You probably know a few people who are stuck in bitterness. In big ways and small, you may be stuck there too. Bitterness is the seventh of the eight obstacles to healing from Childhood PTSD that I’m covering in my resilience series. I want to talk about what bitterness looks like, how to know if you’re “doing” it, and my suggestion to you if you are ready to be set free (though I think it might surprise you).
The bitterness of other people is all around us (think commenters on Twitter, Facebook and sometimes YouTube — even on my own channel sometimes!). But the bitterness that does the most harm is the kind that comes comes from within.
Bitterness is a frame of mind; we believe that some person, group or institution is bad, or that all people are bad or stupid, or that some category of people are idiots, or uncaring, or that the world is no good… and that we are the target, the victim.
There are times and places where for some people this is, tragically, all too true. We know from history that terrible things happen.
You may have heard me talk about some friends who survived a sudden attack in their town, perpetrated by one group upon another over ethnic and political differences. The two groups had lived side by side for generations, and then one day, one group ambushed their “enemies” with knives and kerosene, locking people in burning buildings and killing those who tried to escape. Hundreds were killed, This was in Kenya in 2008.
Two families who are friends of mine survived, but in each of the families, one of their children was severely wounded. Those kids went through years of hospitalization, surgeries and painful treatments in burn centers. while their families coped with a complete lose of property, livelihood, and the possibility of ever going safely home again.
In order to get better medical treatment for the kids, the families had to split up. Each child traveled with their mother to the US. The fathers and other siblings (young kids) had to stay behind, with no home or income.
The families were apart for five years. They had it hard. And if anyone might have turned bitter legitimately, it’s these friends of mine.
Yet they are anything but bitter. They hate what happened to them, and they’ve had to work hard to just deal with the reality that such evil could just spring up and destroy lives in this way. But their hearts are full of love and gratitude! They are solid, positive who can hardly pass an hour without talking about their gratitude and how to bring more good into the world.
Now these particular friends — they’re trauma may be different than mine or yours. Their hurts were at the extreme edge of survival, but their situations never involved parents turning their backs on kids. During hard times their instinct was to help each other and stick together, not attack and blame each other. These particular parents went to heroic efforts to reunite their families, keep their kids feeling safe and loved, and help them walk a positive path in life.
It’s been a huge blessing to me know these families so I could learn firsthand how people can overcome terrible events that I hope I will never have to experience myself. (Here is a link, by the way, to a book written by the father in one of those families about what happened, and how they survived it. He’s a really good man named Peter Mbuthia, and if you want to learn about his story that link will take you to his beautiful book on Amazon.)
My friends have mitigated the effects of this terrible trauma through a very strong love and coherence around their families. That’s not something I had growing up, and I know many of you didn’t either. When you don’t have that, traumas a lot smaller than what my friends went through can do just as much damage. It can break down our bodies and spirits, and if we get stuck like that — either waiting for our families to show that love, or getting stuck in bitterness that this love never came — then healing can be impossible.
Because it points wrath outward instead of inward, bitterness can be a tempting escape from despair. But happiness can never co-exist with bitterness. And soon life becomes very, very small.
I’ve had some periods of real bitterness about what happened to my family. Many died young and most of the surviving family members don’t want to be in touch — or not with me, anyway. I couldn’t tell you why. I would much rather we were all connected. It’s tempting to feel bitter sometimes, but what’s the point? It won’t bring them closer, and it would shut other people out. A bitter person is like a locked door. You want people to come in but they can’t.
When you open up to appreciate the good it changes you in that moment — you’re open. People find something lovely in you and they are drawn to you.
Sometimes things are so hard we can’t open the door, and yet we need to open the door, even when it’s scary, to allow in the good. If you can’t do it today, then set your sights on it. Keep trying, and as soon as you can, starting with little things, exchange your bitterness for the acknowledgement of the good that is already in your life.
When I was in Kenya, I went to towns where the roads were made of slippery mud and driving and walking were almost impossible. So I started with gratitude for asphalt. I am so grateful to live where there are paved roads and gutters, and nobody trying to burn my house down.
I imagine some of you want to set me straight and tell me your case is so bad you couldn’t possibly have gratitude. No matter what has happened in the past, though, you always have the power to bring your attention back to what is good.
Not everything is good — I know that! But start with one thing that IS good. and experience just a little bit of ease as you let that in.
Remember, being grateful doesn’t mean you put up with abuse, or accept unacceptable behaviors and situations. But if you’re going to be protected from harm, you’re going to need strength and part of where that comes from, is to know what’s good. If you keep seeking out and appreciating what is good, you eventually become a a connoisseur! Choosing bitterness, on the other hand, makes you all too good at noticing what’s wrong.
And then the abuser has won.
We don’t have to let that happen, not so long as we’re above ground and able to see and hear and notice the good.
Now you might feel scared or resistant to lose your bitterness, like it’s some kind of protection from disappointment or people trying to take advantage. And in this case I’ll point you to all the other articles and videos in this resilience series about how to deal with all the complications of being open to experience in life!
Now just in case you’re thinking — “Ha! This is all easy for you to say, you don’t know what I went through.” I’d say, first, it was worse for me than you might know and b) who cares?
We are all in need of healing. Me too. One little thing sets me off and bang! – I’m back in that bitterness, thinking that people are doing this to me. But I know the drill. I notice it’s happening, and stop and use my tools to release all that extra emotion and bring my reasoning mind back on line, so I can think and feel and see reality.
Reality is great, because when you can see it, you can decide what to do. This is something I talk about and teach you how to do in my Healing Childhood PTSD course, and if that’s something you want to learn there’s a link below where you can get all the details and register right now if you want.
So… if you’re feeling bitter, and you’re ready to start encouraging gratitude within yourself, what fills your life is hope. Not just “oh I hope I don’t end up alone all my life” but a total and permeating sense of hope, that whatever happens, you’ll figure out what to do.
You are needed here in this world. Your love and your gifts are making a difference, and we need more of that. So be brave with your healing, because I promise: When your Childhood PTSD gets better, everything is possible!
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