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Bitterness - When people are no longer happy
A bitter person is an unhappy person. Those who are bitter have so badly offended negative events in their lives that they see themselves as helpless victims and are unable to cope with what happened. Those affected interpret their current state as a consequence of this event, find it unfair and react extremely emotionally when it comes to this trigger. Often it is not just a cut, but a process in which many small and large offenses add up.
Cynicism, resignation and aggressiveness
For a clinically bitter person, the negative experience questions his past life's work. He becomes cynical, his condition is resigned and aggressive at the same time. Although he makes concrete guilty of his situation and complains about it, he lacks the drive to do something himself. He vacillates between blaming himself and blaming himself. There are also phobias, paranoia, and those affected often find themselves in the vortex of conspiracy fantasies. Many clinically embittered people develop a severe depression that, however, discharges to the outside.
Insult and bitterness
Everyone experiences insults, small and large, in their lives. The narcissistic insult is even elementary to the development of an individual personality. This means that the child is "hurt" because the world looks different than what he wants. A healthy development is such that people now adapt their wishes to the external reality and thus find their place in the real outside world, which exists completely independently of their psychic inner world.
A person who does not manage to do this can develop a narcissistic disorder in which he creates fantasies about himself from his injured childhood self and always creates new patterns of his supposed grandiosity. Inwardly, he actually feels empty and helpless and supplants this by representing the fictions about himself more and more aggressively.
Everyday insults are part of our evolutionary heritage. As social beings, we need the recognition of other people for what we do and also for the values and concepts of the world that we store in our memories as a way of life. If we are offended, it means that we are hurt in our self-respect, our feelings, our values or our identity. These are some of the most powerful affects in human cultures: murder from unrequited love; Wars to atone for “disgrace”; Blood vengeance over generations, the cause of which was an insult, all have in common that they are based on an insult.
A "normal" feeling
Bitterness is initially a reaction to a difficult situation, such as flight or attack. A child cannot defend itself if it is supposed to do something the mother demands. So it does, but pouts. It now fantasizes about paying it back to the mother: "When I'm dead, she knows what she did." Pathological bitterness arises when this behavior becomes chronic.
Revenge is sweet?
Chronically embittered people do not benefit from this if they put their revenge fantasies into practice. The experience does not go undone and the person concerned does not gain any perspective for his life. On the contrary: feelings of guilt and shame are now added to the offense trauma.
Insults are commonplace
There are many reasons to be offended: The woman of my heart prefers my best friend; I am fired even though I am committed to the job; less talented fellow students are making a career while I'm falling by the wayside; I invite a friend over for dinner, I stand in the kitchen all day, and he doesn't come. It hurts when people lie to me whom I trust, as well as when someone is writing about the renovated apartment, even though they played World of Warcraft while I was laying the tiles.
Insult can also come from intercultural misunderstandings and, worse, ignorance.
Many people can handle everyday insults. There are many ways to do this: we can openly discuss the situation with others, show that it hurt us. Or we “sit it out”: The German teacher who makes my contributions notoriously ridiculous in class will not be with me for a lifetime; the ex-boyfriend who left us will be replaced by a new partner.
Some people have a "thick skin". They do not allow themselves to be upset by targeted insults and violations of honor, but instead concentrate on their projects. This path is often successful.
In others, positive experiences mask the insults. When "friends" talk badly about them behind their backs, other friends they can rely on make up for it. The injurious sayings of one teacher are compensated for by the fair behavior of another.
But sometimes people cannot deal with insults, the insulting events burn themselves into their psyche - they exacerbate. Now they're in jail. The insulting experience remains, and those affected constantly circle around it. You blame others, the spouse, the boss, the friends. They suffer and find no way out of suffering.
Who is at risk
Bitterness arises when our “basic believes” are shaken. So the more rigid this corset of values and norms is and the more we focus our lives on it, the deeper the injury if it doesn't work. Narrow-minded people with a limited framework in which to organize their professional and private lives are at high risk of becoming embittered if this social cage breaks.
