason is a ‘self-focused’ attitude. Many people become bitter when they think principally of themselves. When the “me, myself and I” mindset become the centre of everything, bitterness finds very fertile ground to grow and flourish.
  • The second reason many people find it difficult to deal with bitterness is that we have low self-awareness (we are unaware of the negative impact the cancer of bitterness has on our lives). We think, “We have been hurt and cannot let go even though we are suffering”. Many people pamper this deadly disease by walking in self-pity because they do not know they are destroying themselves.                                                                                                                 In a Concordia University study, researchers examined the relationship between failure, bitterness and quality of life. According to psychologist Dr. Carsten Wrosch: “Persistent bitterness may result in global feelings of anger and hostility that, when strong enough, could affect a person’s physical health. When harboured for a long-time, bitterness may forecast patterns of biological dysregulation (a physiological impairment that can affect metabolism, immune response or organ function) and physical disease”. Many mental disorders and psychiatric challenges are the result of negative emotions which are not well-managed.
  • Yet another reason is the lack of ability to confront issues and resolve conflicts. The inability to resolve conflicts can seriously lead to a bitter team and destroy trust, which is the glue that holds relationships together.

We cannot prevent people from offending us, but we can prevent the negative reactionary emotions by using the 3Rs – Realise, Recognise and Refuse as suggested by Kenneth W. Hagin in his book Avoiding the trap of being offended. These 3Rs suggested can protect us against harbouring bitterness.

  • The first R is to Realise that there is bitterness. We need to realise that bitterness will come our way and it is inevitable. However, whether we become entrapped and ensnared by it is a choice we need to make!
  • The second R is to Recognise the bitterness. If you cannot recognise this negative emotion called bitterness, it will be difficult to guard against it. According to Robert Cooper:Feelings provide us with vital and potentially profitable information every minute of the day. This feedback from the heart, and not the head, is what ignites creative genius, keeps you honest with yourself, shapes trusting relationships, provides an inner compass for your life and career, guides you to unexpected possibilities, and may even save your organisation from disaster”.
  • The third R is to Refuse to indulge your negative emotions. You can keep bitterness from gaining an entrance into your heart in much the same way you might refuse to open the front door to your home every time someone knocks. According to Daniel Goleman: “Great leaders move and ignite our passion. They inspire the best in us not by some idea, vision or strategy, but by their emotion and the ability to be a master over it. Your ability to be the master of your emotion, manage your stress, and control your moods will greatly influence your ability to lead and be successful in any work or interpersonal endeavour”.

To deal with bitterness, we might want to consider these two suggestions:

  • The first is our ability to confront issues and to resolve conflict. Learning to deal with conflict is an art that should be learnt. Conflicts are inevitable and are necessary in relationships and teams, but conflicts not well-resolved or ignored long enough will lead to broken trust, bitterness and thoughts of revenge or negative emotions.
  • The second and more powerful way to deal effectively with this deadly emotion of bitterness is forgiveness. According to Mahatma Ghandi, “The people weak in character cannot forgive. Forgiveness is for the strong”. Only the person who knows his value and is secure can easily forgive. To sincerely say “I forgive you” or “forgive me” reflects a state of inner security and inner strength. It does not in any way reduce you, but rather proves a healthy self-image.

The one who is emotionally intelligent, healthy and secure can easily forgive and ask for forgiveness, but the emotionally unhealthy person will continue to harbour bitterness and find it difficult to forgive. “Forgiveness is a power that liberates. It liberates first the one who is bitter and decides to forgive, then the one who has caused the bitterness, and finally all the people involved in the process.”

Learning to forgive is a mark of true maturity and humility, and truly shows our real value. Most of the time, people refuse to simply forgive. They will first ask for restitution before releasing those who have hurt them. The big question is: “who is the real victim here?” or “who is being destroyed by the bitterness?” Forgiveness has played a great role in the unity of many nations and in the healing of emotions and wounds in the lives of many people. The example of Nelson Mandela is a great example to us.

Zorad had happened to do some work for a colleague and was supposed to come and collect his cheque from my place of work. This was a real test for me. Almost two years had gone by since the incident, but seeing him again flooded my heart with all the negative emotions all over again. I was faced with the decision of letting these emotions overpower me or getting rid of them. It was unbelievable to have him sit begging before me for forgiveness. I mustered enough courage to tell him I had decided to forgive him. “You can keep the furniture but do not repeat this same trick with another person,” I told him.  What followed was unbelievable. He wept uncontrollably for over fifteen minutes while continuing to beg for forgiveness. By releasing forgiveness, both Zorad and I were liberated. However, I believe that the more liberated between the two of us was myself.

I have overcome that bitterness and I am now free!!!

>>>the writer is Founder and CEO of P&F Coaching International. He is also a Certified Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Coach, Consultant and International Facilitator. Patrick has trained over 800 Middle and Top Executives of 19 companies in more than 18 countries of Africa and Europe in leadership and Emotional Intelligence. [email protected]; [email protected]

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