‘Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder’ & How To Break Up With It

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
Curt emails from your boss, slow walkers, gender clichés, that disagreement with your partner you’re still re-running in your head a week later…
Reasons for resentment, it seems, can creep up anywhere. And it's a feeling that can be addictive. A sense of resentment or bitterness is normally born out of a feeling of injustice. Naturally, we seek validation for this injustice, mentally replaying feelings and events in our heads.
In 2003, the German psychiatrist Michael Linden proposed something called Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder. PTED, although not recognised by the DSM-V (the internationally recognised manual of psychiatric disorders), is defined by the pathological reaction to a life event which, while traumatic, is one recognised within society. Something like the end of a relationship, for instance, or being made redundant. If this resentment becomes deep-rooted, it can have lasting effects.
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"Long lasting resentment can lower the immune system as well as bring on headaches, insomnia and chronic pain," wrote Professor Linden. "The more you obsess over your resentment, the more your body will suffer."
People likely to experience embitterment are typically earnest types who have worked hard at something, like a relationship, job or sport, Linden identified. "When something unexpected happens – say, the breakdown of their relationship, a colleague being promoted above them, their failure to make team captain – a profound sense of injustice takes over." Almost immediately after the traumatic event, they may experience feelings of anger, pessimism and hopelessness. Other, more extreme, symptoms include intrusive thoughts, hyperarousal, phobic avoidance of places or people related to the negative event and even, in some cases, homicidal thoughts and fantasies.
Jennifer Clarke, 33, from Manchester experienced symptoms of PTED after she got divorced from her husband of six years at 31. "I was a young bride, at 26, but we had been together since school and it felt like the ‘sensible’ next step. About three years into the marriage, things started to fall apart." The divorce was a mutual decision but that didn’t help the humiliation or anger that came with it.
"I felt physically ill, I couldn’t sleep, I even turned down close friends' wedding invites – unable to face what I had lost. About a year after the divorce, my family forced me to see a therapist. She was the first person to mention PTED to me, explaining that it was a [recognised] mental illness in the US, where her family lived, but relatively unknown here. I was showing pretty much all of the symptoms and began a course of cognitive behavioural therapy."
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After about a year of CBT, Jennifer is happy to report that she has been able to tackle the resentment she was affected by.
Professor Linden claimed that in chronic cases of PTED, the patient is highly likely to need psychological intervention. He favours an approach he calls ‘wisdom therapy’, which includes cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness meditation and the ‘active cultivation of humility’. There are only a handful of UK studies on the condition, but one estimate is that 1-2% of the population now suffers from PTED.
Embitterment is often observed at times of great social upheaval. Indeed PTED was first observed after the reunification of Germany, when social inequality between West and East Germans became apparent. Right now, as the world is in the grip of a pandemic, a promised economic disaster and social upheaval, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that embitterment could be on the rise. Many a millennial childhood was built around the belief system that one could grow up to be anything they wanted, that they should follow their dreams and that effort counts for everything. While these sentiments may have served the more fortunate members of older generations, for lots of millennials and Gen Z-ers, the realities of the past few years have been deflating.
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Now take those dashed dreams and mix them with Instagram. We all know by now that comparison is the thief of joy and yet still we scroll. The comparisons between ourselves and others that social media forces on us will "lower self-esteem and form a basis for your resentment," says Joy Sereda, a registered psychotherapist and clinical counsellor. "I frequently encourage my patients to unplug, to give themselves a social media and news holiday. It’s not denial, it’s not sticking your head in the sand, it’s removing yourself from the never-ending flow of comparison that is feeding your grief, anger, anxiety or sadness."
Technology has skewed our emotional intelligence. Without face-to-face communication, you can’t as easily pick up on social cues. A joke that would seem harmless in person lands aggressively over text, for example. Over time (and texts), we can become hyper alert to anything perceived as insulting – a vicious cycle of sensitivity feeding existing feelings of pessimism.
Embitterment makes it difficult to progress meaningfully and effectively, grief and anger being more paralysing than motivating. And so recognising the signs of embitterment in oneself is key. "Once it’s become part of your identity, it’s harder to get rid of," says Joy.
She recommends therapy for anyone who believes they might be struggling with this. "Getting connected with a counsellor or psychotherapist could help you recognise and accept your emotions," she says. It will also help you to process the trauma that you have experienced and "unhook from the negative thoughts that are keeping you in that dark place." The aim, she says, is to get you reconnecting with what is important to you and to put you on the path "to the life you want to live."
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please get help. Make an appointment with your GP or call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463.

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