Many of us accommodate or do not even recognize mean people in our lives. In two books – The Narcissist: A User’s Guide and The Narcissist at Work – my co-authors and I affirm that we all deserve healthy relationships in life and work. During research, we noted the heartbreaking personal stories all had one thing in common: mean people were allowed to take advantage of others. When people are being mean, you have to recognize it and understand them so you can protect yourself with good boundaries.
I awakened this morning to a fantastic status update written by a friend with young children:
As a child I had lots of different friends, went through many stages to ultimately become the person that I am today. It is hard to comprehend and hurts as a kid when your “friends” aren’t nice. My goal is to teach my kids that people will come and go in your life. If they are really a friend, they will love, support and always be there to help you. People that enter your life and do not respect you came to teach you a lesson. Grow stronger and bigger – you are amazing my children.
Younger children haven’t had time to develop skill sets that hone hurtful or mean behavior into more evolved forms, but it doesn’t take long if you give them the practice. My friend, this fierce Mama Bear, is so right to be teaching her young children to expect healthy relationships comprised of love, respect and support.
Unfortunately, we can’t always run this kind of strengthening interference. Some children will go on to disregard our guidance about healthy relationships in favor of peer acceptance. Other children don’t receive such guidance at all. Still others are acting out their own pain, using tactics such as bullying, passive aggression, or deliberate indecision in attempts to control interpersonal outcomes. Sometimes these behaviors even morph into full-blown disorders: the narcissistic personality or other forms of sociopathy.
As Mama Bear above knows, it can be confusing and hurtful when we realize someone isn’t really being nice, no matter how old we are! Healthy relationships have boundaries that constrain less than desirable behaviors by establishing a framework of personal standards. This makes it easier to see the lesson that Mama Bear knows is in the situation, and grow stronger and bigger as a result. But to establish good boundaries, we need to understand why people are mean in the first place.
Arina Nikitina examines why mean people act the way they do:
a) They try to overcompensate for their hurt Ego. Someone has hurt them in the past when they felt especially vulnerable and now they are trying to regain their power and self-confidence by hurting you.
There are people who retreat to their caves when they’re hurt to lick their wounds, and there are mean people who lash out when they feel emotionally cornered. You have to feel sorry on a certain level for mean people who feel their only strategy for feeling better is to make you feel bad. Protect yourself with understanding and refuse to participate in this.
b) They secretly fear that they have the same quality that they are making fun of. For example, if a person makes derogatory remarks about someone being overweight, they are most likely insecure about their own body and are afraid that people will notice it too.
Once Pete and I were subjected to a heart-to-heart with a person who was “concerned” that we both had not just gained weight, but were downright fat. Nice, eh? We later realized that the person who actually instigated this encounter was someone else who had been preoccupied with personal appearance from an early age. In retrospect, we laugh about this situation now – “oh really? that must be why my clothes haven’t been fitting! Thanks!” What a wake-up call to give both mean people a wider berth!
c) They are deeply attached to their sufferings and failures. As weird as it may seem, many people refuse to let go of their negativity, because it brings some drama into their life and gives them something to worry about.
Mean people thrive on negativity, feeding the inherent bias we all have. This is neurological protection from perceived threats, passed down through years of evolution. Handling fear with this strategy is easier than actually taking positive action. Bonus: sufferings and failures can give someone who needs an inordinate amount of attention just what they’re seeking!
d) They crave attention and love. Just like teenagers when reaching a difficult age act out of spite to prove their own independence, adults defy social norms to get attention and a strong emotion out of you (even if it is a negative emotion).
Mean people often will instigate drama. Drama queens get bored when things are calm. Bully Online (the web site of the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line) says these emotionally immature people will create situations, using manipulation, deception, flirtation, and constant reminders to everyone for admiration and attention. Healthy relationships don’t require this negative effort.
Some mean people will use “stealth tactics” on you. They’ll be two-faced, talking behind your back and staying nice to you in person. Or they may say nasty things to you about another person who has similarities with you, attempting to leave a sub-conscious association. They may poison a compliment with a criticism, or give you irrelevant advice. Martha Beck, writing for Oprah Magazine, tells us, “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.”
It’s safe to say that we can think of mean people as full of unhappiness. While misery may love company, you can encourage it to seek elsewhere for companionship! To protect yourself, you have to minimize the effects mean people have in your life.
The Tiny Buddha blog enumerates Ten Happiness Tips for People Who Have Been Hurt. This one stood out: “The only way to experience happiness is to take responsibility for creating it, whether other people made it easy for you or not. You’re not responsible for what happened to you in the past but you’re responsible for your attitude now. Why let someone who hurt you in the past have power over your present?” When you allow mean people to “rent space in your head,” they’ll keep trying to expand and occupy it all!
Committing to the principle of being “in the moment” for me has meant a more deliberate focus on people and things that bring me joy. Making room for joy can entail having to let go of mean people and less than optimal situations. I have realized that this can be done in a compassionate way.
Marc and Angel get this in 12 Things to Know Before Letting Go:
Not everyone, and not everything, is meant to stay.
Like my friend the Mama Bear above, they advise, “Some circumstances and people come into your life just to strengthen you so you can move on without them…Letting go in your relationships doesn’t always mean that you don’t care about people anymore; it’s simply realizing that the only person you have control over is yourself.”
Marc and Angel also point out, “Some people will refuse to accept you for who you are.” If you have been making positive change in your life, or are acting toward a dream, you may encounter mean people – even among those you would expect to support or congratulate you. Protect yourself: understand that, again, their behavior is about them, not you. Do not let their negativity deter you from your goal.
“Don’t let people interrupt you and tell you that you can’t do something. If you have a dream that you’re passionate about, you must protect it. When others can’t do something themselves, they’re going to tell you that you can’t do it either; and that’s a lie. These people are simply speaking from within the boundaries of their own limitations.Sometimes walking away is the only way to win. Never waste your time trying to explain yourself to people who have proven that they are committed to misunderstanding you.”
Martha Beck concurs: “If you don’t take up your authority, you give mean people the power to write your life for you.” Which is, of course, what they would most like to do!
When you recognize and understand mean people for who they are and what they are trying to do, it becomes easier to protect yourself from them by creating distance. This is more difficult to do in certain situations, but setting and maintaining boundaries will fence out mean people who don’t have your best interests in mind, and allow you full control over your life, as you are intended to have.