When People Are Mean

When Mean People Suck TeeThe first time I saw a T-shirt that said “mean people suck,” I thought, Now, there is a heartfelt sentiment, succinctly expressed. I only wished I’d been the author. I mention this because recently I’ve encountered several mean people, and I’ve had to remind myself that the concept of authorship is key to surviving these experiences.

I don’t know about you, but my favorite ways of reacting to mean people are (1) getting mean right back or (2) lying down quietly to display the word welcome! written where my spine used to be. Annoyingly, my job constantly reminds me that there’s a more responsible and effective way to live. That’s how it is for us authors. I say “us” because you’re an author, too. Not all of us write for publication, but every living person has the power of authorship when it comes to composing our lives. Meanness emerges when we believe that we have no such power, that we’re passive receptors of life’s vagaries. Inner peace follows when we begin responding to cruelty—our own and other people’s—with the authority we’ve possessed all along.

Why are people mean?

Here’s the short answer: They’re hurt. Here’s the long answer: They’re really hurt. At some point, somebody—their parents, their lovers, Lady Luck—did them dirty. They were crushed. And they’re still afraid the pain will never stop, or that it will happen again.

There. I’ve just described every single person living on planet Earth.

The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine, depending on how they “write” it. The moment we begin tolerating meanness, in ourselves or others, we are using our authorial power in the service of wrongdoing. We have both the capacity and the obligation to do better.

We perceive our life events as story lines. We continually (though often unconsciously) tell ourselves tales about life, and since no story can include every tiny event, we edit and spin the facts into the stories we prefer. Many of our stories are pure fabrication, and all of them are biased, dominated by our flair for the dramatic, our theories about life, and our fears. A typical mean person’s story line goes like this: “I am a victim; people want to hurt me; I must hurt them first to be safe.” This is why mean people may turn ugly when you say something like “Please pass the salt” or “Hey, it’s raining.” They immediately rewrite whatever they hear to support their story line (“She’s saying I’m a bad cook” or “He’s bringing up the weather to avoid talking about us”). The story, not other people’s behavior, both motivates and excuses their hostility.

If we react to this type of meanness with cruelty of our own, we climb onto the wheel of suffering that drives all conflict, from lovers’ spats to wars: You’re mean to me so I’m mean to you so you’re meaner to me so I’m meaner to you….

We’ll stay on this sickening merry-go-round until we decide to get off—and please note that I did not say “when others stop being mean to us.” We can ride the wheel of suffering when no one else is even present (telling ourselves the same old sad story again and again), and we can leave it even in the midst of violent persecution. The way out is not found in changing our circumstances but in the power of authorship.

Here are some ways to use that power…

Like any work of fiction, your life story begins with description. Try sitting down and writing a one-page account of your life (no stressing over style; this is for your eyes only).

Now go get a hat. That’s right, a hat. When you wear this hat, you become the Reader, a different person from the Author. Put on your hat and read what you’ve written, pretending you’ve never seen it. Ask yourself, Is this the story of a hero or a victim? Is it a tale of the terrible things that have happened to the central character (you), or does it speak in terms of the choices you’ve made to create those circumstances? Do you dwell on vengeance or gratitude? Do difficult people and situations appear as forces who control you or as problems you are busily solving?

Now take off your hat and get a second piece of paper. Write another description of your life, one that is more heroic than the last (if your first story was valiant, make this one even more so). Mention times you chose wisely, instances when people were kind to you, moments you knew that no matter how bad things looked, you were going to succeed.

Don your hat, read your new history, and see how it compares to the first draft. I suspect that you’ll find it much more interesting and enjoyable. You’ve just exercised the storytelling talent that will take you off the wheel of suffering: the power to write your character as a hero rather than a victim.

This skill not only keeps you from being mean to others—if you’re consciously composing your life as a hero’s saga, you won’t excuse your own cruelty or anyone else’s—but also guides you to healthy options when others are mean to you. You’ll respond bravely but compassionately to the villains you encounter. You may need practice, but you can compose your hero’s saga with your actions, not just the written word. Feel hemmed in by obligations to children, siblings, parents? You are free to say no, even if it rocks the family boat. Trapped in an unenlightened culture?

You are free to act on your own principles, whatever the response. Take your liberty. Use your power. Rewrite every memory of your own victimization as a hero’s adventure.

“Mean” can also be defined as “small.”

