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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.

Growing Wings: The Power of Change

I used to think I knew how some caterpillars become butterflies. I assumed they weave cocoons, then sit inside growing six long legs, four wings, and so on. I figured if I were to cut open a cocoon, I’d find a butterfly-ish caterpillar, or a caterpillar-ish butterfly, depending on how far things had progressed. I was wrong. In fact, the first thing caterpillars do in their cocoons is shed their skin, leaving a soft, rubbery chrysalis. If you were to look inside the cocoon early on, you’d find nothing but a puddle of glop. But in that glop are certain cells, called imago cells, that contain the DNA-coded instructions for turning bug soup into a delicate, winged creature—the angel of the dead caterpillar.

If you’ve ever been through a major life transition, this may sound familiar. Humans do it, too—not physically but psychologically. All of us will experience metamorphosis several times during our lives, exchanging one identity for another. You’ve probably already changed from baby to child to adolescent to adult—these are obvious, well-recognized stages in the life cycle. But even after you’re all grown up, your identity isn’t fixed. You may change marital status, become a parent, switch careers, get sick, win the lottery.

Any transition serious enough to alter your definition of self will require not just small adjustments in your way of living and thinking but a full-on metamorphosis. I don’t know if this is emotionally stressful for caterpillars, but for humans it can be hell on wheels. The best way to minimize trauma is to understand the process.

The Phases of Human Metamorphosis

Psychological metamorphosis has four phases. You’ll go through these phases, more or less in order, after any major change catalyst (falling in love or breaking up, getting or losing a job, having children or emptying the nest, etc.). The strategies for dealing with change depend on the phase you’re experiencing. 

Phase 1: Dissolving (aka Death & Rebirth)

Here’s the Deal
The first phase of change is the scariest, especially because we aren’t taught to expect it. It’s the time when we lose our identity and are left temporarily formless: person soup. Most people fight like crazy to keep their identities from dissolving. “This is just a blip,” we tell ourselves when circumstances rock our world. “I’m the same person, and my life will go back to being the way it was.”

Sometimes this is true. But in other cases, when real metamorphosis has begun, we run into a welter of “dissolving” experiences. We may feel that everything is falling apart, that we’re losing everyone and everything. Dissolving feels like death, because it is—it’s the demise of the person you’ve been.

What to Do
When we’re dissolving we may get hysterical, fight our feelings, try to recapture our former lives, or jump immediately toward some new status quo (“rebound romance” is a classic example). All these measures actually slow down Phase One and make it more painful. The following strategies work better:

In Phase 1, Live One Day (or 10 minutes) at a Time 
Instead of dwelling on hopes and fears about an unknowable future, focus your attention on whatever is happening right now. 

“Cocoon” by Caring For Yourself in Physical, Immediate Ways 
Wrap yourself in a blanket, make yourself a cup of hot tea, attend an exercise class, whatever feels comforting. 

Talk to Others Who Have Gone Through a Metamorphosis 
If you don’t have a wise relative or friend, a therapist can be a source of reassurance. 

Let Yourself Grieve 
Even if you are leaving an unpleasant situation (a bad marriage, a job you didn’t like), you’ll probably go through the normal human response to any loss: the emotional roller coaster called the grieving process. You’ll cycle through denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance many times. Just experiencing these feelings will help them pass more quickly. 

If you think this sounds frustratingly passive, you’re right. Dissolving isn’t something you do; it’s something that happens to you. The closest you’ll come to controlling it is relaxing and trusting the process.

Phase I Mantra

“I don’t know what the hell is going on… and that’s okay.”

Phase 2: Imagining (aka Dreaming and Scheming)

Here’s the Deal
For those of us who have just a few tiny control issues, Phase 2 is as welcome as rain after drought. This is when the part of you that knows your destiny, the imago in your psyche, will begin giving you instructions about how to reorganize the remnants of your old identity into something altogether different.

