There was talk at the recent workplace bullying workshop in Boston of Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder (PTED):
Bitterness, which I define as a chronic and pervasive state of smoldering resentment, is one of the most destructive and toxic of human emotions. Bitterness is a kind of morbid characterological hostility toward someone, something or toward life itself, resulting from the consistent repression of anger, rage or resentment regarding how one really has or perceives to have been treated. Bitterness is a prolonged, resentful feeling of disempowered and devalued victimization. Embitterment, like resentment and hostility, results from the long-term mismanagement of annoyance, irritation, frustration, anger or rage. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that “nothing consumes a man more quickly than the emotion of resentment.”
Stephen A. Diamond, PhD
Stephen A. Diamond, PhD, explains this disorder by analyzing Scrooge in his Psychology Today article “Diagnosing Scrooge Syndrome: What A Christmas Carol Can Teach Us About Treating Chronic Embitterment.”
“PTED will… probably apply to a person experiencing, witnessing or being directly confronted with a highly traumatic (though unlike PTSD, not necessarily life-threatening) event or events (e.g., difficult divorce, major losses of significant others, serious illness, disability, physical or emotional abuse, etc.) leading to chronic (…at least one year) feelings of embitterment, hostility, anger, resentment, irritability or rage, and the obsessive, sometimes compelling desire for revenge and retribution…. The degree of embitterment would need, by definition, to cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. Garden-variety feelings of bitterness that commonly come and go with life’s inevitable existential frustrations and disappointments are not enough to warrant this diagnosis. The embitterment level must, by definition, be excessive, pervasive, persisting and debilitating,” explains Diamond.
Why Scrooge may have had PTED
Diamond calls Scrooge’s disorder “Scrooge syndrome,” which led to poor treatment of his employee Bob Cratchit. Scrooge syndrome is a mix of narcissism, PTED, and greed. Seeing the poor as worthless and expendable, Scrooge is a symbol of corporate greed. “Chronically embittered individuals frequently feel fate has dealt them an unfair hand, and that nothing they can do now matters…. They tend to externalize their problems, insisting that the world must change rather than themselves. They protest, often passively, at life’s injustice. At the same time, such people have frequently succumbed to ‘learned helplessness,’ feeling hopeless and powerless. So they hunker down and reject the world, in retribution for having been frustrated, rejected or abandoned. Their characterological embitterment cloaks a barely concealed wrath against reality. A virtual war against the world,” says Diamond. “Bah, humbug,” shows simply Scrooge’s outlook that life is meaningless and that nothing really matters.
How to transcend resentment and embitterment
In one night, Scrooge becomes transformed by visits from the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future. Scrooge becomes completely healed and made whole again. But how?
Diamond explains that dreams unlock the unconscious. The visits to his traumatic childhood, current ways of being, and tragic future give Scrooge an awakening. Though his dreams point out the problem and solution, “it is still clearly Scrooge’s decision… as to whether to heed their insight, dire warnings and potentially healing wisdom or not. He, and only he, is responsible for deciding what attitude to take toward these sobering and disturbing messages from the unconscious. And whether to follow through or not on their immense implications,” explains Diamond. Dreams can significantly help with personal growth. Diamond suggests paying attention to dreams and the messages they bring from the unconscious for freedom from embitterment.
Focusing on self-reflection, psychotherapy can substitute for revelations from dreams. “Looking closely and brutally honestly at oneself, who one has become, may be the most difficult thing to do. Recognizing, acknowledging and owning one’s shadow is always disturbing. It is easier and more convenient to simply project it onto others…. But such self-reflection is absolutely necessary if any true inner transformation is to occur. One must, like Scrooge, come face-to-face with his or her inner demons,” says Diamond.
Diamond explains that treatment of pathological embitterment involves:
- Acknowledgement of the bitterment and its negative consequences.
- Examination of the underlying causes of this embitterment (the repressed anger or rage and its roots).
- Recognition of the choice to either hang on to embitterment or let it go.
The life-changing night for Scrooge, which could have been years of therapy, results in a rebirth on the day of the birth of Christ. Scrooge embraces all that he had previously ridiculed. “He rediscovers the child-like capacity for lightness, awe and joy, for love and compassion for his fellow man, for generosity, warmth and good will,” adds Diamond.
“We all possess a potential ‘inner Scrooge,’ the capacity to become embittered, selfish, cynical, greedy and misanthropic. To be seduced and mesmerized by the material world. And disillusioned by our fellow man. To lose faith in life,” says Diamond. “So just what is it that saved Scrooge from himself? It’s not about believing in Christmas per se. Or even in God. It’s about believing in life. And fully participating in it.”