At our October workshop on workplace bullying held in Boston, no topic generated more intense discussion than post-traumatic embitterment disorder (PTED).
PTED is a psychiatric disorder proposed by Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist, grounded in his findings that people may become so embittered by a negative life event that normal functioning is impaired. In a 2003 article published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics (abstract here; article must be purchased), Dr. Linden defines the elements of PTED:
- “a single exceptional negative life event precipitates the onset of the illness”;
- “the present negative state developed in the direct context of this event”;
- “the emotional response is embitterment and feelings of injustice”;
- “repeated intrusive memories of the event”;
- “emotional modulation is unimpaired, patients can even smile when engaged in thoughts of revenge”; and,
- “no obvious other mental disorder that can explain the reaction.”
Linden lists other symptoms, including severe depression, “feelings of helplessness,” disrupted sleep, aggression, and even suicidal ideation. PTED lasts “longer than 3 months,” during which “(p)erformance in daily activities and roles is impaired.”
PTED is not yet a recognized condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), considered the most authoritative source for defining mental disorders. However, Dr. Linden and others are producing a growing body of peer review research on PTED that supports the possibility of eventual inclusion.
PTED and workplace bullying
When I first wrote about the relationship between PTED and workplace bullying some four years ago, the post attracted dozens of comments from readers. The topic obviously strikes a chord, with some nodding their heads in agreement and others questioning its application to bullying.
The word embitterment tends to carry negative connotations. Someone tagged as embittered is often regarded as being angry and unpleasant. Because the term refers to individuals, it’s easy to dismiss how they got this way. In fact, more often than not, they are blamed for stewing in their own juices, as if they had a character flaw. The circumstances that triggered these emotions — in this context, various forms of workplace mistreatment — usually get a free pass.
However, I suggest looking at this differently. How about acknowledging that anger, even deep, ongoing anger, is a natural response to unjust actions and behaviors that threaten or destroy one’s health, livelihood, and/or career? Obviously being stuck in a state of embitterment isn’t good for anyone, but let’s not blame a person for having these feelings, while failing to hold an employer accountable for having precipitated the response.
As for moving beyond embitterment, that’s a necessary piece of the discussion as well. Last year I wrote about the challenges that some targets of workplace bullying face in getting “unstuck,” at least to a point where the bullies and bullying behaviors no longer have an emotional stranglehold on their lives. Acknowledging embitterment as a potential and normal consequence of workplace bullying can be an important part of that recovery process.
Thanks to Tanya Sidawi-Ostojic for her Boston workshop talk on PTED. She will be continuing her doctoral research on this topic, which certainly merits our attention.