“To The Brave Everywhere. (Mean people, you know who you are.)”

The title (and illustration) of this post comes from a wonderful little children’s book, The Book of Mean People by Toni Morrison, which I discovered on one of my favorite websites, Brain Pickings. The simplest call to action is this: “Somewhere between Twain’s irreverent advice to little girls and the faux-meanness of the facetious faux-unkindness Cat-Hater’s Handbook, the book nudges us to reconsider what “meanness” is and isn’t, and how a child’s assessment differs from a grown-up’s. The Morrisons’ dedication reads:

To brave kids everywhere
(mean people, you know who you are)

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As much as this book highlights the way children encounter meanness, it asks us to think about the way we treat others, too. Meanness can come in many forms– from an aggressive bully to false kindness or subtle complacency. So, how do we react to the subtle and not-so-subtle mudslinging that happens within our circles? Sometimes my heart overrides my head, and I match their meanness with my own. I’m still working on the best way to stand up for myself while keeping my cool. What I do know is this: I never feel better about the situation when I approach it negativity. So today I thought we’d dig a little bit deeper into what motivates a mean-spirited person and discuss a couple ways we can deal with the negative people in our lives without compromising humility and maturity.

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So. What do you think motivates someone to be malicious and how do we best react when someone attacks? It’s easy to set boundaries with strangers who are mean, or to block those emboldened by anonymity and comment forums. But what about a person who enters your family or friend group? They’re much harder to cut ties with, and often times the only option is to learn how to live with this difficult person. Understanding why someone may throw stones your way doesn’t heal all wounds, but it helps one find the strength to forgive. I’ve thought long and hard about what drives meanness in people and I keep coming back to these two theories:

Maybe it’s the fear of judgement. When a person needs validation for their self worth, they’ll go to extreme measures to get it. Could this mean a backhanded compliment is just a way to protect themselves from judgement? Are they judging me, fearing I’ll judge them? Is this how a frenemy is born? 

Maybe it has nothing to do with me. Rarely do we ever see someone for who they really are. You never know what battles a bully may be fighting, but acts of malice is often a learned behavior. Everyone is fighting their own battle. 

These theories then raise these two questions:

If it has nothing to do with me, then why? The common thread may be that negative people blame external factors rather than oneself for their situation. 

So how do we deal with it? There are few options when dealing with an unkind person. One can ignore the problem and hope that something changes, or confront the person and implore them to work with you to improve your relationship. But these options can sometimes go awry, as ignoring the problem can be draining and result in even more damage to your relationship. Confronting someone is difficult because the person needs to be willing.

Sometimes meanness tells us more about someone’s fears than it does the person they’re trashing. I’ve concluded that the best way to deal with a meanness is to find the humility to remain positive about the situation, and recognize that- unless you’re dealing with someone who is borderline or sociopathic– the negative behavior has everything to do with them, and nothing to do with you. What do you think?

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When a negative person makes me upset, I often wonder if that means I have a little bit of negativity within myself. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just being too sensitive. But meanness is something we’ve all experienced and we’ve all dished out (in small ways or in big ways.) No one likes to hear that someone doesn’t like them, or that there’s a person saying malicious things about you. But we must remember that it is impossible for everyone to like us. It is impossible to make everyone happy. Approaching negativity with indifference or even kindness may feel like you’re not standing up for yourself, but it is the only way to protect your own happiness.

  • It’s almost as if you can see directly into the headspace I’m occupying today. You have written JUST what I needed to read and I agree—it’s tough to know how to deal. I’m currently attempting to reward good (see: kind) behavior and ignore (see: manipulative, mean, aggressive, etc.) behavior at the moment. It may not be the perfect solution since it still weighs on me a great deal to distance myself from a loved one, but it’s currently the best option for my situation. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  • Wonderful post, Kate. I have a friend who for quite awhile was really mean to me. At first I was stumped and really did wonder if I had done something wrong. As this continued to go on, I realized that it really wasn’t me she was mad at. She definitely had a lot of emotional issues and anger. I eventually reached a point where I had to confront her. It was so hard and awkward and it didn’t go very well. She felt hurt and well so did I. But time heals all wounds and although we aren’t as close as we once were, we are still friends. What I learned is, 1. It pretty much almost never is your fault. The mean person is going through something and this is their unhealthy way of expressing it. 2. Stand up for yourself and be protective of your well-being. Say something (it’s hard, I’m the first to admit it).

  • I met you at Dahlia’s official store opening and you just radiated the most positive energy. Love reading your insightful, smart, thoughtful posts. Thank you!

  • It took me a long time to understand that people being mean was about what’s going on for them. It doesn’t always help, in that white-hot heat of the moment when the words sting, but I try to keep that front and centre in my mind. I try and imagine the times I’ve been less than friendly to other people, and be humble about it. I tend to just fade away from that person rather than confront them, I don’t always see what can be gained from it. It’s hard to salvage a relationship after dragging obviously painful things into the bright light on both sides. Ah well. It’s a hard one.

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  • Thank you for this! I have a little girl and I’m constantly trying to teach her compassion and acceptance but sometimes I forget to take heart/teach myself too. These illustrations are adorable (and super accurate).

  • I am a believer that when people are mean or rude it is a comment on them. Even despite that belief it is truly hard at times not to take things personally. Since I hate confrontation I usually deal using kindness first and then indifference. I just know that I always want to be a better version of myself and that is all I can control. At times, I do find my road rage uncontrollable though 😉 I swear I’m consciously working on it now!

    • Omg, Mollie! I’m so glad I’m not alone with the road rage. I’m trying, too!!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m super sensitive too, so I’m less apt to taking the confrontation route.

  • I was dealing with a not so nice person for a while and every time we interacted with each other, I would just smile and continue to be nice. Kill her with kindness. After almost a year, all of a sudden she started being nice to me. I’m not sure what changed, but I figure when people are that way, it usually isn’t something we did, but a problem they have internally. By the way, you got a shout out from Falen, Dave, and Steve-O at KDWB this morning on the radio!

  • Amazing post. Thanks for doing the thinking for us, as it’s hard to wrap your head around the “why” and “how” sometimes. I’ve been a reader for years, and absolutely love the content shift of your blog, as you separate from the idealist and more into the realist. It’s a breath of fresh air in the female blog world to be able read intelligent, thoughtful writing that captures all the pieces of life. So write on!

  • I’ve always been a sensitive person. Strong… but sensitive. I absolutely hate meanness, even if I’m just a witness to it. Meanness is so unnecessary and aggressive. I hate that anyone has to experience it…

  • Kate,
    I absolutely love this post. As I aspiring blogger and stylist. It’s so easy to feel let down by negativity, especially when it comes to your work. But I loved what you said about trying to take people “meanness” with a grain of salt and try to figure out WHY!

    Thanks for your thoughts!!

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