The shame of blame

It can be comforting to shift attention away from yourself when things go wrong. Even just in your own mind blaming someone else, or something else, can create a shield that means you might not have to look at what part you played in the way things turned out. So blame can help you feel a little better for a while but in the long run it can be harmful to your health and may even constitute a medical disorder.

Carsten Wrosch is a professor in the Concordia University Department of Psychology. He has been conducting research for fifteen years on the effects of negative emotions and his focus for the last few years on blame and bitterness has led to some stark conclusions.

Whereas regret is an emotion that turns inward and accuses the self, blame and bitterness are directed outwards. According to Wrosch his research shows that long-term bitterness and grudges can actually forecast physical problems. The physical effects of prolonged bitterness are said to be altered metabolism, impaired immune response, and disrupted organ function. All of this will lead to some form of physical disease.

Beyond the physical effects of blame, Wrosch and others in the field like Michael Linden, head of the psychiatric clinic at the Free University of Berlin, are saying that bitterness should be regarded as a mental illness.

The proponents of this idea are suggesting that a new disease should be acknowledged: PTED (post-traumatic embitterment disorder). The estimates are that between one and two per cent of the population suffers from the disorder and by naming it they might be able to get the treatment that they need.

Researchers like Wrosch and Linden say that bitterness can be avoided. If something happens that disappoints you then you can look for other ways to fulfil your goals. If you can’t do that then in psychological terms it is essential to disengage from fruitless effort (to get an impossible promotion or save a doomed relationship) and re-engage in something that has just as much meaning for you (perhaps changing your job or finding a new passion).

Disengaging and re-engaging are called self-regulation processes and the capacity to self-regulate is necessary to avoid holding onto blame and bitter emotions. In addition to self-regulation in some cases the capacity to forgive is also necessary if negative emotions are to be let go.

Forgiveness requires perspective and self-regulation requires self-awareness. There are as many ways to achieve these qualities as there are individuals but perspective and self-awareness does sound like a prescription for a spot of meditation practice.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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