Afternoon Inquisition

Afternoon Inquisition, 5.29

A friend passed me this article yesterday.  I think he was trying to tell me something….

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.

Anyway,  as I was  listening to his screams and pathetic cries for help, I started to think. 

Is bitterness a mental illness? Are there other emotions that could fall into this category that you wouldn’t expect?

What do you guys think?

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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45 Comments

  1. I think that a person’s inability to function because they can’t get over their feelings of persecution might well be considered an illness and in need of help, but the bitterness itself is perfectly logical. You can be bitter (which, really, is just being harshly honest) without letting it take over your life.
    I’ve been wronged by people, and I’m bitter about it (if you see Pete Cook, remind him that he owes me $1800), but I’m still perfectly capable of going to work and buying groceries and doing the laundry.
    What is it with our need to label everything as an illness, anyway? Aren’t there just different levels of normal?

  2. I’m sure we might all agree that being overly bitter is undesireable.

    The need to classify many psychological states as ‘illnesses’ seems like it’s just massively misleading. For sake of consistency, I’d rather call something caused by a pathogen an illness, or at least a genetic messup. Both extreme bitterness and getting a viral infection are undesireable, but please don’t call them both a state of illness.

  3. Rofl, is there no edit button? Guess I’d better use preview, because that was horribly worded in many places :P

    Summary of what I meant:

    illness = bacteria, virus, parasite, genetic mutation, etc

    why would you call a psychological state the same thing? (even if it, like pathogens, are undesirable)

  4. I suppose the issue could be level of persistence and level of associated dysfunction. Some people have personality traits that will always persist and may involve being more prone to holding grudges and being bitter. Not sure I’d call that a disease. Some people are episodic pricks and others are life long dicks. Again the level of persistence and associated dysfunction is what really matters.

  5. Abnormal psychology is famously difficult to define. They teach you in Psych 101 that deviance, dysfunction, distress and danger indicate abnormal thoughts, emotions and behaviors. From a utilitarian perspective, if one’s bitterness is deviant, dysfunctional, distressing or dangerous enough to significantly disrupt one’s life, then one probably has a problem.

    This is why I like the positive psychology movement:

    http://www.authentichappiness.org

    Seligman’s work is to focus on thoughts, emotions and behaviors that lead to what he calls authentic happiness. Here’s a link to his theory:

    http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/newsletter.aspx?id=49

    Authentic happiness is an integration of the hedonism, desire and objective list happiness theories. Taken together they sum up what Seligman calls the “Full Life.” I want one… but then again, he had me at hedonism.

    I would think that bitterness, like many negative emotions is a waste of energy. See Metallica’s “Wasting My Hate.”

  6. ROFLWASABIMAYOWITHBACONONTOP at the mental illness denial.

    Illness is what it means. It’s the state of being ill, unwell, unable to function at a normal level. Defining “normal” can be tricky. Vengeful Harridan alludes to this, where a lot of conditions (autism/Asperger’s being one (controversial but illustrative) case) are not cut and dry but can seem to grade into normal behaviour, such that some sufferers can in fact be quite high functioning and live relatively independent lives while others are entirely incapacitated and reliant on outside help to function.

    But, in short, that’s why the DSM-IV will list a wide range of symptoms and categorise them based on whether they must be present versus may, as well as specifying minimum duration in many cases. So, while everybody gets a little down sometimes, which isn’t cause for concern, being consistently “down” for more than a couple of weeks while experiencing specific suicidal ideation or being unresponsive to normally (for the individual) happiness-inducing activities or any of a number of other specific indications, that’s a serious concern.

    I’m going to give the PTES guys the benefit of the doubt that they’ve done just as much work to ensure that they have a specific diagnosis in mind when they talk about PTES. I won’t give any of the reporters talking it up the same benefit of the doubt, because every time psychologists come up with a legitimate new mental illness, we can count on journalists to completely misrepresent the disease and its symptoms.

  7. Or PTED, whichever.

    I may or may not read more later, but it sounds like, just based on the name, that the key part in any PTED diagnosis (as opposed to somebody who’s just a bitter jerk but psychologically normal) will be some kind of precipitating event, an identifiable source of the bitterness. This is qualitatively different from someone who’s just a bitter jerk to everybody.

  8. @sporefrog: But then what would we call clinical depression? Or bi-polar? Or anything else brought on by chemical imbalances? They are illnesses, are they not?

    I don’t like saying that someone with clinical depression doesn’t have an illness. That would make it much easier for people to say “It’s all in your head!!!!!”

