Envy, Bitterness, Regret- Oh My!

In this Christmas season, the advertisements and movies mostly focus on family, love, hope and joy- and rightly so. Unfortunately for people who are struggling, that can make this time of year painful and very much like salt in a wound. As Ebenezer Scrooge said in the early moments of the famous Charles Dickens classic, for many people Christmas is a “humbug” — that is a fraud or a trick-at least for many that is the feeling at this time of year.

But why?

We rarely talk about envy as a driving human compulsion- but it is real and it is one of the most powerful negative forces known to man. Envy is different from jealousy (where you rightly have a claim and want to keep what is yours, even if that manifests in inappropriate response) or from aspiration (where you want something better and it drives you to improve).

Envy is that force that compares what you have with what someone else has, and the gap causes hate and animosity towards the person who has more. Envy eats away at people- and at this time of year it is common for people to perceive that others have happier families, more money, friends and parties- and more, and more, and more of everything! The proliferation of social media has exacerbated this false reality and created a veneer that people can easily show to the world.

Envy turns to bitterness — and as Scrooge exemplified, that bitterness is a cancer infecting every aspect of life and relationships. Bitterness is the sister of despair — which is driven from the sense that the current negative condition is a trap that can’t be escaped. The results of bitterness are inevitably loneliness (it isn’t pleasant being around someone who is perpetually sour and negative) — which leads to regret.

Regret is interesting, because it can in some ways be related to aspiration. When we think about Scrooge’s visits from the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, they can be cast in the context of envy, bitterness and regret. In the past, Scrooge was consumed with envy towards people who were more successful, so he pursued financial gain to the exclusion of all else. This left him alone and bitter in the present. The ghost of Christmas yet to come showed him a miserable death- alone and with no one who cared that he was gone. Scrooge took that regret and used it as inspiration to change his behavior, to act more generously to others today, and in so doing shed the baggage of the past.

So, what does that mean for us this Christmas season?

1) Step away from the social media. A wise man once referred to the thrill that we get when people “like” and “share” or posts as “fake wins”- and likewise, when we see the perfect lives of others through the filter of social media, that is equally fake. Live life without the screen in the face this holiday season.

2) Be honest with yourself about where there may be envy eating away at you, and recognize that it is only hurting you- not the person you are envious towards. Let it go. I thought this article was particularly good on how to do that- it is worth a read. But if you don’t have time, take away this one thing — no one has it all, and everyone has challenges that you can’t see. Be generous, it will make your heart happy.

3) Likewise, with bitterness. The opposite of bitterness is forgiveness. You may say “but how can I forgive that person after what they have done to me”. Yes- some people have done horrible things. I marvel when I hear stories about parents who confront the people who have murdered their children — and forgive them. I pray to never be in that situation but I admire so much their love and courage. For most of us the infraction we are suffering is so much less significant- but forgiveness is a gift to the one doing the forgiving. Give yourself that gift this season, and so often we are the person who needs forgiving- so start by forgiving yourself!

4) Let regret be your tool for positive action. Call the family member and make amends. Resolve to be responsible with your finances. Apply for the new job. Take the online class. Say “I’m sorry”. Smile at someone. Volunteer. Eat a healthy meal. Go for a walk. Every great achievement started with one small action. Once you make one step, the next can follow. There are so many inspirational and motivational stories of people who have turned their bad situations into good- and you can do that too! Look up stories of others and use that as inspiration. (Some of my favorites on this topic are “How Starbucks Saved My Life” by Michael Gill, “Love Does” by Bob Goff, “Die Empty” by Todd Henry, or “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama — for shorter reads you can try this post or this one for a bit of inspiration)

Make your Christmas yet to come the one you want to have. We are not powerless to reach the future that we want, but we can’t be passive bystanders in our own lives. Turn envy, bitterness and regret into love, hope and success in your life. I wish you all the very best this holiday season!

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