Here’s the truth: Sooner or later we find ourselves in relationships with Mean People.
Let me define my terms: Mean People are people who need us to feel lousy about ourselves. I’m not kidding. They need us to feel badly about ourselves the way vampires need to drink our blood. It’s the way they shore up their identity. Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Mean People say, “You feel derided, humiliated, and put down, therefore I am.”
Astonishing, really: Mean People find it very provocative when you and I began to consistently thrive in self-respect, self-confidence, and creative living.
Of course, Mean People would expressly deny this, not because they are liars, but because they themselves have no clue who they are or what they are doing! And one of the defining attributes of “mean” is the steadfast refusal to examine self. Nope ― asking a Mean Person to examine their chronically contemptuous, bullying and abusive ways has all the promise of saying to a rattlesnake, “I can’t help but notice that, when I interact with you, you tend to bite me, which, what with that ‘venom thing’ and all, really ruins my day.”
Sometimes we are thrust into relationships with Mean People. Just luck of the draw, and bad luck at that. A coach. A teacher. A religious leader. A boss. A sibling. The Co-worker From Hell with whom we’re obliged to cooperate. People wearing badges and guns who don’t so much “protect and serve” as they “shame and swagger.”
Tragically, some of us are reared from childhood by Mean People. Oh, sure, all parents have bad, irritable, grouchy days. But some mothers and fathers actually habituate and normalize a childrearing practice that is “shame-based” ― critical, demeaning, humiliating, or even bullying and abusive. Again, they would deny it, but the overriding ethos is something like, “My son/daughter does better when I make sure they feel sufficiently bad, self-doubtful, and insecure.”
Some of us wake up in marriages with Mean People. Really. We find ourselves married to a man or a woman who needs us to feel badly about ourselves. It happens so gradually that sometimes it takes months and years to admit what we are observing and experiencing. It can range from subtle to not-so-subtle, the uber-example being a full blown domestic violence relationship. Sometimes the dynamic continues long after the gavel has banged on a divorce.
But here’s the good news: in much the same way that a vampire cannot enter our homes without our invitation, Mean People can’t function without our consent and participation. Which means that we can withdraw our consent and stop participating! Takes a little practice making and keeping promises to yourself, but it can be done. Try reciting this ... In a radical commitment to self-respect, I make myself these promises:
1. I will never again forget that [name] is mean and malicious – poisonous to my well-being.
Now, this is an awful and sad thing to conclude about anybody, especially a blood relative or a mate. But, until we’re willing to tell this truth, we can’t get back our power to live well.
2. I will never again be surprised when [name] is mean and malicious.
We can’t be free until we can stop the incredulous whining (“Can you belieeeevvve what he/she said to me?!”) After years of listening to me gape, writhe, and agitate, a friend once said to me simply and sternly, “Steven, the Bank of Steven’s Father has a fixed interest rate that will never change. It’s a bowl of shit, and a spoon. Why does that still surprise and offend you?”
3. I will become especially alert, careful, and wary when [name] behaves normally or even honorably to me.
See, ‘normal’ and ‘honorable’ are part of how Mean People pull us in for the next offensive.
In the strength of these three promises, we find our resources of energy and clarity returning in full force. Now we can decide how to proceed. We can act and proact, rather than react. We can terminate the relationship. Or, if circumstances oblige us to interact, we can assemble boundaries and strategies that disarm the Mean Person. Leave him/her fighting with air and, with any luck, appearing and perhaps even feeling ridiculous in the process.
The ultimate victory for us is not to fight back, get even, be vindicated, nor ever to bring the Mean Person to justice. The ultimate victory is to render this person irrelevant.
Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal Priest. He writes a regular column for Marinscope Community Newspapers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.