Mean people live small, think small, and feel small—the smaller, the meaner. The belief that we are smaller and less powerful than others underlies most meanness, even when that belief is delusional. But we can also use our author’s imagination to size things in our favor. Think of a person who’s been nasty to you. Imagine that person shrinking to one inch tall. Picture your enemy stomping around in the palm of your hand, yelling or sneering all the customary cruelties. You’ll find that if your critic is making a valid point, it will still sound accurate, but mere verbal abuse is hilarious when squeaked in the voice of an inch-tall Mini-Mean.

Whatever your reaction to this tiny villain, that’s probably the best way to react to your life-size challenger. If the insults are laughable, just laugh. If the mean person has a point, tell her that you get it, but she could stand to work on her people skills. Practice what you would say if you felt big and invulnerable, then say it, even if you’re scared. Be “big” by responding to cruelty with honest calm rather than aggression or submissiveness.

Ernest Hemingway claimed the most essential talent for a good writer was simply a “built-in, shockproof shit detector.” Great authorship is all about truth. To write the stories of our lives as honestly as possible, we must thoroughly reject crap. This is especially useful when cruelty masquerades as kindness. Some of the most merciless behavior ever perpetrated looks very nice. The sweeter a lie sounds, the meaner it really is.

“Honey, people are whispering about your weight.” “Stop talking back, or you’ll lose that husband of yours.” “Oh, sweetheart, that’s way too big a dream for you.” Statements like these may be well-intentioned feedback—or spite. The difference is that honesty, even the tough stuff, makes you feel clearer and stronger, while meanness leaves you mired in shame, despair, and frailty.

This is true physically as well as psychologically. I sometimes make my clients do push-ups while repeating feedback they’ve been given, such as “I need to lose 20 pounds” or “I should be nicer.” If the statement is false, the strength literally drains from their bodies. If it’s true, they become stronger. One client, a couch potato in her 60s, started cranking out literally hundreds of push-ups once she rejected the feedback she was getting from her husband and chose to believe what her heart was telling her. Try this yourself to see what your internal detection system reveals about the feedback you’ve received. Trust, remember, and revisit honest advice. Muck everything else right out of your mind.

If you opt to write your life consciously, you’ll find that a tale acknowledging your hero’s strength feels truer than one depicting you as a victim. You’ll see that whatever your physical size, you really are a bigger person than any bully. You’ll learn that the truth, no matter how hard, always strengthens you more than a lie, no matter how nice. On the other hand, if you don’t take up your authority, you give mean people the power to write your life for you. In the end, they will make you one of them. That should give you the motivation you need to take up your authority, because let’s face it: Mean people suck.

11 replies
  1. Penny van der Lith
    Penny van der Lith says:

    This is SUCH good advice, so true.

    Is there a way that this could be written or communicated in language that a child would understand? My 7-year old daughter is constantly teased and bullied at school, and it would be so helpful if I could explain it to her in a child-friendly way.

    • Andrea Ballard
      Andrea Ballard says:

      Penny, I have a five year old, and we were discussing this topic the other day, right after a group of “friends” told her she had bad breath.

      I said that sometimes people say things to hurt you because it makes them feel better. I told her that feeling was only temporary and it wouldn’t last. And I told her that what they were saying really didn’t have anything to do with her – it was about making themselves feel better because they were hurting. I think she understood!

      Good luck explaining to your seven year old.

  2. Katie Andraski
    Katie Andraski says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It is so clear and so wise and so practical. My oh my oh my. Thank you. I’ve been clicker training my horses and have seen how powerful it is to ask my horse to lightly back up when she has stepped wrong. It’s a patient, consistent exercise that respects the horse’s sensitivity. (We drop the lead rope as soon as the horse steps back. Pick up when they stop. Click and treat when they’ve done what we’ve asked. If it’s a “reprimand” or a re-setting of their positiong, we don’t click and treat.) It’s all very, very quiet. And a practiced metaphor for how to respond to mean people.
    Thank you for being so generous with your wisdom. I look forward to your next book.

  3. Frederika Zylstra
    Frederika Zylstra says:

    Great article! I, too, have horses – the ultimate teachers. In training them (or is it they who train us?) you learn quickly that to be effective your EGO must be removed from the equation. My usual way to deal with mean people? React without ego. In other words, instead of thinking ‘they are being mean to ME’, just think ‘they are being mean’. It is their choice. They are responsible for their own behavior. As long as my intention is to be sincere, ethical and honest, I can remain very objective about others’ choices. Put up roadblocks to prevent them from running me over? You bet. My favorite – (sans emotion) ‘Why do you feel / act / speak that way?’ It puts the responsibility squarely where it belongs.

  4. Melinda Folse
    Melinda Folse says:

    Thanks, Martha! Once again you’ve hit the nail on its proverbial head! As author of The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses (Trafalgar Square Books, 2011), and, like Katie (in the comment above) I, too, immediately related what you were saying here to working with my own midlife horse, Trace.