  9. It is definitely a symptom of a mental illness/chemical imbalance but I have a hard time classifying it as its own illness. As mentioned last week, I am currently dealing with a bipolar husband who is mixed-state and has been suffering from psychotic episodes for the past couple months. Although the medication is starting to work, I am still left picking up the pieces of our lives. Mr. Ele is essentially living somewhere else because of the horrible bitterness he feels when he walks into our house. Thankfully, I am all for selling and moving, but the fact that he can’t stay more than a couple hours before the feelings overwhelm him is a bit hard. So much of his illness is about having his bp behavior running his brain, hijacking his emotions and creating a seriously negative feedback loop. Just two days ago, he walked out with the intention of never seeing me or our daughter again. He was CONVINCED that she was doomed to as miserable a life as him and that he could not be a father of any kind. Thankfully, he later recognized that those thoughts weren’t really his own, so to speak. A big part of bipolar and schizophrenic recovery involves removing as much stress and triggers from life as possible.

    As hard as the situation is, our differing reactions to the destruction of our family really brings home how powerful bitterness can be. I remain doggedly hopeful even as I balance his health situation, parenting a toddler, selling a house, working 50 hours a week, and all the other stresses in life. He is nihilistic to the extreme and flips out under the lightest of strain. I cannot imagine living with that kind of mental anguish ruling my mind.

    On the lighter side, reading the Skepchick comments, especially Gabriel’s inevitable mention of boobies, keeps me sane on the harder days. Thanks guys, you rock.

  10. Any emotion can become disordered when it is a) persistent, b) overwhelming, and c) affects the quality of your life.

    At the risk of TMI, I’ve been in and out of therapy umpteen times since my wife left me [mumble, mumble] years ago. I’ve been told I was depressed, I’ve been told I was anxious, I’ve been told I have an “anger-management problem” (would you tell someone with depression that they had a sadness-management problem?), I’ve even been told that I need to focus on my “spirituality,” whatever the hell that is.

    Frankly, this article is the best news I’ve heard in years. There may not yet be an effective clinical praxis for PTED, but at least now there’s a hook on which to hang research and funding.

    Now, does anyone know of any referral service for secular/humanist clinical therapists? (You’d be disgusted by how many God-botherers there are using their MSWs and PsyDs to proselytize the vulnerable.)

  11. I don’t think it’s bitterness or sadness or anger that are the problem, but a failure to translate them into productive rational action.

    That or you’ve got irrational expections about the world and you simply need to adjust the parameters of your worldmodel, e.g. Being depressed at the death of you 90 year old grandmother is irrational as 90 year old’s dying is something that is a natural and regular occurance.

    Of course you have to update your parameters on a regular basis, a 1000 years ago, a hot shower everyday would have been an irrational desire.

    So, once you have assessed the boundry of your sphere of influence you have three choices 1) change things you can (or at least try), 2) accept things you can’t, 3) let the reality of you insignificance in the face of a vast and immovable universe spoil the short amount of time you have to live

  12. I stumbled across a nifty biological term the other day and am stealing it for myself: Scrobiculate, “marked by shallow depressions.” Ooh, I’m up! Oh, I’m down. But neither vary far from the middle. Like steering a sailboat with a wobbly tiller, you more or less go where you want but don’t get too wound up about veering.

  13. @Ashley.Ele: This may sound silly, but if I could hug through the internet, I’d give you a big one.

    I’ve been there with bipolar friends and it ends up many times with them saying or doing things to push people away. I can imagine what you’re going through. <3

  14. @sporefrog: But then what would we call clinical depression? Or bi-polar? Or anything else brought on by chemical imbalances? They are illnesses, are they not?

    I think I was being a bit hasty, but all I mean to ask is, to take your example, why don’t we just call clinical depression “clinical depression,” which merely describes the psychological state rather than dubbing it an illness? As we’re talking about emotions here, that seems more fitting. Especially something as… commonplace… as being bitter.

    I’ll be bitter when I damn well want to :P

  15. Heh. A friend of mine and I were discussing this.

    We’ve both been screwed in our lifetimes and can hold a grudge. But both of us thought of the same Christopher Titus quote at almost the same time:

    “Why don’t you climb down off the cross, take the wood to build a bridge, and get over it!”