Typical guiding principles are “Achievement is rewarded”, “Marital loyalty to the death”, “Everyone gets what they deserve”, “Those who work hard will succeed”, “There is equalizing justice in life”.
The loyal employee, who only lives for his one company, is left with nothing if he is fired after 30 years without being to blame. The believing FDJ secretary stood in nowhere in 1990 when “his GDR” suddenly disappeared. The prematurely married woman, who gave up her own career for the marriage and the children, has no options if the spouse leaves her.
Cosmopolitanism as medicine
A rigid framework of values and norms massively increases the risk of bitterness. Critical thinking, cosmopolitanism and intercultural experiences, on the other hand, are good "medicines" to prevent this disorder. If you have a plan B in mind, put your life on several pillars, you are less in danger of embittering than someone who makes one-sided ideas of how "the world should be" the basis of your life.
Bitterness as a mental illness
Bitter people are generally considered to be socially incompatible. They are a burden to others because they do not give their fellow human beings positive input either. They appear self-pitying and passive-aggressive. They grumble without participating in constructive solutions to their problem. To put it bluntly: you psychologically tear down others.
However, it is hardly known that bitterness can develop into serious mental illnesses. Bitterness is more psychologically destructive than pure depression or anxiety disorder.
A bitter person cannot forgive others who hurt him real or supposedly. This is a huge problem for him too, because forgiveness also means closing wounds. However, since the person concerned blames other people for his suffering, he makes himself a passive victim, and the resulting inability to act extends to areas of life that have nothing to do with the original insult. The pathologically bitter ultimately makes his own life dependent on the disgrace he has suffered and does nothing to improve his own life.
Ticking time bombs
Those affected cannot control the onset of their feelings. You feel with your back to the wall and emotional outbursts are a helpless attempt to regain control. Despite mixing with fainting, anger with resignation, pharynx fantasy with auto aggression. In the end there can be murder or suicide. One in three patients with a minor trauma develops concrete fantasies to punish the “bad guys”.
Those affected also isolate themselves socially. You live in a psychic hell.
Not a conscious decision
The bitterness leads ever deeper into a wrong path. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it is possible to ponder who has been to me when and how malicious to me, without that helping me in the slightest - on the contrary. Instead of healing the wounds of the psyche, I keep sprinkling salt into it.
People suffering from deep resentment no longer understand that reconciliation is as much a conscious process as having “open accounts”. It would be the first step to healing to understand that it is a conscious decision - no matter how it turns out.
Becoming clear about who hurt me why, how and when without forgiving him can already lead to bitterness. Reserving revenge and rebuilding your own life in the here and now is already a constructive process.
Characteristics of bitterness
Bitterness shows itself as a fictitious punishment of the aggressor by acts of self-destruction: "I will kill myself, maybe you will then notice what you have done". This self-destruction also creeps through damage in one's own life in order to show it to "those".
Typical for disorders that develop as a result of bitterness are self-doubt, lack of appetite, listlessness and sleep problems. There is also a deep feeling of fainting.
The embittered must compulsorily repeat the triggering event in the mind and we must assume a serious mental disorder if they cannot get out of this cage without professional help. Whether you like it or not, the memory is always in the mind of those affected. They bury themselves in their misfortune and cement a defiance.
Consciously or unconsciously, they refuse to understand the other side. Understanding does not necessarily mean accepting or making friends, it means just a change of perspective in order to understand what the other person has done.
It does not have to be about freeing the other of guilt. But if I understand the motives of the "bad guys", I can separate my own life from the traumatic events and learn from it for the future.
The bitter, however, first accuses others and secondly self-reproaches, but no longer focuses his energy on learning from bad experiences. What is more, he blocks his life by being trapped in the event forever, while the society around him keeps moving away from himself.
At the center of life
Bitterness means hopelessness and tunnel vision. All areas of life are affected, tragically also those that have nothing to do with what happened. A characteristic of this is that it hits the patient's center of life.