    Obviously mistreated at some point by humans, this horse is very mistrustful, acting out his rising anxiety by bucking and “acting out” in ways that follow your “typical mean person’s story line” precisely: “I am a victim; people want to hurt me; I must hurt them first to be safe.” Now, I’m a decent rider, but after enough repetition of his bullying behavior (and the more intimidated I got, the bigger and badder he got), my confidence was completely shattered. I loved this horse, and was sympathetic to his issues, but I didn’t want to get hurt. (Hmmm . . . eerily similar to several people relationships I’ve struggled with in the past!)

    After spending quite a while trying to baby him, earn his trust with extra love, soothe his meanness with sympathy, this past year, with the help of a trainer who is the poster child for being a “shockproof shit detector” I got down to the business of “responding bravely and compassionately” to the bullying antics of my horse. Now, I’ll have to stop and emphasize here that this horse isn’t “mean” at all; he was simply playing his own victim story in his head, just as “mean” people do. AND, I think, he was also mirroring me (as horses are experts at doing) picking up on – and taking advantage of – my own “victim” history and tendency to attract bullies and mean people into my life.

    The difference in his response is staggering. As I went from “victim” (why doesn’t my horse love me?) to hero (thanks for letting me know you’re having trouble with this; now, let’s work on your people skills), I learned to acknowledge my “hero’s strength” by doing thousands of mental pushups (and physical ones, too, come to think of it — yanking that horse around in tight circles every time he started trying to buck instead of just holding on for dear life until he decided to stop). Learning to “get as big as you need to” with horses is great practice for doing the same with bullies and “mean” people.

    I’m not naming names here, but I can tell you this is a lesson that I’ve tried to learn before in my life. Plenty of times. And now I finally get it. And even better than that, (and I suspect, just in the nick of time), I also finally “get” how to take calm, courageous authority over my own response to bullying, “mean” behavior. (The image of the mini villain stomping around in the palm of my hand is especially powerful!) Mean people DO suck, Martha, and thanks to your wise words and a vivid illustration from my helpful horse, Trace, I will not become one of them!

  5. Juliana
    Juliana says:

    Really enjoyed your post. It came at the right time for me. I am struggling with some past mean people who still are creeping into my life now. I am constantly re-writing the story to get my power back.

    I realize that the reason why I have sometimes attracted such mean people was because I was on track to becoming one of them. It was like life was telling me “In 10 years this will be you if you don’t change!”. So I changed. I have rocked the boat and turned my life upside down. I am in the process of re-building myself and getting back on track. It sometimes is a struggle to re-work my brain, but I do it bit by bit, everyday.

  6. Claudia Luiz
    Claudia Luiz says:

    What an inspiration this article is. I love the hats. I love the “small person”. I especially love the idea that we can suck too. This is way beyond “standing up for yourself” – I felt my energies change reading it as I prepare to study those energies more.

  7. Vicki Weathers
    Vicki Weathers says:

    2013 and still touching people’s lives. I found this article at the perfect time in life too. I just realized I was programed to respond to meanness passively. I am an only child raised by a single Mom with PTSD. It was a huge revelation for me. I immediately responded to my PTSD mother with meanness, thinking this would be the way to fix the situation. That was a few months ago and we have since reconciled, but I have been struggling with an alternative way to respond to meanness. Then I found your article. Perfect timing. I look forward to practicing finding my authorship and learning to stand up for myself. God Bless

  8. Cathy Alexander
    Cathy Alexander says:

    I look forward to your daily emails and today I read the article about Mean People and I really needed that. I am working with mostly men and I did believe that an office full of women can be mean but men in the work place can really be mean. They stick together too like glue even when one of them is wrong. Had a rough day yesterday and I plan to be the hero today and rise above.
    You are so right, people will try to make you small and to encourage you not to care so much about what is right. I will not be one of them..mean people do suck.

  9. Elly
    Elly says:

    Great article. Over the past five years I have been slowly purging myself of the limited and ignorant individuals in my life. At the age of 50 I can not tell you how powerful I feel that I have finally seen the light. Once you rid yourself of these unhealthy relationships you open yourself up to fabulous opportunities with new friends. Friends that are kind, respectful and supportive. I can pick out a mean person a mile away. Turn the other way and RUN!!!!

  10. Shabira Verjee
    Shabira Verjee says:

    Thank you Martha for this brilliant insightful article on what prompts us human beings to behave in a mean way; and how to respond to this behavior when it shows up in others or ourselves. I was so energized when I read this piece because it felt truthful at so many levels.


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