There is a time in our lives, usually in midlife, when a woman has to make a decision–possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life–about whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point when they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises. (page 364, see footnote)
Being a stepmother means to live a constant daily practice of softening the heart away from bitterness. Or not.
Some days I find myself more successful than not at keeping bitterness at bay, other days I fail miserably. On days when I can let bitterness relax it’s hold on my heart, I feel the most freedom and comfort in my stepfamily life.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes suggests a woman make a timeline of her life and “to mark with a cross the places along the graph, starting with her infancy all the way to the present, where parts and pieces of her self and her life have died.” (page 365, see footnote).
Once you begin acknowledging those things that have been cut off or that have died because they never came to life or were pushed away, then you can begin working with them. Each of those losses leaves a scar and imperceptibly inches us toward a possible future bitterness. To remain unbitter, to exercise the bitterness muscle, means to work with the events that have led to the losses and release them into forgiveness.
Ignoring the losses, not tending the forgiveness process, allows the bitterness moment to settle in, when after years and years, decades of a woman’s life, the things which have been cut off get added to the many things that have died, and to the many things that were pushed away. It suddenly becomes too much. Too many. One more and the scale tips toward bitterness.
For me, there is a physical sensation that tells me when bitterness is encroaching. I get a feeling of a clutching in my chest, like fingers around my heart. Often my breathing is interrupted. Over the years, I’ve taken to keeping track of my heart, you know, to see if it can stay soft or whether it’s not. I breath while I pay attention to releasing the hand that clutches my heart.
Artwork by Kim Cottrell, 2014.
I’ve been practicing this letting go of the clutching for years. Years. Even before I was a stepmother. In the beginning the bitterness crept up on me before I could tell what was happening. Now, as soon as the bitterness clutching begins I’m aware I feel not quite myself and immediately my attention goes to the clutching and letting the clutching drain away.
I exercise my bitterness muscles regularly. The first part of the workout requires noticing when there’s a potential insult, hurt, or ache that indicates a part of me is dying off, been cut off, or sent to the back burner once more. Then, the workout involves paying attention to the sensations associated with that dying off, cutting off, or putting on the back burner. The heart-clench is my sensation. You might notice something else. Maybe it’s a sinking sensation in your gut. Maybe it’s a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat. No matter what sensation arises for you, you’ll know what it means, you’ll know because it’s a familiar feeling.
The simple act of noticing, acknowledging, and naming the clutching and potential for bitterness brings enough movement to the area and enough awareness to effectively reverse the clutching behavior. You can reverse bitterness clutching. You can teach the bitterness muscle to release and relax.
A bitterness workout is the opposite of lifting weights. It’s the opposite of running relays or hiking mountains. A bitterness workout is the releasing of the contraction, it’s the letting go of the need to do something different. It’s finding ways to take care of the psyche so the bitterness doesn’t have a chance to take up permanent residence.
I was thirty-six years old, attending graduate school, living in my Pittsburgh apartment, alone, when the bitterness choice moment came upon me. It was as if someone rang a bell and announced it was “Time for Bitter.” I looked around and over my left shoulder to see what was there, then my right. I finished the dishes and sat on my floor to contemplate the offering. After an hour or so, with the light fading from the winter sky, a very clear “No, this is not the way it’s going to be, I will not accept the bitters,” came over me.
I walked out on bitter and have kept it at bay ever since. Some days that is a great deal of work, but my heart reaps the rewards, running with abandon through the past and present and out into the future. May we meet there in the bitterless meadow.
Reference: Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 1992, chapter titled Marking Territory: Marking the Boundaries of Rage and Forgiveness)