I don't know about you, but my favorite ways of reacting to mean people are (1) getting mean right back or (2) lying down quietly to display the word welcome! written where my spine used to be. Annoyingly, my job constantly reminds me that there's a more responsible and effective way to live. That's how it is for us authors. I say "us" because you're an author, too. Not all of us write for publication, but every living person has the power of authorship when it comes to composing our lives. Meanness emerges when we believe that we have no such power, that we're passive receptors of life's vagaries. Inner peace follows when we begin responding to cruelty—our own and other people's—with the authority we've possessed all along.
Why are people mean? Here's the short answer: They're hurt. Here's the long answer: They're really hurt. At some point, somebody—their parents, their lovers, Lady Luck—did them dirty. They were crushed. And they're still afraid the pain will never stop, or that it will happen again.
There. I've just described every single person living on planet Earth.
The fact is that we've all been hurt, and we're all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero's saga rather than a victim's whine, depending on how they "write" it. The moment we begin tolerating meanness, in ourselves or others, we are using our authorial power in the service of wrongdoing. We have both the capacity and the obligation to do better.
"You know," I once said to my 7-year-old daughter, "when I was your age, I wanted to go to Sherwood Forest and meet Robin Hood." She looked at me with alarm, then cautiously asked, "Mom, do you know what fiction means?" In retrospect, I have to admit the true answer to this question was no. Sure, I realized that Robin Hood was a fictional character. But I wasn't yet aware how much of my worldview was fiction, how powerfully I was shaping the characters and plot of my own life story.
We perceive events as story lines. We continually (though often unconsciously) tell ourselves tales about life, and since no story can include every tiny event, we edit and spin the facts into the stories we prefer. Many of our stories are pure fabrication, and all of them are biased, dominated by our flair for the dramatic, our theories about life, and our fears. A typical mean person's story line goes like this: "I am a victim; people want to hurt me; I must hurt them first to be safe." This is why mean people may turn ugly when you say something like "Please pass the salt" or "Hey, it's raining." They immediately rewrite whatever they hear to support their story line ("She's saying I'm a bad cook" or "He's bringing up the weather to avoid talking about us"). The story, not other people's behavior, both motivates and excuses their hostility.
If we react to this type of meanness with cruelty of our own, we climb onto the wheel of suffering that drives all conflict, from lovers' spats to wars: You're mean to me so I'm mean to you so you're meaner to me so I'm meaner to you....
We'll stay on this sickening merry-go-round until we decide to get off—and please note that I did not say "when others stop being mean to us." We can ride the wheel of suffering when no one else is even present (telling ourselves the same old sad story again and again), and we can leave it even in the midst of violent persecution. The way out is not found in changing our circumstances but in the power of authorship.
Here are some ways to use that power...
Now go get a hat. That's right, a hat. When you wear this hat, you become the Reader, a different person from the Author. Put on your hat and read what you've written, pretending you've never seen it. Ask yourself, Is this the story of a hero or a victim? Is it a tale of the terrible things that have happened to the central character (you), or does it speak in terms of the choices you've made to create those circumstances? Do you dwell on vengeance or gratitude? Do difficult people and situations appear as forces who control you or as problems you are busily solving?
Now take off your hat and get a second piece of paper. Write another description of your life, one that is more heroic than the last (if your first story was valiant, make this one even more so). Mention times you chose wisely, instances when people were kind to you, moments you knew that no matter how bad things looked, you were going to succeed.
Don your hat, read your new history, and see how it compares to the first draft. I suspect that you'll find it much more interesting and enjoyable. You've just exercised the storytelling talent that will take you off the wheel of suffering: the power to write your character as a hero rather than a victim.
This skill not only keeps you from being mean to others—if you're consciously composing your life as a hero's saga, you won't excuse your own cruelty or anyone else's—but also guides you to healthy options when others are mean to you. You'll respond bravely but compassionately to the villains you encounter. You may need practice, but you can compose your hero's saga with your actions, not just the written word. Feel hemmed in by obligations to children, siblings, parents? You are free to say no, even if it rocks the family boat. Trapped in an unenlightened culture?
You are free to act on your own principles, whatever the response. Take your liberty. Use your power. Rewrite every memory of your own victimization as a hero's adventure.
One definition of the word mean is "small." Mean people live small, think small, and feel small—the smaller, the meaner. For example, after boxer Mike Tyson bit off part of an opponent's ear, his comment was "What am I supposed to do? I've got children to raise." This made no sense, since Tyson was paid nearly $30 million after losing that fight. A likely psychological explanation is that when he was physically overwhelmed, he felt like a child himself. He bit like a playground runt to protect the defenseless little person he thought himself to be.
The belief that we are smaller and less powerful than others underlies most meanness, even when that belief is delusional. But we can also use our author's imagination to size things in our favor. Think of a person who's been nasty to you. Imagine that person shrinking to one inch tall. Picture your enemy stomping around in the palm of your hand, yelling or sneering all the customary cruelties. You'll find that if your critic is making a valid point, it will still sound accurate, but mere verbal abuse is hilarious when squeaked in the voice of an inch-tall Mini-Mean.
Whatever your reaction to this tiny villain, that's probably the best way to react to your life-size challenger. If the insults are laughable, just laugh. If the mean person has a point, tell her that you get it, but she could stand to work on her people skills. Practice what you would say if you felt big and invulnerable, then say it, even if you're scared. Be "big" by responding to cruelty with honest calm rather than aggression or submissiveness.
Ernest Hemingway claimed the most essential talent for a good writer was simply a "built-in, shockproof shit detector." Great authorship is all about truth. 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.
"Honey, people are whispering about your weight." "Stop talking back, or you'll lose that husband of yours." "Oh, sweetheart, that's way too big a dream for you." Statements like these may be well-intentioned feedback—or spite. The difference is that honesty, even the tough stuff, makes you feel clearer and stronger, while meanness leaves you mired in shame, despair, and frailty.
This is true physically as well as psychologically. I sometimes make my clients do push-ups while repeating feedback they've been given, such as "I need to lose 20 pounds" or "I should be nicer." If the statement is false, the strength literally drains from their bodies. If it's true, they become stronger. One client, a couch potato in her 60s, started cranking out literally hundreds of push-ups once she rejected the feedback she was getting from her husband and chose to believe what her heart was telling her. Try this yourself to see what your internal detection system reveals about the feedback you've received. Trust, remember, and revisit honest advice. Muck everything else right out of your mind.
If you opt to write your life consciously, you'll find that a tale acknowledging your hero's strength feels truer than one depicting you as a victim. You'll see that whatever your physical size, you really are a bigger person than any bully. You'll learn that the truth, no matter how hard, always strengthens you more than a lie, no matter how nice. On the other hand, if you don't take up your authority, you give mean people the power to write your life for you. In the end, they will make you one of them. That should give you the motivation you need to take up your authority, because let's face it: Mean people suck.
More Insight From Martha Beck