Embittered = Angry + Helpless

“Bitter behavior is so common and deeply destructive that some psychiatrists are urging it be identified as a mental illness under the name post-traumatic embitterment disorder.”

The fact that it’s ‘so common’ is one rationale for calling it a mental illness? That seems counterintuitive, unless you think that illness is normative and health is abnormal. If you read the article, though, apparently ‘common’ in psych parlance means 1-2% of the population.

I think 2% is wildly understating the prevalence. Bitterness and an urge to revenge seems to me to be ‘normal,’ more likely than not to be operating at some level in the majority of a random group of people, more likely than not to be the cause of many actions even when it’s not obviously so.

In my experience, it’s rare to come across someone who doesn’t spend quite a chunk of time feeling they’re a victim of something: God, the universe, fate, bad genetics, lack of opportunity, poor parenting, someone else’s bad decision, etc.  Eavesdrop in coffee shops and parties, among your friends, among strangers, and see if this isn’t so. Listen to kids, who almost always notice and are outraged when “it”s just not fair!”

Overcoming the tendency to see oneself as a victim — on the losing end  of unfair — and to blame something external for our unhappy or dissatisfying situation seems to be what so much popular “new age” work is about, all those affirmations, a way to empower the self to see past the frustrating and yet comforting vision of self as helpless victim. (Comforting because being a victim means you’re not responsible, not “at fault.”)

The article continues:

Embittered people “‘feel the world has treated them unfairly. It’s one step more complex than anger. They’re angry plus helpless,’ says Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist who named the behavior.”

Angry + helpless. Look just at the high level of road rage (even minor occurrences of it, like not letting someone cut in line) and you’ll see angry people who feel they don’t have real power. It’s not rare.

Bitterness comes about, as the article describes it, when we feel we have worked hard and we expect an outcome that seems correlated to our effort. When that doesn’t happen, “a profound sense of injustice overtakes them. … Almost immediately after the traumatic event, they become angry, pessimistic, aggressive, hopeless haters.”

I think this bitterness can, and perhaps more likely, does, happen with no specific trigger event, although one might be perceived or justified as such. Sometimes it’s just a matter of turning 50 and realising life didn’t turn out the way it ‘should’ have, the way you wanted or expected. Sometimes it’s your kids not visiting, your grandkids not being interested in you, someone not remembering your name or face for the 15th time.  Sometimes it’s a bad economy, where your investments nosedive, your house is worth less every day, and you are afraid of losing your unfulfilling job.  Sometimes it’s an accumulation of many small events that feel unfair, or perhaps non-events, things that didn’t happen that leave us with a sense of missing out.

I think almost always a factor in embitteredness is comparing our own lives or situations with the lives of others who seem happier, whose lives seem more meaningful and satisfying.

But perhaps that’s not what this mental illness classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) would describe. As Linden says, “‘We are always coping with negative life events. It’s the reaction that varies.'” There is a gamut of reaction and response to not getting what we feel we lack and believe that other people have.

This proposed psychiatric classification actually seems focused narrowly on the relatively few people who ‘snap’ and go on a shooting rampage to avenge the wrong they feel they have suffered, whether because that one event is perceived — out of the blue, in the mind of a heretofore perfectly happy and satisfied person — as so humiliating, cruel and damaging that revenge killing is the only option, or whether it’s just the last straw in a lifetime of felt injustice, one tiny step further than lots of others have gone.

The larger question, it seems to me, is how do we respond to a world that we see as unfair? By ‘coping’ with our urges for vengeance in other, perhaps more benign and less obvious ways, e.g., via ordinary defensive maneuvers, like passive-aggressive disorder, or via other mental illnesses (per the DSM) like obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit disorder, depression, or anxiety disorders? By changing our idea of what fairness looks like? By accepting injustice as the way of the world? By working on a process of letting go of our expectations? By being aware of our propensity for seeing ourselves as victims and facing our consequent desires for revenge?

Coincidentally(?), CNN also has an article today exploring ‘why people snap and kill.’  These are not strictly speaking crimes of embitterment, often prompted by chemical or organic damage, such as brain tumours, seizures, mental illness (e.g., some psychoses, including paranoia, which might be seen as a sort of extreme version of feeling like a victim) and substance abuse (which can itself be the effect of ‘negative’ feelings and experiences). Other factors  cited include “feelings of being hopeless, ashamed and trapped.”

Also coincidentally, I came upon this in the Anne Tyler book I’m reading, Earthly Possessions (1977):

“‘Saul hates Alberta worse than any of us.’

“‘But … no… that’s only because of …’

“‘Because of Grandpa?’ Amos asked. ‘Face it: single events don’t cause that kind of effect. It took Saul years and years to get as bitter as he is. ‘”


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