The word imago is the root of the word image. You’ll know you’re beginning Phase 2 when your mind’s eye starts seeing images of the life you are about to create. These can’t be forced—like dissolving, they happen to you—and they are never what you expected. You’re becoming a new person, and you’ll develop traits and interests your old self didn’t have. You may feel compelled to change your hairstyle or wardrobe, or redecorate your living space. The old order simply seems wrong, and you’ll begin reordering your outer situation to reflect your inner rebirth.

What to Do
Here are some ways you may want to respond when you begin spontaneously imagining the future: 

Create a “Vision Board” 
Cut Out Magazine Pictures You Find Appealing or Interesting. Glue them onto a piece of butcher paper. The resulting collage will be an illustration of the life you’re trying to create. Look at the images and “feel them” or imagine yourself experiencing them for up to 10 minutes everyday. 

Let Yourself Daydream 
Your job is to try out imaginary scenarios until you have a clear picture of your goals and desires. You’ll save a lot of time, effort, and grief by giving yourself time to do this in your head before you attempt it in the real world. 

Phase 2 is all about images: making them up, making them clear, making them possible. Moving through this stage, you’ll start to feel an impulse to go from dreaming (imagining possibilities) to scheming (planning to bring your vision to fruition). Write down both dreams and schemes, then gather information about how you might create them. 

Phase 2 Mantra

“There are no rules… and that’s okay.”

Phase 3: Re-forming (aka The Hero’s Saga)

Here’s the Deal
As your dreams become schemes, you’ll begin itching to make them come true. This signals Phase 3, the implementation stage of the change process. Phase 3is when you stop fantasizing about selling your art and start submitting work to galleries, or go beyond ogling a friend’s brother to having her set you up on a date. You’ll feel motivated to do real, physical things to build a new life. And then…(drum roll, please)…you’ll fail. Repeatedly.

I’ve gone through Phase 3many times and watched hundreds of clients do the same. I’ve never seen a significant scheme succeed on the first try. Re-forming your life, like anything new, complex, and important, inevitably brings up problems you didn’t expect. That’s why, in contrast to the starry eyes that are so useful in Phase 2, Phase 3 demands the ingenuity of Thomas Edison and the tenacity of a pit bull.

What to Do
Expect Things To Go Wrong 
Many of my clients have an early failure and consider this a sign that “it just wasn’t meant to be.” This is a useful philosophy if you want to spend your life as person soup. To become all that you can be, you must keep working toward your dreams even when your initial efforts are unsuccessful. 

Be Willing to Start Over 
Every time your plans fail, you’ll briefly return to Phase 1, feeling lost and confused. This is an opportunity to release some of the illusions that created hitches in your plan. 

Revisit Phase 2 
Adjusting your dreams and schemes to include the truths you’ve learned from your experimentation. 

Persist 
Keep debugging and reimplementing your new-and-improved plans until they work. If you’ve followed all the steps above, they eventually will.

What goes on in the cocoon of change isn’t always pretty, but the results can be beautiful. Martha Beck talks you through the four phases of human metamorphosis. Get ready to fly!

Phase 3 Mantra

“This is much worse than I expected… and that’s okay.”

Phase 4: Full Flight (aka The Promised Land)

Here’s the Deal
Phase 3 is like crawling out of your cocoon and waiting for your crumpled, soggy wings to dry and expand. Phase 4 is the payoff, the time when your new identity is fully formed and able to fly.

What to Do
The following strategies—which can help you optimize this delightful situation—are about fine-tuning, not drastic transformation. 

Enjoy! 
You’ve just negotiated a scary and dramatic transformation, and you deserve to savor your new identity. Spend time every day focusing on gratitude for your success. 

Make Small Improvements 
Find little ways to make your new life a bit less stressful, a bit more pleasurable. 

Know That Another Change is Just Around the Bend 
There’s no way to predict how long you’ll stay in Phase 4; maybe days, maybe decades. Don’t attribute your happiness to your new identity; security lies in knowing how to deal with metamorphosis, whenever it occurs.

Phase 4 Mantra

“Everything is changing… and that’s okay.” 


This is a foundational concept to my life coach training program.  All of my life coaches are trained to understand and coach their clients through the change cycle. You can read more about it in my book, Finding Your Own North Star, or understand it and work through it with one of my Martha Beck Life Coaches.