(Or: How to Deal With Mean People)
Just as I once believed that in order to live in the zone the past must be left behind, I also once believed that if you treated others with friendship and warmth, that warmth would be returned. As I’ve learned, however, that isn’t always the case. No matter how much of a Pollyanna you may be, sometimes people can still be rude, dismissive, or downright mean.
No matter how enlightened I believe I am, when someone says (or does) something mean to me, my first instinct is to put on my boxing gloves and punch back, but while I’m a big fan of going with your gut, punching someone else in the gut – literally or figuratively – is not the best way to handle such encounters. Sure, it might make you feel better in the moment, but in the long run (especially if, like me, you have people-pleasing tendencies) you’ll end up using those boxing gloves on yourself, flagellating yourself for either
a) allowing yourself to become a target
b) being mean yourself; or
That’s the kind of cycle I certainly don’t want to be in, and I bet you don’t, either.
So the question is: what is the best way to handle Mean Folks?
The first thing to do when someone is mean to you is to stop and breathe. Just step back from the situation, take a deep breath (or two) and allow yourself to assess your feelings. In addition to being disquieted, you may feel angry, awkward, disappointed, humiliated, or just out-and-out heartbroken. Whatever you’re feeling, though, don’t attach judgment to it, just feel it. Allowing yourself to feel those emotions will prevent you from doing something self-sabotaging, like eating an entire pint of ice cream.
What’s next? Well, now it’s time to decide how you will respond to the other person.
The easiest response, at least in theory, is to ignore it. I know; it’s much easier said than done, but ignoring it allows you to keep your personal power. It’s also a super-easy way to deal with the situation, especially if it’s a chance encounter.
But what if it’s not just a chance encounter? What if it’s one of those perpetual thorns in your side? You know who I mean: the gal in the office who belittles you in every meeting, or your sister’s husband who never fails to make you feel unwelcome at family gatherings – what do you if it’s one of them?
Actually, the answer is a combination of two things: Shoes and Nothing.
In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Take Atticus’ advice, step out of your shoes and into the shoes the Mean Person is wearing. Maybe your brother-in-law is envious of the sibling bond you share with his wife, because he doesn’t have that and admires its beauty. Or maybe, just maybe, the gal in the office who constantly sticks it to you is actually insecure about her own performance and hopes that by making you look bad, she’ll look better. Maybe their meanness has nothing to do with you at all.
Insecurities and fears make many people do less-than-nice things. You simple trigger a negative response because of their past interactions with other people. If you step back and apply compassion and empathy to the situation, you can re-frame this person in your mind, and keep your boxing gloves off.
Are you feeling better about the situation? Taking it less personally? Good!
The next time you’re around that now Not-So-Mean person (we’ve re-framed things a bit), you can use two ingredients from Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet: Nothing and Connection.
In these situations, Nothing will be defined as time where you allow your thoughts to simply flow around you without any attached emotions. The best example of this is to picture yourself as a boulder in a stream, and all the thoughts in your head are the water. And Connection is exactly what it sounds like: fulfilling the desire of humans to connect with others of their species.
The boulder just is as the water flows around it. It’s a pretty peaceful existence to be that boulder. Now, the next time you are in this person’s presence, put yourself in Nothing mode for a moment and Connect. . This “nothing” space will allow you to perceive and understand this person more clearly, and you will find that doing this on a regular basis will bring you to a place where you just can’t help but fall a little bit in love with the person you are connecting to. The Nastiness will flow on by like the water and what will stick will be the pure stuff like compassion, kindness, and love. When you are in this Place of Peace, living with an open heart, it’s amazing what good will come into your life.
I know this all sounds much simpler in concept than it will be to execute. But. After a little practice, you’ll begin to find that you don’t even want to put on your boxing gloves because your heart will be filled with way too much love.
By the way, I want to send big thanks out to my lovely friend and colleague Kayce for an extended discussion about how to best approach a Thorn in my life. Be sure and check out her thoughts on Mean People.
A Knockout is by Gil Elvgren.