In a paper greeted enthusiastically at the May conference of the American Psychiatric Association, in San Francisco, a new name was given to a common problem, Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder. My initial response: another excuse to drug people. However, upon thinking it over, I think that the word embittered does describe the essence of a serious problem. Many of us suffer from some degree of jealousy and bitterness about the injustices in our lives. But does that make us embittered? I would hope not. So, what characterizes embittered people? Here are some actual examples (the names have been changed):
Chedva was so happy at her vort last Motzei Shabbos. Finally, at the age of 23, she has found her bashert. She likes her future mother-in-law and her future husband is a gentle soul who loves to learn, and is also a musician – just perfect for her! Her mood changed swiftly the next morning when her mother angrily attacked her, “I was up the entire night crying because of you.” “What did I do?” asked Chedva, feeling the life drain out of her body. “I was so insulted,” said her mother. “You talked to your future mother-in-law almost the entire time and kept taking pictures with her! You have no kibud horim!” Feeling like a sinner who deserved the death sentence, Chedva listened submissively as her mother blamed her for being one more source of misery in her life.
For years, Mina has kept the family tradition of bringing her children to visit her parents every Shabbos. However, last week, the weather in B’nai Brak was unbearable. Desperate for sleep after giving birth to her 10th child, she decided to stay home and rest, although she dutifully sent her older children to visit their grandparents. The next day, one relative after another called to berate her, “How dare you? Daddy was furious and didn’t stop talking about how offended he was that you didn’t show up, like he was going to have a heart attack from grief. Call right away and make amends.”
Shlomo’s mother constantly berated him, calling daily to complain about his wife. “Why wasn’t I the first to know about the pregnancy?” she raged. “Why is she so cold to me?” Shlomo didn’t know what to say. He felt he had to listen for kibud horim. But her complaints were like poison, driving a wedge between him and his wife, who refused to go to his parents’ house for Shabbos. Caught between two angry women, his stomach turned in fear and shame.
These parents are embittered people, determined to make those closest to them feel unlovable, stupid and inadequate. Although they are often powerful, socially active people who are convinced that no one is as devoted and self-sacrificing as they are, they can erupt like a nuclear reactor, spewing bitterness at family members or workers who fail to live up to their expectations. In addition, they are:
Dependent Bullies: They act helpless yet bully others into subservience. As long as people are listening to them, giving them gifts or acting submissive, they seem happy and quite adoring. However, the minute the attention stops, they become spiteful and will harangue their victims – “No one cares/helps/loves me! The more time you spend with them, the longer the list gets, as you inevitably disappoint them hundreds of times each day by your very presence. Whatever you do, you cannot do it fast enough or well enough for them. In their eyes, you are a failure – unless they want something from you, at which point they can become surprisingly gracious and charming!
Touchy in the Extreme: They take everything others do personally. Thus, they constantly feel insulted, neglected and rejected, by the most innocent actions of others – the fact that you didn’t fold the napkins to their liking, didn’t call more often or didn’t stay longer, didn’t wrap the gift or left footprints on the rug, etc. They think your actions are deliberately hurtful.
Insanely Jealous: They are sure that everyone else is happier, more loved, more successful or getting more attention than they are. If you try to get them to focus on the good in their lives, they get angrier. If you avoid them, they spend hours crying to others that you have insulted and abandoned them, inciting people to hate you.
Empty: Because they suffer from intense feelings of emptiness, they become even more anxious when anyone is relaxed or happy. To fill the empty void within themselves, they focus on some flaw in others or make false accusations, causing a huge fight and a very distracting uproar, which ruins every Shabbos meal or simcha.
Filled with Blame: They blame others for not being loyal, attentive, respectful, quick or smart enough to please them and make them happy.
Paranoid: They see signs of betrayal or abandonment in the fact that you are successful or show love for anything or anyone else.
Unstable: You never know what to expect, whether they will kiss you or kick you. You can’t know what will set off a jealous rage or explosive tirade, repeating their refrain, “No one loves or appreciates me. No one is as devoted as I am.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Like an anorexic who thinks she is fat, embittered people are sure that no one suffers as much as they do. Any attempt to even hint that they might not be seeing reality correctly will often cause them to attack you. You must focus on the three areas in which you do have choice, i.e., thought, speech and action. For example:
Avoid Shame: You can’t “fix” them. It is likely that they were abused or neglected in childhood, which resulted in an inability to trust people. Despite all your efforts to please, it will never be good enough. They can’t be pleased and will refuse all your helpful suggestions as to how they can feel less lonely, such as doing chesed, going to classes or seeking help.
Avoid False Hope: They will not change. Despite moments of passion and fun, especially when they want something from you, unless they make a firm commitment to change their thoughts and behaviors and without this intense effort the relationship will be like a “house of cards,” tumbling down the minute they feel hurt. Unfortunately, you are bound to do something that hurts them, even if it is simply not being available or tracking dirt onto the floor.
Disconnect: Research has shown that those who live or work with nasty-tempered people do suffer from more mental and physical illnesses, especially auto-immune diseases. Yet you may be addicted to them, thinking about them 24/7 – how to please them, how to avoid being attacked by them or how to recover from them. Avoid responding, and if possible, move away for sheer pikuach nefesh. Their lack of emotional maturity can cripple you.
Make Decisions: Create a sense of self-worth by being proud of your smallest decisions. State your individual opinions and take initiative. Form bonds with trustworthy people; otherwise your own ability to trust will be harmed. Do things that make you happy, even if they are terribly offended by your choices.
Spot Emotional Blackmail: They will use words like kibud horim or shalom bayis. This is emotional blackmail. Talking and trying to reason with them and make them understand will only pull you back into the web of deceit.
Remember, no matter what pain a person has experienced, an adult is responsible for his moods and middos. You are not to blame for the fact that they are bitter, lonely or depressed. This is a serious disorder that you did not create, cannot control and cannot cure. Healthy relationships are not built on guilt and fear.