What makes bitter people the way they are?
You’ve run out of ideas on how to help someone in your life see things in a more positive light.
The more you try, the more signs of bitterness you pick up in their words and behavior.
You recognize the negativity at the root of everything they say and do.
And it’s exhausting.
Where does it all come from?
And what can you do about it?
What is Bitterness in a Person?
The answer to “What are the causes of bitterness?” depends on whom you ask. Most bitter people are holding onto an old wound they feel unable or unwilling to forget.
They often don’t realize they have the power to choose differently, because the pain they’re holding onto blinds them to any other way.
Whatever the details, bitterness starts with some kind of trauma. It’s for that reason German psychiatrist and professor Michael Linden proposed calling it “post-traumatic embitterment disorder” or PTED.
Not all who experience trauma develop the fear-based anxiety that often leads to a diagnosis of PTSD. But they can still suffer long-term negative effects. An embittered spirit can be one of them.
And while bitter people can be difficult to be around, understanding them better does help. We’re not justifying terrible behavior, but the list below does help explain it a bit.
11 Characteristics of a Bitter Person
If you know a bitter person (or more than one), the following characteristics should sound familiar. Make a note of the points that stand out for you.
1. They hold a grudge like their life depends on it.
They won’t forget. They won’t leave themselves vulnerable to the same pain. Better to keep everyone at a safe distance than to risk being exposed or attacked. They see the same warning signs in everyone they meet. Because they’re always looking for them.
To them, it’s a survival thing. They can’t afford to risk further trauma. They haven’t even processed (let alone healed from) the one they’ve already suffered.
Grudges are the best way to ensure they’ll never forget—and never give you a chance to hurt them again.
2. They’re always complaining.
They focus only on the negative and always find something or someone to complain about. It’s not their fault life is a total suckfest and people are horrible.
Life and other people are the problem. And what can they do but call it as they see it?
Ask them to stop complaining or to think of something good in their life, and they’re likely to accuse you of “toxic positivity”—as if, by asking them to be more positive, you’re invalidating their pain. And now you’ve become someone they complain about.
3. They’re not grateful for the good in their life.
Most times, they don’t even see it. They’re too busy focusing on what’s wrong to notice what’s good. And they don’t want you or anyone pressuring them to be grateful.
As with positive thinking, they interpret any suggestion that they practice gratitude as a self-righteous dismissal of what they’ve suffered in the past—and what they continue to suffer because they refuse to let go of that pain. Or, in their view, it won’t let go of them.
If their main takeaway from life is negative, expressing gratitude feels disingenuous.
4. They want only bad things for those who have hurt them.
Once someone has hurt or offended the bitter person, there’s nothing they can do to earn that person’s forgiveness. Cross them once, and you’re an enemy forever.
And enemies should be glad the bitter person doesn’t hunt them down. Things to do, etc.
So, the bitter person honestly does not care if bad things happen to people who’ve hurt or offended them in some way. In fact, they prefer to hear bad news where those offenders are concerned. They might even be gleeful about it.
The only downside is if they’re not able to see just how much the other person is suffering.
5. They’re jealous of anything good that happens to others.
They’re especially jealous and resentful if something good happens to someone who hurt or offended them. If only karma would pass the torch once in a while, they’d make sure nothing good happened for those bottom-feeders.
Anything good that happens to someone they’re angry with feels like a slap in the face.
If they could turn blessings into curses, they would. And for that reason, their entire existence is more a curse than a blessing to them.
So, they keep wishing the same on others.
6. They can’t share in someone else’s joy.
Bitter people find it difficult to celebrate even with people they care about. Someone else’s joy feels as though life has, once again, not only passed them by but smacked them upside the head (just for fun) — especially if the one celebrating is an enemy.
Even if they aren’t, though — even if they’re someone the bitter person loves — something in them is blocking their capacity to empathize and feel the same joy.
They see other people happy, and it only reminds them of how comparatively joyless their life is. They’re more likely to feel offended or excluded than to join in the celebration.
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7. They act out to get attention.
If someone else is getting all the attention, the bitter person will do what they can to upstage the interloper and remind everyone that they should have the spotlight.
They’ve already forgotten whatever that poser said, because it’s not as important as what they have to share. And just to spice things up, they’ll embellish the news with a bit of exaggeration (just a bit) and an extra helping of melodrama.
If the reaction is not what they hoped, they’ll up their game and invent a juicy scandal. Or, if possible, they’ll make a scene that humiliates the object of their jealousy.
8. They’re cynical.
They expect the worst from people. Because people are, well, the worst—some more than others. They also expect the worst from life, even when good things happen.
They’re more likely to either focus on negative details or to explain away any blessing.
They often use sarcasm or scornful language to express their thoughts. Negative thoughts are the only ones they entertain with any regularity, so most, if not all, of what comes out of their mouth is negative, too.
And if other people “knew” what they did, they’d think the same way.
9. They’re quick to blame others for their problems.
Bitter people are more likely to blame others for their problems than to take responsibility for them. The very idea that they might be prolonging their own suffering is anathema to them—proof that you just don’t understand.
Much as they might bristle at the idea of being a victim, they’re quick to turn any complaint into an opportunity to blame someone else.
Ask them what they could do to make their situation better, and they’re more likely to point at the obstacles (real or imaginary) and blame someone else for putting them there.
How could the bad things in their life be their fault when they’re the one suffering?
10. They have nothing positive to say about positive people.
The bitter person often has harsh words for those described as positive people. Anyone who describes their life in glowing terms, expressing gratitude and dwelling on what they love must be a phony, a Pollyanna, or a moron.
They must not have experienced what the bitter person has suffered. They can’t possibly have suffered as badly (let alone worse) if they’re going around being positive all the time.
Bitter people prefer bitter company—people who “get” them. They don’t want their viewpoint challenged by someone whose ready smile is a direct affront to their chosen mindset. Positivity has no place in their world. So, neither do positive people.
11. They make (and defend) sweeping assumptions.
The bitter person can’t look too hard at what they say, think, or do. Quick as they are to criticize others, they can’t bring themselves to ask, “Is this really true?” about something they put forth as true or factual. It must be true, and how dare you suggest otherwise?
Ask them about their sources, and chances are good they won’t have more than assertions and insults to back them up.
Confronted with something that doesn’t fit their idea of how people should be, the bitter person will make assumptions about them (none of which are likely to be flattering).
And they’re happy to share what they “know.”
Now that you’re better acquainted with the characteristics of a bitter person, which ones stood out for you? And what will you do differently today?