Why People Are Mean and What We Can Do

A friend came to me one day, feeling really upset. There was a man who had made her day thoroughly miserable; he was nasty, rude, and embarrassed her in front of her friends for no reason.

“How can people be so mean? I’ve heard that when they are nasty, it’s because they are in a lot of pain themselves. Is that true? How does that work?”

I didn’t know for sure, but I have been thinking about the same topic a lot, and so I did my best to give her an answer, no matter how clumsy or wrong I might be.

Dollars in the Wind

Imagine that you had a fifty dollar note in your wallet, and one day you opened your wallet and the wind blows it away. How would you react? It would probably depend on how much money you had. If you were a multi-billionaire, you might not even care. On the other hand, the average person might run after it but give up after a while.

But what if you are homeless, sick, and haven’t eaten in days? What if that money was all you had in the world? I would run and scream and jump into the ocean if that was where it went; I would get on my hands and knees and dig it out of a mountain of dung if that was where it landed; I would do almost anything to get it back.

Is it the same thing, but an inner equivalent, with all the nasty things that people do? Self-esteem, approval, happiness – what would one do to get it? The man who walked up to her and began humiliating her, he really wanted to look “cool” in front of his friends. He was emotionally poor and starving and full of self-hatred, and he would do anything to avoid that awful feeling that was eating away at him.

The nastier he is, then the more desperate he is to fix that pain – except he doesn’t really know how, and chose the unhealthy, hurtful way to do it. It doesn’t matter what he looked like externally; she told me he had a really nice business suit and a really expensive looking haircut. One’s inner state doesn’t always correspond to one’s outer state. Inside, he was starving emotionally, he was in pain, and he was doing the best he could to fix it. Conversely, emotionally rich people, those who are happy and full of self-esteem, are compassionate and caring. The joy overflows from them in the same way that water flows out of a full cup if you keep pouring.

(By the way, if a reader is thinking, I understand the emotional poverty, but what does he mean by pain? This is because I actually used a different illustration with my friend, but changed it for this article in case someone got offended. The original story I used was a joke video I saw on Youtube once – a man who was stuck in an elevator overnight and had diarrhoea. He was in such pain that after a few hours he just did his business in the corner of the elevator then burst out crying at the mess he made. He had no choice, he was just in so much pain and he didn’t know what else to do. Wait – I just told my readers anyway, which defeats the purpose of making up the dollars in the wind story. Ah well, pick whichever one you prefer.)

Is this understanding something we use to condemn them, to laugh at their misfortune? Do we feel better because it is a form of revenge to know that he is suffering inside himself? It is easy to start thinking that way, but the grim “satisfaction” from such thoughts is actually quite painful. We are just replacing one form of pain with another. It only feels better in comparison to the original hurt, if it does at all.

Perhaps we would be better served if we used it for understanding and compassion. How? If we can see his motivations in this way, we begin to see that it was less to do with us than we thought. The hurt begins to diminish, because a big part of the hurt is that we think we somehow deserved it. Allow me to explain.

Why Me?

This is one of the most common thoughts we have when someone treats us poorly: Why me? Is it something to do with me? Did I deserve it?

The answer, of course, is different in every situation. Sometimes we did do something wrong. But in her case – a random attack from a total stranger – it was more about him than it was about her. And if you are reminded of someone that hurt you in the past, think carefully about what happened – could it be more about them than it is about you too?

I remember one night I was at a relative’s café. It was late in the evening, and he had closed shop for the night. The lights were mostly off, the waiters and chefs had gone home, and the plastic chairs in the outdoor area were neatly stacked up, ready to move back into the building. The two of us remained inside after closing time, enjoying a quiet chat.

All of a sudden we heard a clashing noise from outside. A man, possibly drunk, had walked past the café in a rage, and he was raving and shouting at something or someone. As he walked past the chairs we had stacked up, he punched them, smashing them over before storming off. The poor chairs! Are they so hideous? Are they so pathetic? So ugly?

Can you see what I am getting at? Could we blame the chairs for what had happened to them? He was in a rage, and the chairs just happened to be in the way. What have they done to deserve it? Nothing.

But why did he choose to call me names? My friend was upset and unconvinced at the chair story. Why not the person sitting next to me?

Again, only he would know the real reason for sure. But my best guess was simply that she was convenient, or maybe she couldn’t hurt him back. To illustrate this: why did the man outside the café punch the soft plastic chairs and not the big metal umbrella stands that were right next to them? He would have hurt his hand, probably. It was a snap decision – he had no choice, his emotional pain was so strong and he didn’t know a healthier way of dealing with it. He just had to hit someone and the first thing he saw that wouldn’t hurt his hand was the stack of flexible plastic.

In the same way, maybe my friend just didn’t look assertive enough. Maybe it was because she was young and looked innocent. Maybe the person sitting next to her had big muscles and tattoos. Again, we dont know for certain, but these are certainly likelier explanations than what she was thinking: What is wrong with me? Am I just despicable, a total loser, so much so that some random stranger hates me when I’ve done nothing to him!


Something I forgot to add: There is another piece of information that might help us accept this. Because what happened was rare for us, we think it is a rare event overall. Therefore, it must have something to do with us, right? Therefore, we did something to deserve it, right?

But think about this: With my friend, its almost certain that the man does it all the time. It simply wasn’t personal, although it felt that way to her because nobody had abused her like that in her life. But for him, its just another day; she was the latest in a long line of targets. Consider that possibility with whatever happened to you, too. Whatever he or she did – it has happened many times before, to many other people and will most likely continue to happen to many more in the future. It might not have had anything to do with you.

Making the Heart Match the Head

With many people, a simple chat like this can be all they need. Certainly my friend felt better, and so I didn’t continue. But have you ever felt like there is a clash inside you? That you understand it intellectually, but you sure didn’t feel any better? Your head gets it but your heart doesn’t?

One thing we can do then is to simply let the answer sink in. Sit with the new understanding a little bit – for instance, it wasn’t my fault, or it wasn’t because I am a loser. And just let the emotions be there, whatever comes up. This might feel good, so enjoy it if it does – but it is even more important if somehow it feels horrible. Feel it completely, without resisting or judging it, and let it play out. If you are familiar with The Work of Byron Katie, you can use the entire process with your original belief.

A second, very similar, option is to simply welcome and feel the emotions around the issue. It is helpful to explore both sides in this manner. In other words, if you believe that it happened because you are a loser, then process out the feelings that come with the statement “It did not happen because I am a loser” AND “It happened because I am a loser”.

If there is someone hurtful you have not quite forgotten, something that still hurts, spend a few minutes thinking of what we discussed in this post. Pretend that you were the friend I was comforting – does any of it seem true, or at least more likely? Spend a few more minutes exploring the two processes described above, and then think about it again, and see if it doesnt make you see things in a different light.