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How Not to Succumb to Bitterness in Troubling Times

We face troubled times, including a pandemic and politics. To honor Martin Luther King, Jr., here’s how to live by his advice to not become bitter.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely advised us not to succumb to bitterness. To say he faced challenging times, turbulence, and obstacles is a gigantic understatement. Yet he operated out of positivity, light, and deep personal values. To say that we are facing challenging times is another laughable understatement. With actions and words based on negativity, hatred, and divisiveness, how can we keep from becoming bitter? How can we not give in to the very real temptation to live with fear, anxiety, and depression? Here are some ideas for not to give in to bitterness, heaviness, negativity, and anxiety.

Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness. — Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Why It’s Easy to Succumb to Bitterness

Times are troubling indeed. As a society and as individuals, we’re facing turbulence and challenge.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, and just when we all hoped that restrictions would begin to loosen, there are rumors that they’re going to tighten.
  • Unrest and upheaval continues in the transition from one presidency to the next. Regardless of where your personal beliefs lie on the political spectrum, interactions are heated and rocky everywhere you turn (hint for wellbeing: minimize your time with media and on social media) uncertain and rough and chances are you’ve faced some sort of backlash if you’ve shared your thoughts and feelings publicly.
  • We’re on the brink of tremendous change, and in this change likes the potential for improvement. However, all change involves the unknown, and this unknown, this uncertainty is an underlying cause of anxiety, fear, and general unhappiness.

Can Dr. King Jr.’s advice to avoid bitterness possibly apply to us right now? If you have doubts about this, you’re not alone. Despite its seeming impossibility, we really can avoid becoming bitter (or let go of the bitterness that has formed in our hearts) and shift to something better.

How Not to Succumb to Bitterness Right Now

It’s possible to replace anxiety, fear, and bitterness with centeredness and positivity. Here are tips from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for how not to give in to the negativity.

  • Honor and accept your feelings. If you are feeling bitter, angry, confused, anxious, scared, depressed, or any other negative emotions–if you even feel like a swirling “mess”–allow these feelings. Feelings and thoughts are what they are, and they are not who you are at your core. Notice your feelings and, instead of trying to avoid or fight with them, accept them for what they are: natural reactions to stress and trouble.
  • Pause and breathe. When you notice your personal version of bitterness creeping (or barging loudly) in, pause. These thoughts and feelings aren’t bad things because they alert you to the fact that something isn’t lining up with your own values. Because of that, though, they signal your body to fire up its stress reaction, the fight-or-flight reaction that wreaks all sorts of havoc on physical and mental health. When you intentionally pause–stop what you’re doing for a moment and either slip into a quiet place, step outside for fresh air, or stay right where you are–and take several slow, deep breaths, you reset your body’s physiological stress reaction. The act of breathing switches your body’s operating system, quieting the sympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for the fight-or-flight reaction) and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (the one dubbed “rest-and-digest”). This allows you to feel calmer and more centered so you can more intentionally choose your response to the problems that plague you.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of being with yourself and in your life. It’s the intentional action of paying attention to your moment, whatever that moment may be like. When you concentrate on something in your moment (a sight, a sound, a sensation, a smell, a taste, the person you’re with), you hone your attention so you remain present in the moment instead of trapped in your mind, stuck in your thoughts and feelings that almost always pull in concerns about the past and/or future. It can be centering to carry a go-to focus object with you, one that is tied to someone or something that is important to you. As you pause and breathe deeply, place your attention on this object for motivation and encouragement.
  • Know your values. What is important to you? Who and what do you hold most dear? What makes you feel alive? The more you deeply know what you want in your life, you can use this to replace your thoughts about everything you don’t want. Your values, not the negativity and problems around you, become your beacon and driving force in your life. Journaling or using a workbook can be very helpful guides as you explore and identify what gives your life meaning and purpose.
  • Create small, purposeful action steps. To try to make sweeping changes in the world around you or in your own life can be overwhelming and daunting. Impossible action attempted in a frantic reaction to anxious thoughts and feelings can lead to the bitterness Martin Luther King, Jr. warned against. King Jr., though, was a huge proponent of positive, intentional action. As you ponder your values and live mindfully, you can identify small action steps to make your values work for you in your life. What small steps can you take every day to create your version of a quality life?

So much is out of our control, and this is disturbing. It can lead to a sense of helplessness and bitterness. By following the above steps, though, you can take charge of your inner experience and let that spill out into your own life. You can live with purpose and positivity even amidst troubles and turbulence. This is how not to become bitter.

More Resources for How Not to Be Bitter

If you’re looking for guides to help you or loved ones embrace these steps to a calm, quality life, check out Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 Steps and Mindful Brain, Flexible Body: Wiggle Your Way Out of Your Worries and Into Your Life

We face troubled times, including a pandemic and politics. To honor Martin Luther King, Jr., here’s how to live by his advice to not become bitter.


We face troubled times, including a pandemic and politics. To honor Martin Luther King, Jr., here’s how kids can live by his advice to not become bitter.

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