The Science of Happiness. Register Today
   

Raising Happiness

 

How to Deal with Mean People

April 15, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Hint: Don’t just turn the other cheek.

You, with your switching sides,
And your walk by lies and your humiliation
You, have pointed out my flaws again,
As if I don’t already see them.
I walk with my head down,
Trying to block you out cause I’ll never impress you….

                          —Taylor Swift, “Mean”

“Why you gotta be so meeaann?” Taylor Swift croons in my car, accompanied rather loudly by five kids who are singing their hearts out. The song resonates with me, too, so much so that I find myself madly rummaging through my purse for my sunglasses, not wanting the carpool to see me choked up.

(Honestly, I’m not sure why I cry when I hear that song. I think I’m moved because it tells of a kid succeeding despite difficulty. If you haven’t heard it, listen here. I particularly like the end of this version.)

Anyway, one of the girls in my car (let’s call her Sally) has just revealed that she was once again the butt of a mean comment in PE. Everyone in the car feels her pain; unfortunately we’ve all been there.

Most of us use avoidance as our chief strategy for dealing with unkindness, steering clear of the mean person at all costs. But this strategy is neither practical nor effective, as it is often impossible to avoid a person completely and usually leaves us cowering in fear.

Fortunately, there is a better approach. From research on social and emotional well-being, here’s what I’ve learned about how to cope when someone gets nasty.

First, remember that you can control your response when someone does or says something mean. We may not be able to control much about our life circumstances, but with practice we can control how we respond to those circumstances.

I once got a horrible voicemail from a neighbor. In it, she called me a fraud and my blog a joke, and told me to stay away from her children. Though she seemed high-functioning to the outside world, she seemed pretty unstable to me.

My instinct was to fight back—to expose her craziness to the world, to tell everyone how insanely mean she was.

Sally had the opposite instinct around the girl who teased her in PE. She let this particular mean girl boss her around, hoping against hope that she would eventually relent.

Neither of these responses—attacking back or becoming a spineless doormat—are constructive ways to cope. The most effective response to meanness is compassion. Where there is meanness, there is often a lot of pain, both in the unkind person and for the person on the receiving end of a mean joke, comment, or email.

Take care of your own pain first. When I got the crazy-neighbor voicemail, I was shocked, and hurt (I cared what she thought of me), and, frankly, scared. Researcher Brene Brown, in her fantastic book Daring Greatly, advocates a response to a situation like this that I’ve been using instinctively since I was a kid: Before you attack back, let yourself feel what is going on. You can simply repeat to yourself, “Pain, pain, pain,” and breathe. Sometimes I have to say it out loud.

The key is not to deny what we are feeling, but rather to accept it. Take a moment to be mindful and narrate your emotions: This embarrassment is excruciating. I am so frightened right now. Hang in there with unpleasant feelings at least long enough to acknowledge them.

Often we don’t want to admit we are hurt by another person’s meanness; we want to let it go without letting it get to us. If you can do this, more power to you. But if you can’t, that’s okay, too. You will survive the discomfort of your hurt feelings. It is perfectly normal to feel bad when someone wounds you.

Once you practice this sort of self-compassion, take the next step: See mean people for what they really are—wounded and tiny and probably threatened. Frightened mice masquerading as roaring lions. When I suggested to Sally that her unkind classmate was probably insecure or threatened by her, Sally insisted that just the opposite was true. “She’s the most confident person I know!” The other kids in the car agreed.

But then I had them recall the last time each of them was a little mean to a classmate or sibling. How did you feel right before you did it? The unanimous answer: They felt small, or frustrated, or humiliated, so they did something that might make them feel big or important or powerful. We began to imagine what might have made Sally’s mean-girl feel threatened or small, and the kids came up with a dozen possibilities.

Finally, fight fire with water by sending loving thoughts to the people who hurt you. This is an advanced technique, but I can almost promise that it will make you feel better. I use a traditional loving-kindness meditation, and say things like “May you be happy. May you be healthy and strong. May you be free from suffering” while imagining the person who tried to hurt me.

When we send well-wishes to the hurting people who want us to share their pain, we are able to rise above their suffering. We regain our true power.

After all, it is only when mean people actually are happy and free from suffering that they will stop trying to take us down with them.

© 2013 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

Like this post? We hope you’ll become a fan of Raising Happiness on Facebook, or sign up for the Raising Happiness monthly newsletter.

 

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
 
  

Like this post?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
  

Buy the Book!

Learn more about the science of raising happy kids in Christine Carter's popular book.

BUY
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Subscribe to this Blog

Every time a new Raising Happiness post is published, get it as an email or via RSS feed.

Subscribe

 

Most...

  
  
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
image

Greater Good Articles

  
  • The Right Way to Get Angry

    October 20, 2014

    Anger is a tool that helps us read and respond to upsetting social situations. But how can you stop it from getting out of hand?

  • When Does Power Hurt Romance?

    October 2, 2014

    Four new studies reveal how having power affects your willingness to walk in your partner's shoes.

  • The Battle Between Success and Compassion

    October 17, 2014

    If adults want to raise caring kids, research suggests they might need to start by examining the mixed messages they’re sending to kids.

  

Twitter

 

Greater Good Live

  

The Evolutionary Roots of Compassion

The Evolutionary Roots of Compassion

Dacher Keltner explains why Darwin thought compassion is humans’ strongest instinct.

Watch
 

The Greater Good Guide to Mindfulness

The Greater Good Guide to Mindfulness

This invaluable resource, a special benefit for GGSC members, offers insight into what mindfulness is, why it’s important, and how to teach it.

Get the Guide
 

Self-Compassion & the Cultivation of Happiness with Kristin Neff

International House, UC Berkeley campus
November 7, 2014
Self-Compassion & the Cultivation of Happiness with Kristin Neff

This day-long seminar led by self-compassion pioneer Kristin Neff, will offer strategies for cultivating self-compassion, boosting happiness, and reducing stress in yourself and others.

» All Events

 
  

Sponsors

The Quality of Life Foundation logo Special thanks to

The Quality of Life Foundation for its support of the Greater Good Science Center

 
thnx advertisement