Table of Contents
Why are people mean?
What's the point of being a mean person?
These are important questions that don't have simple answers.
But the questions lacking simple answers are precisely the ones worth considering.
Because it's when we focus on the less obvious that we learn something about ourselves.
As I frequently write, a major component of mental health is relational--the relationships that you keep (or don't keep).
But back to mean people.
Why are they mean?
And what are you supposed to do about it?
Read on for a surprisingly simple approach.
My Cartoon Character Boss ( A Mean Person Tale)
I was in the Peace Corps once.
For those who don't live in the United States and may not be familiar with the organization, it's a government-created entity that sends volunteers to other countries for two years to work with underserved communities to empower them.
It doesn't always work out this way, but I like to think of it as showing communities the knowledge they already have--and then helping those communities use that knowledge to build capacity for themselves.
It didn't quite work out that way in my case, but the community wasn't the problem. It was my boss.
He had a name that sounded very similar to a Mario Brothers video game character, hence the name of this section.
What it came down to is that Peace Corps sent me into a Mayan village in Guatemala that didn't speak Spanish. Sounds OK, right?
Well, Peace Corps didn't follow their own guidelines and even teach me how to converse at all in the primary language of this village, a Mayan dialect. They also didn't ensure that the home I was living in checked off the basic necessities like a place to even wash myself or the ability to cleanly cook my food.
So I bathed in the middle of a yard while the village watched me. And I was given sometimes one egg or a little bit of beans for my meals while struggling to communicate that I was sick and starving. All I could do was look at the feces-covered dirt floor in the open kitchen and watch as the many little children in the hunt were constantly sick. One even vomited up worms. It was horrifying.
When I called my boss, he said, "I don't want complainers. I want people who get work done." My Spanish was excellent at that point, but it was still no match for this boss' rapid-fire combative nature.
He refused to ensure the placement I was living met the minimum standards established by Peace Corps itself, the organization that was paying him.
He accused me of having mental problems and told me that he was NOT going to consider a site change for me, even all signs pointed to the fact that he did not even do his due diligence to visit this community before he approved it to be a Peace Corps site. (I was the first volunteer who ever worked there, and I later learned they weren't exactly informed of what was going to happen. Another Peace Corps Volunteer thought it would be helpful to foist a volunteer on them without letting them have a say, another Peace Corps policy that wasn't followed).
Why am I sharing all of this about my mean boss? It probably sounds like I'm just complaining for the sake of it, and you would be right under certain circumstances.
But I learned some very important lessons while torturing myself in a situation that wasn't the right one for me.
I pushed my body to the breaking point, losing 30 pounds and having my skin turn yellow.
I eventually left Peace Corps early. I'm glad I did because this was a little under two years before I would find out that my heart was failing and I would need open-heart surgery.
Now I now, without a doubt, that mean people must be dealt with in a very methodical way.
Mean People Who Don't Know They're Mean
The real problem in my above story is that, I believe, this boss of mine didn't realize he was being mean.
He thought he was absolutely in the right. He thought, because of his status as The Big Boss Man who had been with that particular Peace Corps country longer than any other employee, that he could do whatever he wanted.
Bad News Alert. You're going to run into this kind of person wherever you go, and you need to know how to deal with them.
It's not worth putting up a with a mean person.
In fact, if you want to preserve your mental health, it's critical that you learn to navigate around the mean people in your life.
Here are the three simple lessons I learned that have helped me protect my very sanity:
1. Mean People Exist
This seems obvious, but to deal with a mean person, you have to acknowledge in your heart of hearts that they are out there. You can't wish them away.
All behavior change on your end starts with awareness of what you're dealing with.
2. You Don't Have to Tolerate Mean Behavior
I've always been a people-pleaser. I still consider myself as such, but I now realize that I need to come first, so I don't suffer fools. If someone has repeatedly treated me badly and shows no sign of changing no matter what I do, it's best to cut that person out of my life. I advocate you do the same. Just don't accept it. Move on.
3. What's Your Role in This?
Still, there's always a very real possibility that you're partially to blame. This is hard to hear, but it's true.
Sometimes, people are just mean, but often there's something that you're doing that is triggering their behavior. Now, I'm not saying that you should, in any scenario, tolerate abusive behavior from another person.
What I'm saying is that you must consider your role and your behavior before you decide to take action. Being the bigger person means first stepping back to calmly consider your own actions. Check in with others. Seek feedback.
If, after everything you've done, you've determined that you're not to blame, you'll feel much better knowing that you did what you could to learn about the impact you may have been having. Then, complete step two!
Simple Analysis and Response
The previous section is intentionally simple and straightforward.
Mean people just are.
They just exist.
What I'm hoping you got out of this is that you don't need to beat yourself up for months (or years!), like I did in the past, before you take action.
Accept what's going on, acknowledge your role, and then take action.
It can be as simple as that.
Getting to the point where I can make a quick decision has vastly improved my mental health.
I think following this process can do the same for you.