Bitterness. Even just the word tastes bitter to say. What does it look like? Why do we experience and feel it? And most importantly, how do we get past it?
I can effectively speak to this topic because I know it so deeply and fully. Bitterness has been an extremely stiff challenge for me. It’s something that several times over a 2 year period I thought I’d gotten rid of, and then out of no where it would creep back in. It eats at you, it haunts you, it controls you, and it hurts you. Think about it.. how are you supposed to forgive someone who ran all over you, hurt you physically and emotionally, destroyed your inner self, controlled every aspect of your life, hurt your family and friends, hurt THEIR family and friends, stole from you, lied to you, was unfaithful to you, abused your animals, undermined you as a parent, and ripped you off from life? Obviously everyone’s experiences are different. But no matter how you were abused – there is likely some level of bitterness, and possibly even hatred, burning inside. Figuring out what to do with it is a God thing.
Bitterness is rooted out of unforgiveness. (Ephesians 4:31-32) In my case, I kept trying and trying and trying to forgive. I wanted to forgive. I thought I *had* forgiven. I asked God for help in forgiving. But somehow I kept seething in bitterness; anger and rage ran through my veins at boiling temperatures. My teeth would grind and I would find myself struggling to function some times because it was so heavy and dense. When I was far enough removed from my abuser, I was much better. However there were a few instances that triggered the bitterness to return.
- PTSD experiences
- Having to see him or be around him
- Anytime he would do something that further solidified who he really was
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”Ephesians 4:31
During the time of being abused, I had developed what’s known as Stockholm Syndrome – a phenomenon in which, in this particular case, the abused victim creates an attachment to the abuser and spins their wheels trying to please their abuser and actually forms an alliance with them. This is because subconsciously the victim is trying to avoid further abuse, so the belief is that if they praise, adore, obey, serve, cater to, and publicly affirm their abuser it will ward off the affliction. It’s not a conscious effort – it’s a survival tactic that our brain uses. The problem is that it rarely actually works. What it does is make the abuser more abusive in one of two ways: 1) The compliance removes the challenge needed to obtain control and power, so the abuse may become more forceful so that they elicit the fear they desire to see or 2) the abuser sees the compliance as a win and further controls to the 10th degree, above and beyond because now they have you where they want you, so they use you even more. The end result is often either classic or complex PTSD. InquiriesJournal.com has a great research article explaining the relationship between abuse and Stockholm Syndrome and PTSD. In my case, I developed Complex PTSD and then when I finally got out, I retained classic PTSD symptoms which landed me in therapy for almost 2 years. (I’ll post an article soon on these two conditions.) In looking back, I felt rage and violation when I considered all the ways I bent over backwards to try to make life perfect for my abuser and it was never good enough. The damage that was done to my brain as a result of everything that happened was more than I could cognitively process in one sitting – so I ruminated and wallowed in anger, rage, hatred, and bitterness because there was NOTHING I could do to make him pay for what he did to me and how he treated me. I continued to pray and lay it all before the Lord and for a short time after doing so I would be okay. Then I would have to see him. Breathing his air made me want to vomit. The sight of him made me want to hurt him. The sound of his voice made me want to scream to drown him out. None of this is consistent with the Spirit of the Lord. But God knows I tried to get rid of it. So……… how did I?
Step 1) Pray
I know, I know. It sounds so simple and cliche. But I PROMISE you it’s not. For a long time I did pray… alot.. and for a very long time NOTHING changed –or at least, nothing stuck. At first I didn’t know how to pray because I was so angry. So I just sat there quietly, not even formulating words. I would just feel. One of the beauties of having a relationship with the Lord is that you don’t always have to know what to say. Sometimes, just sitting quietly and being emotionally transparent is enough to draw you closer. Then eventually I moved from just feeling angry to actually SAYING “God I’m angry…. I don’t want to forgive him.. and I don’t want to pray for him” – again.. being open and honest is the path to healing.. then praying this way long enough I went from ” I don’t want to” to “I want to, but I don’t think I can.” Then eventually “I want to, but I need your help. I don’t know how.” — Are you picking up what I”m laying down? The longer I spent in the presence of the Lord being honest, the more His spirit worked in me to move me in line with His heart. This process took just shy of 2 years. And even now as I write this – it’s still a little shaky at times. Several times I would take 2 steps forward and 1 step back, but I continued to trek forward, knowing that I wanted to get rid of the bitterness because it was literally making me sick. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. Galatians 5:22. Bitterness in your soul can be replaced by letting the Spirit take it’s roots again.