In order to protect yourself from this, it is important to keep a variety of life options open, because insults are particularly bitter when they take place in the area of life in which we invest the most energy, the greatest passion and the most intense feelings.
A typical area of resentment is the profession. For example, the triggering event for a politician can be sawed off by intra-party intrigues. He spent his youth distributing brochures at party stands in all weathers and turning the sausages at the street festival; instead of on the quarry pond, he sat at district council meetings and in working groups in the summer. He chewed the brown bread of local politics, and was tricked into making the decisive election for the state election.
In an emergency, those affected do not look for alternative fields or start over, but are bitter. They withdraw from politics, get stuck with the event, generalize it according to the motto "politics is a dirty business and people are fundamentally bad".
Bitterness can also develop in social relationships. Let's take a woman who invests decades of her life to be a good mother. She fosters her children wherever she can, has little life of her own, always thinks of her offspring first and then herself, aligns her whole life with the fact that the children are doing well. Then the 18-year-old son steals the silverware and disappears. She suffers an accident, is in a wheelchair, and the daughter, who has grown up, does not even come to visit her. The victim has the feeling that her life's work as a mother was worth nothing. She keeps asking herself "What did I do wrong" and wakes up at night with hatred for her children.
How to help?
Affected people lose social contacts. Nobody wants to maintain a long-term relationship with someone who only ever talks about their own suffering, reproaches and keeps telling the same traumatic stories without the friends and acquaintances having anything to do with it.
The situation is now coming to a head for the bitter one. Without contacts to other people who could give him positive input, he lost himself more and more in his labyrinth of reproaches, misfortune and loneliness. You now feel everything that is happening in the outside world as directed against you. This extreme sensitivity is difficult to bear for others, but they suffer most from it themselves.
The physical consequences are similar to those of depression. Those affected neglect their own health, they are at high risk of addiction, they become overweight, and the risk of classic illnesses as a result of psychological stress and an unhealthy lifestyle follow - from high blood pressure to a heart attack.
The condition means that those affected block life perspectives. A person who is embittered because he has lost his job orbits around the real or supposed injustice, but does not look for a new one. If he gets the opportunity to start a new job, his new boss is disturbed by the circling around the past, which has nothing to do with the new job, so much that he is immediately thrown out again.
In addition to his own blockades, the embittered gets a reputation that excludes him from professional and socially fulfilling relationships. If acquaintances of his team up to start a new project, they will not include the "grumbler" who "destroys everything".
Ever deeper into the abyss
The behaviors associated with bitterness make it increasingly impossible for those affected to get back on their feet - also and especially where they know their way around. With someone who complains constantly that everything “has no sense anyway”, who has lost hope of positive development, even devalues people with a positive view as “naive”, nobody wants to start a company, no matter how good that person is professional.
The situation is similar for private relationships. The ex-husband, whose wife has run away with his best friend, does not find a new partner. Instead, he plagues himself with his missing wife, drowns in revenge fantasies and remains alone.
Whoever is bitter, freezes.
The post-traumatic embitterment disorder
Bitterness has only recently been recognized as a psychiatric syndrome with the complicated name "post-traumatic bitterness disorder". The term describes the cause of this condition in this clinical sense.
The cause of the disorder is a traumatic experience, which also explains that, as with other traumatizations, those affected have to go through the event associated with the trauma again and again in their minds.
"Nörgelossis" - a psychiatric syndrome?
Bitterness as a mental disorder was examined by doctors after reunification. There is a cliché of "Nörgelossi", who always sees himself as a victim, does nothing himself to change something in his situation and anything and everyone who blames the GDR and the West for their personal misery.
This cliché also has a serious background, which can sometimes be seen in psychiatric clinics. More and more East Germans came there in the 1990s - permanently on sick leave with different or no diagnoses. Most of them believed that they were entitled to a pension.
These East German patients had a lot in common: they saw themselves as victims, therefore did not want to be helped, fluctuated between aggressiveness and resignation, fantasies of revenge and self-destruction.
