3 Important Things to Remember When People Are Mean

Relaxation

“Be kind. Be thoughtful. Be genuine. But most of all, be thankful.” ~Unknown

Nobody is spared from being on the receiving end of a mean comment at some point or another. And it’s been said time and time again that allowing a mean person to get under your skin only serves to let them control you. The wiser thing to do is recognize that their comment about you is uninformed and get on with your day.

Still, it’s far easier to know that wisdom than it is to truly feel and live it.

I remember one instance in particular: A coworker (who I had never been fond of) had recently returned from an extended leave and was seeing me for the first time in several months. Upon encountering me in the hallway, she looked me up and down and said, “You’ve… been eating well.”

I was so stung that I couldn’t respond. I wanted to respond defensively. Later, I wished I had responded rudely. Every time I thought about it, a new wave of sassy retorts I should have made populated my brain, and I found my jaw tensing and my fists clenching. I even wondered if it was too late to complain to HR. How dare she say something so rude and unprofessional to me?

I was fully aware that weight is an emotionally fraught subject in my world, as it is for many people. My weight often fluctuated dramatically based on the other circumstances of my life, and I had been through the gamut of not-so-healthy dieting and short-lived attempts at fitness that many of us know all too well.

Therefore, I was also fully aware that her comment only stung so hard because of my personal journey with weight; that she didn’t know about that journey; that she may belong to a culture or community in which “eating well” is not necessarily offensive; and that if she had judged me on some other aspect, I very possibly could have rolled my eyes and banked this as additional confirmation that yes, she is someone I don’t like.

I was aware of all this, and yet my blood still boiled at the very thought of her.

I decided that because this wasn’t the first time a mean comment had had this great of an effect on me, and it wouldn’t be the last, maybe I could compile some mental pointers to help me through these moments, if only for my own sanity. Here is what I came up with:

1. Never do anything when your blood is boiling.

Though I was speechless at first, the urge to make a mean comment back at her (if even a few days later) was all-consuming and felt perfectly justified. After all, I’m only human. Yet I’m ultimately glad I kept my cool.

First off, being mean can majorly backfire—what if she had complained to our supervisor or decided to make my work environment unbearable in retaliation? And secondly, if I decided to reverse our roles, I would appear no better than her—the very person whose actions I scorned.

But more importantly, I know that while emotions are important and deserve to be honored to their fullest extent, in the heat of the moment, they don’t represent our true nature and are not reliable signals. Instead, they are best expressed when paired with wisdom, which can often only be gleaned with some distance and pause.

When I gave myself that pause and thought about it, I realized I don’t really want to be the kind of person who combats meanness by going even lower—I know I don’t believe in that. And I also don’t believe in digging deeper holes by starting an unprofessional feud.

What I do believe is that my outer actions should align with my inner values. This means honoring my emotions with fairness and self-compassion while still maintaining external grace.

This is really hard—it requires a lot of practice and patience.

To start, I could process my experience of being hurt through a framework of self-love rather than a framework of spite. This could mean discussing my hurt feelings with a friend or mentor, writing about them, releasing the tension through physical activity or breathwork, or even reminding myself of all my positive qualities and assets that have the power to render one unimportant criticism negligible.

2. Being civil doesn’t mean I have to like everyone.

I didn’t want my silence to indicate that I was okay with, or passive to, being treated rudely. But in the professional space, where my focus is supposed to be on getting work done, civility enabled me to meet my goals and contribute to a well-functioning team. There was no reason why my relationship with this coworker had to take on any further form.

Being civil did not translate to spending more time with her than required, engaging in conversation unrelated to work, inquiring about her life and sharing details about mine, talking to her at staff events, out of the office, or even in the parking lot; those are things I have the freedom to do with people I like. I appreciate the people in my life who bring me personal satisfaction and make me feel valuable, and I recognize that it’s a gift to find and spend time with these people.

On the flip side, it is totally normal and possible to coexist with people who don’t make us feel fantastic and who we don’t choose to engage with, while still maintaining polite conduct for the sake of the task, event, or other item du jour.

If a coworker’s behavior crossed into bullying or harassment, I know of formal steps I could take to advocate for myself. However, there is significant gray territory that is often inhabited by the people we simply don’t like—people whose actions we don’t appreciate, who we wouldn’t willingly group ourselves with.

I gained a lot of relief when I understood that I have the skill and self-control to work on a professional task with someone in this category, but at the same time, I am under no obligation to welcome their presence and energy into other parts of my life.

It was liberating and empowering to realize that treating everyone with basic civility is the wiser choice, only up until a certain point, and after that point, I have control over who I bring into closer orbit and how.

3. You learn as much from the people you don’t want to be like as you do from the people you do want to be like.

It’s joyful to look back and remember an inspirational teacher, friend, coach, or even a kind stranger who touched us with their positive qualities and thus impacted our personal trajectory. On the contrary, it’s painful to look back and remember people who were mean, inconsiderate, cruel, or any one of the innumerable undesirable qualities we inevitably come across. However, those people inevitably impacted our personal trajectory in much the same way.

A great teacher of mine once said that gratitude does not mean that you are okay with everything; rather, it means that you are grateful for everything you’ve been taught. In other words, we can be grateful for each seemingly negative experience because it helped us confirm that we want something different.

I see the potential for gratitude toward everybody who brings me into awareness of how I want to live and how I want to treat others, and that list includes coworkers making unprofessional digs.

Nobody is perfect; just like nobody is spared from receiving a mean comment, at other times, nobody is spared from accidentally (or intentionally) making one.

So, the next time it entered my mind to make a not-so-kind or not-so-necessary comment, I could remember what I learned from this experience and reconsider my actions.

This reconsideration and ability to take a different course would be a tiny step toward cultivating the kinder, more considerate world that I want. And for that ability, I owe gratitude to my coworker and to everyone else who made me feel hurt or stung. They have brought me to the awareness that I desire a different action.

Our interactions with others are unpredictable, and we never know when somebody is going to catch us off guard with a comment or action that stings or angers us. As a result, developing the ability to recognize, ingrain, and respond with some of the ideas I outlined, rather than with our initial experience of shock and raw emotion, is an arduous and, at times, unsatisfying process.

But this dissatisfaction is often limited to the short term and fades when we do the hard work toward processing emotions. In the long term, doing the harder thing usually aligns with the more satisfying course of action and also aligns with our deeper values and beliefs on how life should be lived.

About Mallika Iyer

Mallika Iyer is a teacher, researcher, and mental health advocate in Boston. She is passionate about making learning and healing accessible for youth of all abilities. A recipient of the Fulbright fellowship, Mallika is currently a student in the Nalanda Institute’s Contemplative Psychotherapy program and enjoys traveling, writing, and getting outside in her free time.

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