Step 2) Meditate
Yes, meditate. Not like Hindu-Yoga-Man type meditation. I’m talking about sitting quietly, and noticing your surroundings, and learning to let your thoughts pass. Breathing deeply and calmly and intentionally. Meditation has become a go-to for emotional distress. I learned to meditate in college, but for some reason got out of the habit. When you begin to meditate, find a very quiet place, sit comfortably and progressively relax every inch of your body starting from your head and going all the way down to your toes. Visualize that part of your body and intentionally relax it, noticing every sensation you feel. Then when you’re completely relaxed, notice the relaxation in the fullness and experience and notice every passing moment. As thoughts come into your head, acknowledge it and let it pass. Don’t hold on to the thought, and don’t give judgement to the thought. Notice it, and let it go. As your mind wanders – because it will – guide it back to an anchor like breathing or a sensation in your body or a sound. This practice helps train your mind to let your thoughts come and go without having any hold on you. You control your mind, it doesn’t control you. Therefore, when you practice this, you’ve trained your brain so that when you have painful thoughts and memories pop up in your day, you can effectively let it pass without it affecting you. It enables you to leave the past where it belongs – IN THE PAST. There’s an actual science behind this. Check out Headpsace.com for simple guides and practices.
Step 3) Learn
Learn everything you can about the type of person your abuser is. Learn about patterns, personality types, parallel stories, psychology.. and learn about yourself. Observe your own responses and behaviors and recognize how you interact with others. Learn how you enable, learn your fears and face them. Learning all of these things equips you to unpack your experience and get a better understanding of what actually happened. It validates your experience and it gives it a name and description. Seeing your abuser as a flawed human can assist in the process of forgiveness, as well. Learn also how you’ve grown, and recognize your own strengths that this process has developed in you.
Step 4) Find the silver lining
Several times I thought I had forgiven my abuser, and but the bitterness remained. When I started unpacking my experience and trusting that everything happens for a reason, things slowly started floating to the surface. I was so tempted to hate him forever. But I realized that because of what I went through, and the journey afterwards, I am stronger, wiser, more of a person than I ever was, more confident, and more at peace than I have ever been. I learned so much about myself and I learned so much about how God loves me that it really helped me see the good that came from all the nastiness. I also came out with two beautiful daughters, and my life calling that I received 13 years ago is coming to fruition *because* of what happened. So resentment and bitterness have no place among any of this. Thankfulness that you’re out and gratitude for everything the future is what belongs there.
Step 5) Persistence – Don’t give up
I continued to pray “God please take this bitterness – I don’t want it.” over and over and over. During this time my pastor even preached a sermon on bitterness! God was confirming in so many ways that He was working on me. Our hearts are hard and our brains are hardwired to seek safety. Forgiving someone and letting go of bitterness is not safe. At all. It’s almost as if we see holding on to bitterness as a self-defense mechanism or validation of what we went through..
So in conclusion – Pray and ask God to help you – and do it over and over and over without giving up. Meditate – and do it over and over until it’s a normal habit. The habit flows over into your daily life and makes memories and emotional strong-holds easier to let go of. Learn about abuse and abusers and realize that this is a personal problem for them and they will have to answer to God for not working on it. Don’t let their problem hold you down all of your life. Find the silver lining – let God show you all of the refining that He did while you were in the fire, and allow Him to show you the beauty from ashes. You are one amazing human being for coming out on the other side. Don’t let bitterness continue to control you or you’re no better off than you were while you were there. Keep asking God to take it from you!
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”Philippians 4:6
To be clear, this list is *NOT* exhaustive! There are many different stages to go through, and ways to release this bitterness. What has helped you overcome your anger and bitterness? Leave a comment – your answers may help someone else!
- Inquiries Journal – Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. The Relationship Between Stockholm Syndrome and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Battered Women
- Headspace.com – Meditation 101 – What Is Meditation?