Psychiatrist Michael Linden's team recognized a new psychiatric syndrome - post-traumatic exacerbation. As a disorder, it differs massively from the mere "Nörgelossi", the "Jammerliese" or the "Meckerfritze".
Those affected are not mentally stable with a negative attitude towards the environment, but their condition combines depression with insult. Their behavior corresponds to that of other traumatized people - they avoid the place that reminds them of what happened like their former workplace, they look oppressed and become aggressive when they tell about what happened. Like other traumatized people, there are triggers that trigger a flood of negative feelings associated with the trauma.
The embitterment disorder is similar to the post-traumatic stress disorder. But the clinical picture differs. The stress disorder is caused primarily by real or perceived threats to life and is characterized primarily by anxiety disorders; the embitterment disorder arises from psychological injuries.
In Germany, up to 4% of people probably suffer from this. It is not yet recognized as a disease by the WHO.
Personal and social crisis
The bitterness disorder, especially among East Germans, was no accident. Many people in the former GDR were injured because a decade-long career with the social identity designed around it no longer counted from one day to the next.
Helmut Kohl promised them “blossoming landscapes” just like the GDR bigwigs previously “a paradise for the working people”. Instead, they lost their jobs, flew out of their apartments because they could no longer pay the rent, and felt cheated in every way.
The ensuing bitterness is also rampant among Hartz IV victims in western Germany, who often see themselves being pushed back and forth after many years of work as disenfranchised, just as job centers and wage depressers are right in the jam.
In general, bitterness in the sense of insulting depression after social changes is increasing. In Switzerland, for example, the number of patients rose after the 2008 financial crisis: people feel that their dismissal is unfair and cannot process it.
However, natural disasters can also lead to depression. So people whose houses were destroyed by the Elbe flood developed these symptoms. On the one hand, it affects them through no fault of their own, and on the other hand they blame the government, the civil protection services or the neighbors for the fact that the disaster caused such damage.
Injury to others
As with termination or the end of a relationship, bitterness here means that those affected see themselves as victims and do not understand that they can help themselves. If someone shows them this option, they react aggressively towards him and hurt those who show them constructive ways out of the crisis.
It becomes a burden for his social environment. He is unbearable for himself and unbearable for others. If he sees friends living a happy life, he makes it bad. Soon he has the reputation of being a "stoker": he "pollutes the air" when others are comfortable.
When the son tells about his new job, the friendly colleagues and the good atmosphere, the bitter one intervenes and says "you will still be surprised". When the daughter raves about her new love, he comments “Divorce is expensive”.
He sees himself as a victim, but becomes intrusive on others. He is deeply hurt and hurts others. At some point nobody wants to have anything else with him.
"Bitter is the hard-to-reconcile man who holds the anger for a long time, closes the excitement within himself and only stops when he has retaliated ... These types of people are a heavy burden on themselves and their closest friends." Aristotle
Danger to yourself and others
The victim's revenge fantasies not only annoy, they can become real danger for other people. To provoke aggression, it is enough if someone remotely reminds the patient of their trauma - completely independent of the object of revenge itself. It is enough if a person works successfully in a job that is similar to that from which Bitter was dismissed to attack this person as a "traitor". Most of the time, the victims do not even know why he "shoots himself" at them.
Therapeutic help is required not only in your own interest, but also in the interest of others. Embittered ones are ticking time bombs - not only suicide, but also running amok can be a result of the embitterment.
Bitter are difficult to treat. The level of suffering is high, which generally increases the willingness to go to therapy, but the insight is lacking. One of the symptoms of an embitterment disorder is that those affected are unable to change or want to change their "fate" themselves.
One of the few ways to help them is wisdom therapy. This is about developing psychological skills to master life crises. It is about the skills that the patients lack.
