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Coping with Embitterment to Improve Quality of Life

Family paper chainWhat is embitterment and how does it affect our quality of life? Merriam-Webster defines “embitter” as to “make sad or angry.” The Bible warns that embitterment may cause discouragement (Colossians 3:21). I would add to that definition that, in time, old anger becomes resentment and may be not readily recognizable, much like food forgotten in the refrigerator for some time. Steve Maraboli, in Life, the Truth, and Being Free, writes “Holding a grudge & harboring anger/resentment is poison to the soul.” Dale Carnegie said, “Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment.” Embitterment can aggravate our sense of isolation, and when discouragement sets in, we may become hopeless. 

In this article I want to discuss a favorite tool of mine for working through embitterment. In my experience, embitterment is part of unprocessed traumatic events. Regarding Cushing’s, these events may include everything from feeling unsupported by family members, blamed for symptoms and unbelieved by doctors. Why am I defining these as traumatic? When our very survival is on the line, we count on others believing us to assist us in surviving and living fully. When we experience failures in being effectively heard, the body and mind panic. Recurring failures to be effectively heard, set up the mind for guarding and mistrusting in the future. While this has an evolutionary purpose for survival, it may not be the most useful for our own quality of live today.

So how do we move beyond anger and embitterment? Today we are going to talk about a concept called visualization which I have found to be very effective. One of my favorite therapists, Laurel Parnell, Ph.D. ,speaks of finding internal resources, real or imagined, past or present, alive or dead and visualizing being surrounded by them. So, grab a piece of paper and jot down who comes to mind in answer to these three questions:

  • Who in my life do I perceive as protective?
  • Who in my life do I perceive as nurturing?
  • Who in my life do I perceive as wise?

Now, while sitting quietly or lying down or going for a walk, imagine being surrounded by these figures. Where does each of them stand in this circle? What would they want you to know about your illness, your recovery? Spend time daily noticing these figures individually and together, and particularly, notice how you feel in your body as you imagine being surrounded by them. What messages would they have for you? Feel free to add and subtract from this list. There are no rules. One’s dog may be a source of protection and nurturing. For some, God or a higher power may be all three. A grade school teacher or high school coach may have been supportive. For many, there has been a doctor who was able to see and hear and believe. For others, there has been a fellow Cushing’s patient. You can’t get it wrong. Batman or Superman may be there! The task is only to notice, notice the figures and notice the feelings in your body as you imagine being surrounded by them. Then notice any change in feelings of embitterment, sadness, vulnerability and anger. This exercise can be done when you wake up in the morning and before you go to sleep at night, particularly if sleep is challenging.

To increase a sense of calm, add some tapping. Tapping is done in a number of ways, according to Dr. Parnell. “Using the hands to alternately tap (right-left, right-left) on the knees, legs or shoulders. Other methods include alternately tapping your feet on the floor or simply tapping any surface with your fingers”. The important thing is that the movement is bi-lateral. Therefore, modalities such as walking, biking and elliptical training work to calm the body and increase the ability to integrate information and visualize more effectively.

Last, I want to invite anyone who is dealing with strong feelings of sadness and anger, grief and loss, to consider finding a counselor or support group that specializes in coping with chronic illness. Some hospitals may have such support groups and even though they may not be geared toward Cushing’s patients, they may be helpful because others in the group are also dealing with chronic illness. I also recommend visiting a licensed counselor if you feel strong feelings of betrayal and unresolved grief, the sense of being “sucker punched,” I call it.

Different counselors use different approaches. One approach is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on identifying negative thoughts and challenging them to result in more accurate and positive thoughts and coping. A second approach is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) which has been shown to be effective in resolving and integrating traumatic memories that may go round and round in the mind, never quite quieting down. If you find that present triggers can make you feel as though you are reliving past events, EMDR may help reprocess those to calm the body and mind. An example of this may be any visit to a doctor, a call from a doctor’s office, any lab work. Other triggers may be reaching out to a friend or loved one and feeling triggered by a slow or delayed response. Seeing old clothing in the closet that no longer fits can be a trigger. Almost anything can trigger unresolved anger or sadness, a sense of embitterment. The triggers will be different for anyone.

While there are many things we cannot control, we can always control our emotional healing. This will, in turn, improve our quality of life and give us a measure of peace. I hope the tools shared in this article bring to you a sense of calm and peace, hope and the gentle reminder that you are loveable, worthy and resilient.

In Peace and Healing,
Dawn Herring, LMFT and Cushing’s Survivor, Spring, 2017

Reading Resources:

Parnell, Laurel Tapping In A Step-By-Step Guide to Activating Your Healing Resources Through Bilateral Stimulation

Burns, David M.D. Feeling Good The New Mood Therapy The clinically proven drug-free treatment for depression, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

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