It’s not me, it’s you. All of you.

I recently learnt the term “Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder (PTED). I wasn’t unaware that the beast existed; I’ve seen it; I’ve felt it. I didn’t know, however, that it was a thing, officially recognised by people with letters after their name, with a proper posh label and serious articles written about it.

PTED is a right bastard. Affected sufferers not only focus solely on the negative things in life, but also tend to seek those experiences that confirm the accuracy of their negativity, whether it’s in real life (e.g. only dating certain awful people) or in the media (e.g. only reading certain awfulising papers). The combination of negative mindset and terrible life choices means that their lives become indeed miserable. Not only this sucks for them, but it sucks for anyone around them. As a result, it is very easy for them to end up either utterly alone or surrounded exclusively by those enablers, parasites, and predators who can benefit from their weakened, miserable state. Neither result is conducive to finding happiness.

The thing I find really interesting is that the T in PTED is kind of an optional extra. The original research on this phenomenon stemmed from PTSD research, but clinical observations suggest that the underlying cause of PTED is not a physical threat to life, but threats to one’s basic belief system:

“From our own clinical observation comes a more specific model, which stipulates a violation of strong ‘basic beliefs’ as the cause for a pervasive mood not of ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’, but of feelings of injustice and ‘embitterment’. Basic beliefs can be conceptualized as value systems that are learned in childhood and adolescence. They encompass religious or political beliefs and values as well as basic definitions of oneself and one’s personal goals in life. They are needed to guide coherent behavior over the life cycle of an individual, and even over generations for groups and whole nations. This makes them resistant to change, even when confronted with opposing evidence. (…) It is hypothesized that the core pathogenic mechanism in PTED is a characteristic mismatch between basic beliefs and critical event, so that the event activates this particular, deeply held belief and the associated emotions.”

This obviously applies to people whose basic beliefs did not encompass the possibility of interpersonal violence – and, whaddayaknow, I’m writing about it in my new, upcoming book… which will be out in April… on the Kindle and in print… end of shameless book plug.

However, just because there’s a “T” in the label, it doesn’t mean that the same phenomenon doesn’t come into play in non-physically-traumatic situations. The critical element here is that our basic beliefs come into attack, and plenty of stuff can do that. In fact, the more disconnected from reality our beliefs are, the more likely it is for us to experience events that will shake them.


I know a lot of people for whom certain things “always happen for no reason.” They always-and-for-no-reason get fired, or dumped, or assaulted, or thrown out of public establishments, or or or… It’s always something that happens AT them. There is never any legitimate cause for it. It is a heinous behaviour they are continually being put through by something (e.g. The System) or somebody (e.g. All Women, All Men, All Bosses).

When they go through one of these events, they often turn vitriolic. For instance, their contract does not get renewed, so they endeavour to sabotage their workplace as much as feasible on the way out. They give no thought to how this behaviour not only burns bridges, but proves their ‘enemies’ right. They also give not thought to the possible future impact of this behaviour; to how much harder it can be to find jobs, friends, or partners if your reputation for spitefulness or imbalance precedes you.

Some of them even engage in pre-emptive revenge. They know their partner will dump them eventually, so they might as well cheat all the way through their relationship. They know their boss will fire them eventually, so they might as well steal from work. They know strangers will attack them for no reason, so they might as well throw the first punch.

In all this, they are utterly incapable of seeing their contribution to their own problems. They just can’t see it. And I reckon there’s more than a smidgeon of PTED in this.

Some people’s inner identities have very little connection with the identities people around them experience. They are utterly convinced that they are Nice Guys, Perfect Girlfriends, Hard Workers, or Creative Geniuses. What the public actually experience are Manipulative Assholes, Obsessive Neurotics, Pedantic Workaholics, or Useless Parasites. People think that their lives are living manifestations of worthy qualities, e.g. Rejecting The Artificial Demands Of The System. What the public is subjected to is very different, e.g. Someone So Dirty You Can’t Taste Your Own Food Over Their Smell.

