Can blaming and bitterness make you sick?

Concordia researchers who explored the link between failure, bitterness and quality of life say bitterness can make people ill.

Concordia University researchers in Montreal have examined the relationship between failure, bitterness and quality of life, and they believe that constant bitterness can make a person ill. Their research, which focuses on why some people avoid bitterness at different stages of life and why others don’t, appears as a chapter in the 2011 book Embitterment: Societal, Psychological, and Clinical perspectives, co-edited by Michael Linden and Andreas Maercker.

Carsten Wrosch, Department of Psychology at Concordia and member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, said:

Persistent bitterness may result in global feelings of anger and hostility that, when strong enough, could affect a person’s physical health.

Image Credit: waferboard

Over the last 15 years, Wrosch has investigated how negative emotions such as regret or sadness affect people. Most recently, he has focused his attention on the impact of bitterness. With his co-author, Concordia alumna Jesse Renaud, they singled out failure as one of the most frequent causes of bitterness. Anger and recrimination are its typical attendants.

Unlike regret, which is about self-blame and a case of “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” acrimony points the finger elsewhere – laying the blame for failure on external causes. Wrosch explained:

When harbored for a long time, bitterness may forecast patterns of biological dysregulation – a physiological impairment that can affect metabolism, immune response or organ function – and physical disease.

Bitterness seen as a medical disorder is not new. Co-editor Linden, head of the psychiatric clinic at Free University of Berlin in 2003, was the first to propose that bitterness be recognized as a mental illness. Linden argues that bitterness is indeed a medical disorder and should be categorized as post-traumatic embitterment disorder (PTED). He estimates that between one and two percent of the population is embittered and by giving the condition a proper name, people with PTED will receive the therapeutic attention they deserve. The jury is still out on Linden’s proposal.

In some cases, overcoming bitterness requires more than self-regulation. It may require forgiveness, say psychologists. Image Credit: kevindooley

Wrosch and Renaud say bitterness can be avoided, if people who experience failure can find other ways to fulfill their goals. If they can’t, the researchers stress, it’s essential to disengage from the fruitless effort (for example, getting promoted or saving a marriage) and re-engage in something that’s equally meaningful (a new job or passion).

Called self-regulation processes, disengaging and re-engaging can be necessary for a person to avoid bitter emotions. Renaud said:

Any effective therapeutic intervention hinges on the affected individual finding ways to self-regulate.

In some cases, overcoming bitterness demands more than self-regulation. When bitterness arises from blaming other people, then recovery may involve others. Wrosch said:

In order to deal with bitter emotions, there may need to be something else required to enable a person to overcome the negative emotion – that something is forgiveness.

Bottom line: Carsten Wrosch, Concordia University, and co-author Jesse Renaud have examined the relationship between failure, bitterness and quality of life. Their research, concerning why some people avoid bitterness at different stages of life and why others don’t, appears as a chapter in the 2011 book Embitterment: Societal, Psychological, and Clinical Perspectives, co-edited by Michael Linden and Andreas Maercker.

Via Concordia University

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