Bitterness is a ravaging disease. It impacts our ability to thrive in a world where most don’t care to acknowledge how we feel. Bitterness can be compared to a virus, entering our bodies and feeding off of all that is positive in our lives; where there existed happiness and contentment, bitterness leaves anger, sadness, and emotional scarring.
To be bitter is to permit the disease to eat and destroy the most essential aspects of our minds, bodies, and souls. In order to function, a person must be whole; bitterness leaves us with a void that is almost impossible to refill. The beloved poet, author, and activist Maya Angelou once wrote that “bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
There is no singular root-cause for bitterness, according to Concordia University psychologist Carsten Wrosch. But there are 10 important factors to consider when examining bitterness. Wrosch told the Atlantic:
- Bitterness follows unwanted experiences—failures, disappointment, setbacks—that are perceived to be beyond one’s control. “”The quality of the negative emotions we feel when things don’t work out may depend on how we appraise the reasons for failure. If we think that we are responsible ourselves, we may experience regret and sadness. However, if we feel that it was not our fault, but other people were responsible for the problem, then we may be rather angry or bitter,” Worsch explained.
- Bitterness occurs when one believes, rightly or wrongly, that other people could have prevented the undesired outcome. Regret involves blaming oneself. “Psychologists have shown that certain phenomena, such as regret, are not purely emotional,” Worsch said. “They involve the construction of specific thoughts that are associated with an alternate reality. Some may think, ‘If I had studied more in school, I would have a better job.’ The same may be true for bitterness, except that the scenarios involve other people: ‘If my colleague hadn’t interfered with my work, I would have finished the project on time.”
- Bitterness, much like other negative emotions, could forecast physical disease. “Health psychology has shown that negative emotions can influence stress responses and release the hormone cortisol,” he said. “Chronically high levels of this hormone in turn can disrupt other bodily systems, including the immune system. If this happens, it can increase vulnerability of a person to developing a number of diseases.”
- Older adults generally experience more disappointments that could lead to bitterness. “Opportunities for realizing a variety of goals are age-graded in our society,” Worsch explained. “It’s difficult, for example, to become a doctor or play in the NFL at age 50. Self-regulation capacities become particularly important to deal with an increasing number of losses and protect emotional well-being. Those who blame others for not reaching their potential may have problems overcoming a bitterness experience. They have to adjust their aspirations and goals.”
- Older adults who can’t curb their bitterness may be compromising their health and happiness. “Unfortunately, not every individual’s goal adjustment capacities increase with age,” Worsch said. “Individuals with difficulties in goal adjustment may become very vulnerable to major psychological problems.”
Nobody is immune from bitterness. It can overtake the strongest woman after a difficult relationship or failure to achieve a goal or promotion. This led some psychologists to propose classifying bitterness as a mental illness in 2009.
Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist, led the proposal. He renamed bitterness “post-traumatic embittered disorder” and claimed 1 to 2 percent of the world’s population is inflicted with the illness.
“They feel the world has treated them unfairly. It’s one step more complex than anger. They’re angry plus helpless,” said Linden.
Embittered people are typically good people who have worked hard at something important, such as a job, relationship or activity, Linden says. When something unexpectedly awful happens — they don’t get the promotion, their spouse files for divorce or they fail to make the Olympic team — a profound sense of injustice overtakes them. Instead of dealing with the loss with the help of family and friends, they cannot let go of the feeling of being victimized. Almost immediately after the traumatic event, they become angry, pessimistic, aggressive, hopeless haters.
“Embitterment is a violation of basic beliefs,” Linden said. “It causes a very severe emotional reaction. We are always coping with negative life events. It’s the reaction that varies.”
Though embittered post-traumatic disorder hasn’t been recognized by the American Psychological Association, Worsch suggests seeking professional help for those unable to move-past bitterness on their own.
“Bitterness can be triggered by events that are associated with feelings of unfairness. If you are unable to deal with these feelings yourself, consider asking for professional help. Some clinicians have reported that bitterness can result from Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder (PTED)*, which may develop after severe negative life events and requires appropriate treatment.”