The Detriment of Hanging onto Bitterness

In the past, I categorized myself as someone who can’t hold onto a grudge. If you do me wrong today, I’ll most likely be over it by tomorrow. It’s not a quality I have worked tirelessly to achieve – in fact, there are situations in which I desperately want to hold a grudge against someone because of the extent to which they hurt me, but I just can’t. Try I have, I can assure you, but it’s a quality I was born with and, objectively, am grateful for.

Upon talking with a friend recently, however, I have realized that perhaps that category isn’t as perfectly fitting as I once thought it to be. There is one particular grudge, one overwhelming sense of bitterness that has lingered with me for a few many months that I never saw to be a problem. Spoiler alert: grudges and bitterness are always problems.

I joined acrobatic gymnastics (acro for short) when I was eight years old or so and stuck with it until I was in the later part of my sixteenth year, about seven months ago. I loved the sport wholeheartedly until the last two years I was a part of it. These years were tougher than the first many because I was on a different team than I had been on for eight years, but it did happen to be the same team I began on and then left after my first year. I remember my coach leading stretching and being able to do the splits when I first joined the sport, and I was extremely intimidated by him because I thought guys weren’t supposed to be able to do the splits. This intimidation didn’t go away the second time I was a part of his team, although it was for a different reason this time around.

This coach is Bulgarian, and back in the day, they were the best of the best in acro. He won many medals at multiple World Championships, so he knew a thing or two about being successful in acro. The thing is, in Europe, coaches believe that physical and mental abuse bring out the best in an athlete. Personally, I don’t believe a desired result is worth a detrimental journey to get there, but I digress. For him, it led to success, so I believe he held onto portions of that mentality when he became a coach in the States. I say portions because he never physically abused me, and from stories I hear from athletes that were under his coaching longer than I was, the worst he had done was throw a shoe at someone and break a clipboard. From my experience, however, I felt emotionally abused.

I struggle saying that I was emotionally abused by this coach because I feel that many of my teammates would disagree. Am I weaker than them? Can I not handle criticism? Am I just bitter because I didn’t progress as far in the sport as some of them? Am I unable to see the value in his style of coaching? I don’t think any of these things are true. The few people I have admitted this fact to have felt the same way, probably because I am careful to not admit it to those that would undermine my perception of what I went through. A part of my life this consequential demands support and understanding rather than dismissal.

Over these two years, I experienced a lot of heartbreak, from constantly being moved around in partnerships to rejection from the World Team, from downright embarrassing competitions to a leg injury that had me in a boot for three months and limping around a few months before that. All of these experiences left me sobbing, but nothing stuck with me as long as the effects of having a tough-love kind of coach.

The first year I rejoined his team, he paid no mind to me or my partner group at all. He had obvious favorites, the athletes destined to go to Worlds, and I was not one of them. Considering how many years of my life I had dedicated to this sport, I was crushed believing that I wasn’t worthy of help or attention. I felt worthless, like all of the sacrifices I had made for this sport amounted to nothing because of my lack of “natural” talent. The second consecutive year he was my coach, however, he finally began to coach my new partner and I. “Ignorance is bliss” is a saying I normally disagree with, but as soon as my coach started paying attention to me, I began to agree with it a bit. He compared me to other athletes often, adding to the jealousy problem I already had. He told my partner and I that he wasn’t going to coach us anymore because we were having trouble with a skill one day. He judged me completely based on my performance and not my work ethic. In his mind, if you were truly hard-working, you’d perform well. He constantly pulled me aside to have “talks” that lasted nearly an hour. During these talks, he’d tell me multiple times how I wasn’t working hard enough and how I’d never make it to Worlds with the way I was practicing, and at the end of them, he’d have the audacity to make me hug him as I silently sobbed. If I was ever off task for even one second, he’d yell at me. When I had a broken leg, I felt pressured to get back to working 100% as fast as possible because it was obvious he was frustrated with my injury. In general, he was a negative force in the gym. Even the other coaches were afraid of standing up to him or even just politely sharing a different opinion than his because he was incredibly stubborn and wouldn’t hear any indication of him being wrong in some way. He even bought a microphone so everyone could hear when he called someone out.

