This is absolutely priceless! Continuing with our overview of negative emotions, The Atlantic Wire posted an uncannily relevant list of “10 Things You Should Know About Bitterness” by Carston Wrosch, co-author of one of the key chapters of the new book, Embitterment.
Wrosch essentially boils bitterness down to sustained blame, especially the outward directed variety, AKA the inverse of depression. A person gets stuck in or fixated on the notion that others are to blame for one’s plight in life, which produces a simmering rage that slowly overtakes a person’s personality.
Woody Allen is credited with the phrase, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” The recovery community expresses the same idea with their maxim, “Expectation is a planned resentment/disappointment.” We talk about the fruit of the Law being self-righteousness, jealousy, depression and anger. Regardless, bitterness appears to be a direct response to some form of “should” – what should have happened, how someone should have acted, who people should have voted for, etc. It’s by definition based on an inflated view of human nature, oneself most of all.
The researchers express this in amusingly clinical language, before wisely recommending “goal disengagement” as an alternative. Understatement of the year, eh?!
Christianity has so much to contribute on this front. We can advocate disengagement without dismissing the goal altogether (the rightness or wrongness, justice or injustice of the “should” in question). That is, we can affirm a person’s hurt or indignation as real and/or valid, without engaging with it as the “final word” – about us or about the world. The word of the cross announces that there’s no goal or expectation that hasn’t already been met; or, you might say, no goal or expectation that can be met (Galatians 2:21). It provides an ideal basis for acceptance or assimilation of failure. Phew!
From an identity standpoint, this means that the Gospel allows a person to detach/disengage from what the reaching or not reaching of goals says about them, recognizing that as much as someone else has contributed to our unhappiness, we have had some role in it as well. Personal value has already been established – it’s a starting point, not an end result. This is easier expressed than internalized, of course, but it’s nevertheless a framework which casts blame as nothing more than the “old Adam” flailing his arms, the “false self” doing what it does.
All this to say, the study of bitterness confirms that how we come to terms with the Law is not small potatoes, and by no means merely a Christian problem. This is a universal issue. But enough editorializing, the noteworthy excerpts include:
Contrary to countless pop culture depictions of cranky old men and bitter spinsters, depression is not a normal part of aging. Several reports have shown that the true culprit behind the pervasiveness of this disorder among people age 65 and older is disability. The National Institute of Mental Health, for instance, estimates that the rate of depression among the elderly ranges from less than 1 percent to about 5 percent, but rises to around 12 percent among those who require health care at home or in a hospital.
New research offers a way for this at-risk group to ward off depression: “goal disengagement.” Concordia University psychologists Erin Dunne and Carsten Wrosch collaborated with University of British Columbia’s Gregory Miller for a study to be published in the journal Health Psychology. Their conclusion in Dunne’s words: “The ability of older adults with functional limitations to withdraw effort and commitment from goals that are no longer attainable can help them avoid increases in depressive symptoms over time.”
LESSON 1: Bitterness follows unwanted experiences—failures, disappointment, setbacks—that are perceived to be beyond one’s control.
Wrosch says: “The quality of the negative emotions we feel when things don’t work out may depend on how we appraise the reasons for failure. If we think that we are responsible ourselves, we may experience regret and sadness. However, if we feel that it was not our fault, but other people were responsible for the problem, then we may be rather angry or bitter.”
LESSON 2: Bitterness occurs when one believes, rightly or wrongly, that other people could have prevented the undesired outcome. Regret involves blaming oneself.
Wrosch says: “Psychologists have shown that certain phenomena, such as regret, are not purely emotional. They involve the construction of specific thoughts that are associated with an alternate reality. Some may think, ‘If I had studied more in school, I would have a better job.’ The same may be true for bitterness, except that the scenarios involve other people: ‘If my colleague hadn’t interfered with my work, I would have finished the project on time.’”
LESSON 6: The embittered should try to reconcile, take some responsibility, and get over the blame game.
Wrosch says: “Bitterness is often experienced in the context of other people who are being blamed for the problem. In some instances, these people may have to be part of the solution, like when a spouse needs to help fix a troubled marriage. In such special case scenarios, people who are bitter may have to change their attributions of blame because otherwise they may run into new problems with the other person.”
LESSON 9: Older adults who can’t curb their bitterness may be compromising their health and happiness.
Wrosch says: “Unfortunately, not every individual’s goal adjustment capacities increase with age. Individuals with difficulties in goal adjustment may become very vulnerable to major psychological problems. In our recently accepted work in Health Psychology, we show that older adults who cannot disengage from unattainable goals, but experience the onset of functional disability, show a steep increase in depressive symptoms over time.”