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The words my husband used to tell me that he had lost his job escape me. That moment, and the hours that followed, are a blur of shock and panic. What I remember is realising, months later, that this unexpected detour had turned me into what no one wants to be: a bitter person.
I first felt bitterness as a shocking, overwhelming urge – while setting the table for dinner – to wreak revenge on my husband’s former employer for throwing our lives into disarray. My husband had given himself vocationally to the organisation for a decade, and we had moved to a new country so he could take the job. We had oriented our lives around the place and, although work phone calls were a constant soundtrack to our lives, we were truly grateful that he had meaningful work to sustain us raising our family in such a beautiful part of the world.
Leaving our home and friends had been an enormous wrench, but it seemed worth it. We felt as if we were part of a community, and we made wonderful friends all over the world through his job. Promotion to a senior leadership role was my husband’s most recent reward – something he had worked so hard for – but suddenly everything changed.
His redundancy hadn’t come as a complete surprise. It was an awful conclusion to months of instability, yet it felt like an act of devastating disloyalty. It seemed we had uprooted our lives for an association that had tossed us aside. People I had thought of as friends had, to my mind, acted as complicit bystanders while my husband walked the plank.
Stuck record of resentment
We threw ourselves into positive thinking, trying to see the opportunities in this unexpected life shift. A tidal wave of supportive and encouraging comments from scores of my husband’s former colleagues and associates helped but, as the weeks passed, reality set in. Making ends meet as a family of five on my income as a freelance journalist began to feel less like an exciting adventure and more like unbearable pressure.
I soon learned that bitterness is a progressive disease. I began experiencing fiery, intrusive thoughts that quickly spiralled into feelings of self-pity. Eventually, bitterness seemed to leak out of me with every step. I pictured it leaving a trail of poisonous slime wherever I went, and started to tire of the sound of my own voice bemoaning our lot.
I knew it was time to deal with the bitterness when I was stand-offish, to the point of rudeness, to some of my husband’s ex-colleagues. Leaving those encounters, I felt empty. Acting on my bitterness resolved nothing. Being hostile had not brought peace and the fact that I had knowingly added to the difficulties of other people’s days by intentionally making them uncomfortable convinced me I had lost my way.
Breach of faith
I felt that I needed to understand why bitterness was engulfing me in order to find other ways to handle things. I turned to therapist Carolyn Cowan, who suggested that what I was really feeling, beneath the bitterness, was shame. ‘Your husband was betrayed,’ she said. ‘You made huge sacrifices for his job, so this turn of events has impacted everything from your family’s security to your own sense of safety.’ The root of my bitterness, I realised as Cowan spoke, stemmed from my belief that we had been betrayed by people we trusted to act with integrity and to treat us fairly.
‘Bitterness is out of common parlance but, if you think about the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [safety and survival], and the things we all need to feel secure and happy, this event has jeopardised them for you,’ she added.
Cowan believes bitterness is a protective mechanism that can be triggered if we feel shame. The urge to ‘attack’ – when I wanted to get even with those who had wronged us – is the other side of the same coin. ‘You’re experiencing a mix of toxic social and cultural shame because you made all this effort for an opportunity that went wrong, and now you’re wondering who the hell you are and how you’re going to keep your children safe,’ she said. That explained why, living in a small rural community where everybody knows us, it feels more like a breakup than the end of an employment contract. It seems as if everyone is looking at me and I can’t escape.
Chartered psychologist Andrew Bridgewater believes bitterness is ultimately about the desire to change the past. ‘Dealing with bitterness is like tackling forgiveness,’ he said. ‘Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different.’ I cried when I heard those words. My bitter feelings arose because events unfolded that I believe should not have happened, yet I had no power to alter their course. I feel resentful because – writing this late on a Friday night amid endless deadlines and financial pressure – I feel I’m the one paying the price for decisions that don’t seem fair and about which I had no say.
But acting out of bitterness, said Bridgewater, is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die. That resonated. I realised I was rude to my husband’s friends because I’d been nurturing the thought that they had let him down him by failing to fight his corner. They might actually have tried to advocate for him or been powerless. I had chosen to believe the disloyalty narrative with no regard for the possibility that those I was mentally holding culpable might not have played any part in it.
A better man than me
I also wondered how my husband was managing to walk this path so peacefully. ‘Accept it, deal with it and move on,’ has long been a favourite saying of his, and that’s exactly what he seems to have done. How?
‘I could have contested events and, as the time has passed, I’ve wondered if I put up too little resistance – self-doubt whispers that I’m an idiot for giving up without a fight,’ he said. ‘But, ultimately, I suppose I am at ease with myself and the fact that I no longer work in a structure that does not want me.’
Forgiveness has also played a part in freeing him. ‘Forgiveness in the Irish language is maithiúnas, which literally means “to good” someone,’ he told me. ‘It’s the same word across all six Celtic languages and, in Scottish Gaelic, it also means manure – that which is good for growth.’
It’s not that he doesn’t see the point of bitterness – more a pragmatic sense that holding on to bitter feelings could do him harm, and where’s the sense in that?
He’s not downplaying the treatment he got – he’s just resolved to let it go. Moving on has not been easy but wishing others well even though they did him wrong – and being tenacious about letting go of mental noise related to the past – has been a continuous process, he said.
There’s no silver bullet for overcoming bitterness, but Cowan’s analysis unlocked something for me, granting me permission to face my feelings honestly. As I did, bitterness began to lose its grip. When I lose my way, I look to my husband, whose capacity to move on with grace and good humour serves as my true north.
Interestingly, time spent sitting in silence every day seems to have helped him hold this posture. ‘Some say this habit leads to an inner reservoir of silence that creates the capacity to handle whatever life throws our way,’ he said. Judging by the serenity with which he’s handling this uncertain phase of life, there’s clearly something in that.
By recognising that my bitterness stems from shame, I am learning to diffuse it. I’m also reminded that bitterness can be diluted by focusing on good things, including health and happiness, and by actively amplifying things that bring us joy. Choosing not to utter every bitter thought that passes through my mind is a battle, but I’m finding freedom in letting some of them pass unspoken. It seems to empty them of their power.
Who said life was fair?
Bitterness can creep into the heart too easily, triggered by anything that leaves us feeling we’ve been treated unfairly. Whatever its source – a damaging childhood, difficult divorce or betrayal by a friend – facing the loss of the life you pictured but which suddenly seems beyond reach is a painful road. Yet, as I inch along it, the air is so much sweeter here than back among the dark shadows where bitterness still dwells.
Six months have passed and, although the job market is bleak, we are cautiously nurturing optimism. Hopefully, things will look different in a year or two. There are difficult days, and we both have to push against clouds of despair when they descend. But unlocking bitterness helps us stay positive about the future. Life doesn’t always go the way we hoped, and the opportunities to develop a heart full of bitterness are endless. But so too are the opportunities to overcome it.