When we have a bad experience, or fail to achieve a goal or overcome a challenge, many of us let these experiences roll off our backs and we move forward only slightly affected. However, according to Carsten Wrosch, a psychology professor from Montréal,1 for those who are unable to resolve issues or let go, there are two distinct, negative, long-lasting emotions that they are likely to experience – regret or bitterness.

He suggests that the main difference between these two feelings is where we place the blame. Blaming oneself causes remorsefulness and regret, which might eventually lead to depression. Blaming someone or something else causes us to become bitter, angry, and hostile. This article will focus on the effects of bitterness.

Ongoing emotional problems can affect biological regulation, such as hormones and immune function, as well as physical disease, so it is very important for those of us with a gastrointestinal illness to keep feelings of bitterness from taking hold. To avoid the lasting effects of bitterness, it is important to take responsibility for our actions and to choose to forgive others.

Wrosch claims that we must engage in adaptive self-regulation whenever we fail to achieve goals and suggests that there are two ways to do this.

  1. Engagement process: if there is still a reasonable chance to achieve the goal, we should keep reaching for it. For example, if you’re looking for work in a field for which you’re qualified, yet employers reject the first few applications you’ve submitted, it is reasonable for you to continue trying. A suitable position may still become available, or a revised cover letter and résumé might lead to success.
  2. Adaptive self-regulation: if you’re faced with an impossible goal, such as if you wish to obtain a job for which you’re not fully qualified, you could engage in adaptive self-regulation,by first disengaging, or stopping your effort into the current goal, and then re-engaging in another, more reasonable, goal. For example, you could seek a more suitable position, or make efforts to obtain the training or experience required for your desired career. Focusing your efforts on a new goal can reduce or eliminate the negative feelings that resulted from failing to achieve your original goal.

Interestingly, the elderly are generally more competent in using adaptive self-regulation than the younger generations. Even though older individuals have likely had more exposure to problems that could result in bitterness, people tend to become better at overcoming these obstacles over time. Older adults may be more willing to adjust their goals more often, and maintain a more positive mental state than do younger individuals. However, this is not true for all elderly individuals, some of whom have difficulty adapting to goal failure. These people are at an especially high risk of complications related to bitterness, since they might face more challenges than younger individuals.

Learning to use these two techniques whenever you experience negative life experiences could help prevent bitterness and the physical problems associated with negative emotions. Those who engage in adaptive self-regulation also have greater subjective wellbeing and tend to be more optimistic about the future.


Could Prolonged Embitterment be a Disorder?

A number of psychiatrists today are suggesting that a new disorder, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), should become a real diagnosis for individuals suffering from debilitating bitterness. Initially recognized by German psychiatrist, Michael Linden, post-traumatic embitterment disorder (PTED) would include people who experience a negative life event that they find unjust, causing them to become bitter and angry, and who also have feelings of helplessness. These people experience many negative effects that last longer than three months and greatly affect daily life. The debilitating nature of this proposed disorder, and the fact that it is clinically different from PTSD and other similar disorders, is causing many psychiatrists to support the introduction of PTED as an official diagnosis.2

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 181 – 2012
1. Wrosch C et al. Self-regulation of bitterness across the lifespan. In: Linden M, Maercker A. Embitterment: Societal, Psychological, and Clinical Perspectives. New York, NY: Springer; 2011: 129-141.
2. Linden M et al. The Psychopathology of Posttraumatic Embitterment Disorders. Psychopathology. 2007;40:159-65.