top of page

Peace in Ourselves: Unlearning Bitterness

Updated: Jul 8

Last week I shared how a beautiful Milwaukee landmark is inspiring me to reflect on how I can cultivate more peace within myself with hopes of doing a small part for a more peaceful world.

I did a deep dive into defensiveness and now, on to the next-- bitterness.

As I think about times when I've felt bitter, I realize it's always hurt me most of all. Bitterness can feel good because you can assure yourself things would better if only x,y or z were different. But, not only is that usually untrue -- it's also often accompanied by feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. And, because bitterness focuses you on what is lacking, broken and wrong in a situation, it's really hard to escape. This kind of negativity is a hard soil to grow anything and it becomes even more toxic when it spreads in a group.

How does it show up?

  • Fixation on a hurt or harm

  • Desire to assign blame - to a person or situation

  • Feeling helpless, powerless, stuck

  • Inability to see any positives or upsides

  • Small bumps in the road feel like impossible hurdles

Why does it show up? What do I really want?

  • Feeling of loss - Feeling that I didn't get something I wanted and/or that my pride is hurt-- which can sometimes even feel like a loss of identity.

  • Misalignment with personal values - Bitterness has surfaced for me in the past when I stayed too long in a situation that was deeply misaligned with one or more of my values without speaking up and/or making a change. In the past, it's come up for me when values like honesty, kindness, collaboration, creativity, curiosity, effectiveness and openness weren't embraced or encouraged.

  • Unmet expectations - Bitterness can also emerge when I put my focus on the gap of how I want a situation to be versus how it is. This often happens completely unconsciously. Past positive experiences sometimes shape my expectations for what a situation will be like, creating a gap between what I expect and what I experience.

  • Desire for control - Feeling that I am not in control of things that are affecting me and/or wishing the person in control would handle the situation differently.

What should I do instead?

  • Acknowledge how I feel - The fastest way out of bitterness for me starts by recognizing that I am feeling it. I can prevent it entirely by paying attention and addressing situations that make me feel angry or sad in the moment.

  • Grieve the loss - Without being too dramatic, taking some time to grieve can be very helpful-- to accept that the future I pictured won't happen exactly as I pictured it. This helps bring closure to be able to move on.

  • Reflect on the deeper meaning of the loss - Whatever the loss was on the surface, it often represents something deeper or a clash with my values that hurts even more. Taking some time to really think about it can help me better understand why it upset me, what I really want. Uncovering this is a great starting point for generating ideas for how I might be able to achieve what I want it in a different way.

  • "We cannot do everything... this enables us to do something" - Years ago, a mentor shared the Romero Prayer with me and it helps me to re-read it from time to time. Its message helps me stay focused on what's in my control, what choices I can make and to appreciate the impact small positive steps can make. Be patient, keep going.

  • "What could be worse?" - Taking improv classes years ago, I learned this exercise where as a group you take a bad scenario and then add a dozen other things that make it worse. Playing it solo and thinking up really ridiculous ways it could be worse (Sharks! Zombies!) can make many bad situation more bearable and the humor helps me stay more light-hearted and energized to tackle it. And I have to say, when I honestly look back at some of the things that have made me upset and bitter in the past-- I can only laugh at myself. Sometimes I let very trivial things impact my whole outlook. And every time I thought the world was ending, it kept going.

  • Find a positive outlet alone & as a team - Bitterness loves company, but sharing it makes everyone more miserable. Hiking, running, and writing are some of my best escapes and I try to make time regularly for them to stay balanced. When I have less time, a short walk, an essay of Samantha Irby's, sending a letter to a friend or playing a few games of Dr. Mario are some of my favorite mini-escapes. When navigating through tough times in a group, rather than focusing on what is wrong-- to prevent bitterness from taking hold, you can work together to create an environment that is more empowering and constructive. Focus on strengths--individually and as a team, center conversations around what's within the team's control, recognize what's working well, what you're learning and what glimmers of hope are inspiring you. Those insights can be powerful building blocks.

  • Get perspective - One of the best gifts as I get older is that I now have a multitude of examples of how the short-term frustration of not getting something I wanted ended up leading me to an idea, opportunity or path that I couldn't even see before. Truly, sometimes the greatest gift in a given situation is not getting what you want.

Ps. Bitterness is a close relative to cynicism and I think often of this speech Conan O'Brien gave as he signed off from his last episode hosting The Tonight Show in 2009. While I recommend watching the whole clip -- I especially love the last line, "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But, if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you amazing things will happen."

Hope this was helpful and love to hear more insights you have managing this feeling as it has come up for you!

Update: I'll continue to link the other posts I've made here:


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page