Empathy and tolerance
For example, empathy and tolerance help to understand other people's actions. Understanding, which patients also have to learn, does not mean that they are at the same time sorry. A victim-perpetrator compensation, in which the victim and perpetrator of a crime such as bodily harm, for example in the presence of a therapist, serve not only the perpetrator, but also the victim. Understanding their actions does not make crime good, but it frees the victim from crippling perplexity.
Embitterment means not being able to laugh anymore, except for malicious pleasure. Humor, on the other hand, creates an emotional distance from what is happening and thereby enables the person affected to open up new perspectives. The proverbial saying "humor is when you laugh anyway" sums it up.
Empathy means empathizing. The change of perspective is important. How would I have acted if I had been the employer, the "traitor". When a person is “alien to the imagination”, it is easier to let go of your own misfortune. In studies, pathologically bitter ones showed remarkably less of the “wisdom competences” than non-bitter ones.
Bitterness has to do not only with objective crises such as the loss of a job or the failure of a relationship, but also with the narcissistic circles around unreal constructions of a grandiose "I". Unfortunately, in neoliberal propaganda, these become the only valid value that more and more people run into the dead end of their own ideas.
If such a person suffers from an embitterment disorder because the world is not there to fulfill his every wish, it is very difficult to get him out of this impasse. Such a person may be in his grave at 40 as a result of alcohol and drug abuse rather than admitting that he is not as great as he presents himself.
If he does show a spark of willingness to cope with the bitterness caused by false fantasies, he can learn in therapy that the world owes him nothing, so there are no guilty parties and he is not a victim.
Change of perspective
In wisdom therapy, role plays serve to break up the crusting of those affected. This is how the therapist and patient talk about fictitious situations that have to do with the core problem. The patients are now taking on the role of "bad guys".
At the same time, they discuss their own ideas about marital fidelity, dismissal at work, etc., and then they discuss other people's perspectives. This creates an emotional distance from the traumatizing experience.
In such a wisdom training, bitters can look a little out of their snail shell, but other and long-lasting therapies are necessary to cope with the trauma that started the disorder.
Ideally, you learn through training that values and norms can be relative, that there are not one, but countless life plans, and that people have to make decisions again and again in life. Accepting that insecurity is part of life and that contradictions can be endured is a prerequisite for patients to get out of their mental prison.
Break up stereotypes
Treatments for those with bitterness are based on behavior analysis as well as on the analysis of automatic thoughts and schemes. Such schemes represent a core of the problems of those affected without being aware of them.
Then it is a matter of renaming the problematic areas and acting in the world, re-establishing social contacts and gathering experiences that show those affected that they are not passive victims, but can work in the outside world. They also learn to perceive their own emotions, to name them, to accept them and to put them in a context.
Put claims into perspective
It is essential, especially for those who are narcissistically bitter, to put their own claims into perspective and to distance themselves from themselves. The method of solving "unsolvable problems" has proven itself. Conflicts in which they should act are presented to those affected on the basis of exercises with humor, empathy and emotional flexibility. In the end, they transfer these skills to their own situation. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
- Medical clinic with a focus on psychosomatics at the Charité - University Medicine Berlin: bitterness and post-traumatic bitterness disorder (PTED) (access: 30.07.2019), psychosomatik.charite.de
- American Psychological Association: Posttraumatic embitterment disorder, PTED (accessed: July 30, 2019), psycnet.apa.org
- National Bullying Helpline: PTED - Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder (accessed: July 30, 2019), nationalbullyinghelpline.co.uk
- Lee, Kyungsoo / Song, Ho Chul / Choi, Euy Jin / et al .: Posttraumatic Embitterment Disorder in Patients with Chronic Kidney Disease, Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience, 2019, cpn.or.kr
- Dvir, Yael: Posttraumatic Embitterment Disorder: Definition, Evidence, Diagnosis, Treatment, Psychiatric Servicesm 2007, ps.psychiatryonline.org
- Linden, Michael: Bitterness and Post-Traumatic Bitter Disorder (Advances in Psychotherapy / Manuals for Practice), Hogrefe Verlag, 2017
ICD codes for this disease: F43ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.