All of my coach’s antics were made worse because I had developed anxiety a few months into being a part of his gym again. The entire negative atmosphere had me feeling trapped in a dark routine day after day for hours on end. At a certain point, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I completely broke down. I would cry at least once a day, usually multiple times a day. My coach didn’t understand and used that as an excuse to yell at me more, calling me a drama queen. Telling me to be positive, as if it was a simple task in his presence. My last practice ever, he gave me a correction, and I completely lost it and had to go to the bathroom, my safe haven, to gather myself. When I came back, he looked confused and defensive and told me that all he did was give me a correction. I knew this full well, but any negativity that came from his mouth sent me into a spiral of hyperventilation, fear, and self-deprecation. At this point, I felt as though I had PTSD. Just being near him, being in the gym, absolutely terrified me. I’m still affected by anxiety to this day. While I’ve healed a lot, I still cry over very minute events. I have panic attacks when I work out. When my friends cheer me on during a workout, I replace their voices with my past coach’s yelling that I’m not good enough, that I’ll never get anywhere, that I need to be perfect to be worthy of his approval, and I break down crying, confusing everyone around me.

Yes, I am very privileged. Yes, I could have had it much worse. Denying the pain I went through, however, denies the impact that part of my life still has on me to this day. It, essentially, denies a part of me. I came to accept this part of me while I was still in acro, and I absolutely resented it. I resented my coach for making me this way. I resented his success. All I wanted was for him to fail in his career. I wanted everyone around me to see how awful of a person he was. Even after quitting, I felt this way. I didn’t see the negative impact this grudge was having on my life. I had so many nightmares about rejoining acro. Any time his name was mentioned, I felt a rage bubble up inside of me, something completely unnatural to me. I saw his success growing, and I wanted to scream. I hated him. This hate forced him to still be a controlling factor in my life. He controlled the way I reacted to negative situations. He controlled the way I reacted to yelling, even if it was just my dad yelling at football players on TV. He controlled my panic attacks. Everything causing me problems in my life was his fault. At least, these were my beliefs. I felt that if I moved on from his negativity, that would mean he won. That none of this ever really happened, that my pain was unjustified, that I was weak for having anxiety. Then, I was crying during a relatively easy workout. My friend pulled me aside and asked me why I was crying. I told her this entire story, about where my anxiety came from. She suggested that hanging onto this bitterness was the cause of much of my anxiety now rather than my belief that he had altered me forever and still controlled my reactions to situations.

This was an epiphany to me. I never really thought my resentment towards my old coach was a problem, but after this talk, I realized that I was in the midst of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believed my coach to be a controlling factor in my life, and so he was. I knew I had to get rid of this grudge I was hanging onto. To do this, I had to accept how his words and actions affected me and realize that that will never change. Allowing myself to move on was not dismissing what had occurred. Then, I had to recognize my coach as a person who thought differently from me. The way he was raised affected his coaching style, a style that happened to work for some people even though it didn’t for me. He was not a soulless being. He, in fact, was much more understanding towards the end of our time together. He yelled a lot less and recognized my anxiety as a very real problem in my life that needed to be accommodated to at times. Although we didn’t click, he was still a human just trying to be as successful as possible in the only way he knew how. Finally, I needed to let the past be the past. While my anxiety is still a part of me today, it doesn’t have to affect me the way it used to. I can work on improving my ability to handle it. When I have panic attacks, I can objectively analyze why it’s occurring without letting it consume me for multiple days. I can accept the love offered by those around me instead of shutting down and pushing people away out of shame and embarrassment.

This post was a little bit everywhere because I’m still trying to sort this part of my life out a bit, and I haven’t talked about it this analytically before, but to conclude, holding onto past grudges only hurts you. It doesn’t impede the success of the one who wronged you. It only serves as a negative controlling factor in your life. Forgiveness will set you free from the implications of the past. By releasing bitterness, you regain control of your actions and the direction of your life.