“Get out of the bitter barn and play in the hay”

Hansjörg Znoj, Features of Embitterment, in Embitterment: Societal, Psychological, and Clinical Perspectives 5 (Michael Linden & Andreas Maercker eds. 2011).

The TV show Friends has resurged like no one’s business recently. The quote in the title of this post comes from that show, and it was Phoebe Buffay who said it in “The One With The Prom Video,” which happens to be the first episode of the show that I ever saw. That was the episode that had the whole Chandler/Joey gold bracelet thing, and, of course, the prom video that started the whole Ross and Rachel relationship.

That quote comes to mind whenever I perceived bitterness in myself and others, which I promise is relevant here.

Anyway, this is the first time in this experiment that I have analyzed a book chapter instead of an article. It was helpful in terms of understanding the psychological construct of bitterness, which has been on my mind a lot lately. However, and perhaps more importantly, it showed that book chapters rarely can stand alone in a rewarding way.

In other words, I may know more about embitterment than I did before, but I’m still not really sure what to do about it.

As it turns out, I think this is an excellent research-related phenomenon to have experienced for myself, and I will definitely bring it up during research instruction that I offer to people in the future. Book chapters are great, and citeable, but they can’t tell a large story and should not be relied on to serve that function. To get multidimensional on a topic, you really need to read the whole book. (Sorry.)

Anyway, bitterness is on my mind, having seen a lot of it lately in myself and others. But I realized that I have been calling people or feelings bitter without really understanding what it means beyond the general social definition. According to the author of this chapter, this is a actually a topic that comes up in the literature. Is bitterness an emotion? If not, what is it, why does it exist, and what can we do to temper its negative effects?

The author started with a rather confusing explanation of two systems that influence what we do: the behavioral activation system (BAS) and the behavioral inhibition system (BIS). Basically the former is a quick evaluation of whether a situation represents a threat, and the latter is a slower process during which a person evaluated whether he or she can cope with a situation. According to the author, the BIS, which includes a mechanism that allows us to assess whether change for the better is possible, is the motivational system that regulates our emotions.

The author then introduced the idea that there are four quadrants of emotion:

  • Hope and joy
  • Anger and aggression
  • Separation and mistrust
  • Resignation, hopelessness, and depression

The author states that embitterment is the result of two things going wrong:

  • The person experiences either injustice or neglect, and perceives it as a threat.
  • The person loses something that they feel is important (another person, a state of well-being, etc.)

The author then posits that, in cases of lack of emotional equilibrium, embitterment is the missing link between aggression and depression, and it explains why people who are excluded from rewarding social experiences have the reaction (bitterness) that they do. In other words, bitterness stems from the feeling of “being cheated or mistreated by others and, in chronic cases, can be seen as the result of violated beliefs.” While embitterment is not a “basic emotion” like aggression or depression, it is a “separate but correlated construct and therefore a distinguishable state of feeling.”

Finally, the author’s stated goal in writing the chapter was to “present embitterment or bitterness as a normal reaction” and encourage a better understanding of “the specific difficulties people may experience.”

I think that looking at a phenomenon like bitterness as having emerged as a result of an emotional imbalance between aggression and depression is helpful, at least initially. But what can be done to temper bitterness’s negative effects on people, on groups, and on situations? That’s the real question. We all have a bitter colleague, a bitter family member, a bitter _____ who is VERY unpleasant to deal with. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to guess that if we all were able to dial back our bitterness a notch or 100, situations like meetings, family dinners, social media conversations, etc. would be a lot more enjoyable and productive.

Maybe it’s helpful to remember that the bitterness comes from a place of powerless — if people feel empowered, then perhaps bitterness will not or cannot be present in them. However, it might also be helpful to remember that feelings of power are highly subjective. The current occupant of the White House is one of the most powerful people on the planet, and yet also, at least in my view, one of the bitterest, because there is a mismatch between the power he has and the power he feels that he deserves. Of course this brings up the whole idea of ENTITLEMENT, which seems like the next topic I need to read about.

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