(Seriously, that happened to me. I sat across a table with a dude so intent on telling me how vastly superior he was to most humans for making his own path in life and sticking it to the man, that he couldn’t notice that I wasn’t touching my food. I couldn’t eat because all I could smell were his feet. And when I eventually told him, because I had to leave or throw up, he interpreted that as a sign that I was a slave to the system, and needful of a lecture about it. Because Hygiene Is An Imposed Value.)

For many of us, the reality of our inner identity is a very critical belief. Anything that threatens to crush it can become anathema. When that anything is a certain group of people (for instance, our preferred dating pool), having to constantly battle to defend our inner identities against their onslaught can embitter us against them. An embittered attitude can make us act like righteous asses… and round and round it goes.


4 thoughts on “It’s not me, it’s you. All of you.

  1. Ouch.

    That kind of delusion is indeed self-reinforcing. Perhaps even to a point of no return — precisely because most people, like you with House Burnt Down Guy, won’t see the point of trying to give advice. At best he’ll misinterpret it the same way he misinterprets pretty much everything else. Going down from there, he just might misinterpret your help as a personal attack and “retaliate” — and G*d only knows what he would consider appropriate retaliation for daring to disagree with him.

    So how can I know I’m “just” being a nonconformist, not a complete jerk?

    First and foremost, if most people around me do the same thing there’s certainly a reason for it. And likely it’s a good reason — certainly I’d better check it out before dismissing it.

    Golden Rule: How would I like others doing to me what I do to them?

    We’re a rationalizing species. (Probably many more of us go a whole week without sex than without a good rationalization.) When I justify my actions, do I at least cite consistent concerns — or do I just tend to pick, say, whatever is less work for me?

    Birds of a feather flock together. If I’ve got some good people for friends, I’m probably OK. If I’m totally alone — or the only non-a**hole in my little group — I’d better start asking myself some hard questions.

    Oh yeah, and speaking of friends…how many of them have known me for a long time? If six months or a year ago, I hadn’t even yet met the bulk of the people I call friends…that’s cause for concern.

    What self-assessment tools could you (anyone reading this) recommend?


  2. Jeffery, there’s an old saying that if one of your friends think that you are an ass, you can safely ignore it, but if a lot of your friends do, go get fitted for a saddle and bridle. So I think at least part of knowing if my assholiness quotient is getting out of bounds is watching my friends’ responses. But then, I generally do like being an ass, so there’s that.

    Anna, thanks for posting this. I had a FOAF who had decided that basic manners/courtesies/politeness was a Mark Of Being A Tool Of The Oppression. So meals with them were a symphony of burps, farts, vies of the inside of their (full) mouths, spitting things out violently and asking “who made this shit?” (that would be me, thank you very much) if it didn’t meet their standards, etc. Not to mention not bathing, or washing clothes. I have had to work hard not to bark at my kids as they grew up, for acting like kids.

    Anyway, I came from Capt. Awkward. Thanks for writing.


    • Hello John,

      Excellent point. Note that it works best *before* all of your good friends (in both senses of the term) have deserted you. Once assholes replace them, said assholes “like” you just the way you are: Someone who has to put up with *their* crap because no one else will put up with yours.

      This also works with co-workers, bosses, roommates/landlords, teachers/professors, etc. If you’re not really popular that doesn’t ***NECESSARILY*** mean your asshole factor is a standard deviation or two above the mean.

      But that should be your null hypothesis*, so in that case talk one-to-one with a few folks who seem to at least tolerate you and ask each of them something like “Hey, I’m working on my behavior and I know I’ve done a few things that have upset others. If you’ve got any suggestions I’d love to hear them.” Then *listen* — you don’t have to agree, but (1) Listen, (2) Repeat it back to them in your own words to make sure you’ve got it, (3) Thank them and say you’ll give it serious consideration and (4) Then actually seriously consider it.

      (Note the complete absence of argument.)

      And to drill down from what you said, if just one person says, for example, that you interrupt and talk over people that may be one thing. If three or more people each separately say that you interrupt and talk over people…the smart money is that you do.

      [*] That is, your default assumption until and unless proven otherwise.

      PS: I’m actually J-e-f-f-r-e-y, but why don’t you just call me Jeff? Thanks and have a great rest of your day!


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