Overcoming Bitterness: 5 Steps for Healing the Hurt that Won’t Go Away

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 begin to overcome bitterness.

1.  Forgive

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.  The book, The Life God Wants You to Have:  Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail can be a tremendous help for figuring out what God is calling you to work toward in the next chapter of your life.


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.  When 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 separates 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 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.


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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • padrejfx

    This really hit home for me today. I’ve been dealing with an issue from three years
    ago that won’t go away. And what makes it all the worse is that I am a
    priest. I speak about forgiveness and mercy yet there is a hurt really deep in
    me that I can’t seem to reconcile or just accept for what it is. I
    keep running over in my mind what I could’ve, should’ve been done or even what
    I can do now. I have sought professional help in the past but for
    some reason it is short lived. What is really bothersome is the simple
    fact that no matter who I speak to regarding my issue I feel I will never be
    justified in what happened to me. It seems I will never be able to really
    speak my mind over the situation for the simple fact that I really don’t want
    to see this particular person anymore and it also involved a brother priest and
    my diocese and bishop. It’s contradictory for me as a priest to be this way. I preach, and preach, and preach, yet it can be so difficult to follow my own words of advice!!! I will do my best to follow your plan here, Dr. Popack. Thank you.

  • http://www.wondering2004.wordpress.com/ Heather Marsten

    Excellent post and suggestions. A few more thoughts about forgiveness. It doesn’t have to be perfect forgiveness at the start. When I began to forgive my abusers, I first had to ask God for the willingness to forgive. then bit by bit, I began to forgive. Actually used Lent to pray for my parents (at that time deceased), but still I had to forgive. And just because we forgive doesn’t mean they are let off the hook. They still have to answer to God for what they did. We just free ourselves. I appreciated the clarity of this post.

  • anna lisa

    Brooding over past injuries is like floating in a poisoned pond.

    Something really terrible happened to my entire family because of the selfishness of others. To make matters worse, I know things that could really expose the perpetrators if I brought them to light. It’s possible that just, financial reparations could be made, but I have no doubt that teetering marriages (with children) would topple.

    Instead of feeling powerless over what was done to us, I sometimes entertain the idea of exposing that great big ugly wound in full living color. If I begin to relish the thought, it’s like a gathering of deep dark clouds. It never leaves me with any peace–quite the contrary.

    The only thing that turns me from that temptation is to consider the fact that what was done to us is nothing compared to the betrayals and torture that were done to Jesus. It’s been difficult lately however. Though I realize one of the people that betrayed our family is a victim herself, and even though she has since converted to the Faith, she can’t seem to face what she did. She refuses to apologize, and is continuing to antagonize and act unjustly against us. It’s like having the scab on the wound being ripped off by the perpetrator.

    I have to stop myself from becoming beside myself–
    Yes, they did that to Jesus too.
    Only *He* was perfectly innocent.

    So I offer our wound, with the wounds of Jesus, to the Father, and I DO feel powerful, like I have a secret weapon. It doesn’t take the pain or the struggle away, it just converts it to something that must be very, very good.
    Every once in a while if I handle the pain in a way befitting a Christian, I indulge in a little laugh at the devil, with the passing thought that his ugly temptations really backfire when he messes with me…:)

  • Jay B

    Bottom line, if you have been wronged and have continual bitterness then you must pray for that person who wronged you. Until you do that it won’t go away.

  • ATN

    So, I have a question for you: what is the difference, where is the line, between holding onto bitterness against a spouse, and guarding your heart so that you don’t get hurt again (I mean emotionally, not physically)?