  16. Maybe it’s just my understanding of the words that’s getting in my way here, but bitterness sounds like an expression of a mental illness, not an illness on it’s own. A traumatic event that makes one person bitter might make another angry, or another depressed. Different coping mechanisms gone haywire, but the same sort of problem with different symptoms. I suppose this is a bit like the divide between splitters and lumpers in labeling species, though.

  17. I think they mean when such emotion is taken to the extreme. After all, one part of the definition of mental illness is that it causes maladaptive behavior. Overall, though, it is arbitrary, so such diagnosis should be treaded carefully.

  18. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina): @Joshua: @Ashley.Ele:

    Combined, the three of you are talking some major meaningful sense. Thank you so much.

    However….

    …irrational expections about the world and you simply need to adjust the parameters of your worldmodel….

    Lighten up, already!

    Why don’t you climb down off the cross, take the wood to build a bridge, and get over it!

    Those are all really excellent examples of highly destructive dismissive platitudes. The true purpose of such platititudes is to afford their speaker (so to speak) the moral and ethical right (so to speak) to ignore, diminish, and dismiss the suffereing of others.

    A few years ago I entered a several months long stretch of suicidal thoughts, deep, deep unhappiness, difficulty coping with day-to-day activities, and so on. One doctor prescribed mood altering (mind-fuckingly numbing) drugs; another prescribed a psychologist, and some friends and family members simply told me to get it together (as in see the above platitudes), and others removed me from their world view altogether.

    Well, having been laid off from work and having been unable to find a replacement job after some 18 months, even though I was posting some 20-30 resumes, applications, and cover letters per week I was at the time homeless. No home; no money; no nothing.

    Personally, I think I was quite entitled and fully deserving of having sunk into a meaningful state of suicidal thoughts, deep, deep unhappiness, difficulty coping with day-to-day activities after a few months of homeless hopelessness.

    Eventually I got lucky and got a job. And today, and until the next time I get laid off in this piss poor economy of ours, I am doing fine.

    Just thought I’d share that, along with my support for the above linked-to peeps.

  19. @Howard: Yep. It’s not unusual, unfair or unjust for people’s spouses to leave them. It happens quite often.

    Perhaps your worldmodel is one where your wife doesn’t leave you because you are a good person and bad things don’t happen to good people. Adjusting your model to exclude a “Just World” hypothesis would.

    All you’ve got to do is reconcile the world as it is with the world as you would like it to be, i.e. whatever happened happened, don’t let it f*ck your life up.

  20. Interesting article. I don’t know if its a mental illness, but bitter people could probably benefit from therapy, and that means the therapist needs a code for the insurance company’s paperwork. I was somewhat bitter after I flunked out of grad school (but more depressed), and therapy helped me with that. Probably the depression is inwards directed anger and the bitterness outwards.

  21. @ everyone: Hug!

    Thanks for the kind words. There is no way to save my marriage, but I’ll still be battling this illness for years to come. My daughter has a long road ahead of her, and I will do anything in my power to help her escape the emotional hell that has run in her dad’s family for at least 3 generations.

  22. Having dealt extensively with MRAs, it sounds like they are the most common example of people suffering from this syndrome. I believe it’s real. Look at Alec Baldwin, and how his anger about his divorce has gone farther and deeper than could ever be considered mentally healthy, and how he can’t stop looking for new ways to get revenge against Kim Basinger. That’s an incredibly common problem, as is embittered divorced men coming up with constant new excuses to sue their ex-wives. The latter is so common a problem that family courts have a term for it: “abuse by court”. It’s utterly irrational for a man to spend years of his life and a good chunk of his savings to exert control over and terrorize a woman just because she believed she couldn’t be with him any longer. But it happens all the time.

  23. Ashley, on top of what I said in my comment, I have to add that your ex-husband sounds like he’s a candidate for being pulled into the “fathers’ rights” movement, which is an organized support system for men who are so embittered by divorce that they feel they have to get non-stop revenge. Keep an eye out for him going to “fathers’ rights” support groups, or if he starts talking up joint custody or is constantly looking for ways to get out of child support. If he does, you might want to get some help, because often once they start those harassment campaigns, they’re hard to stop.

  24. Bitterness can be an expression of another, deeper mental illness, such as dysthymia or clinical depression. If someone is deeply unhappy, self-hating, self-destructive or depressed, it may be expressed as (among other things) bitterness towards others, life events, etc. Since many of the symptoms of depression, including bitterness, are relieved by anti-depressant drugs, I lean towards “It depends on the reason for the bitterness.”

    You’ll have to take my word for how I know this. If you want details, e-mail me offline.

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