Why Are Some People So Mean?

Pregunta del día – why in Spanish you ask?  Well, I promised myself that I would continue to practice my Spanish after our year of travel in Mexico and I have yet to sit down and do it, so indulge me a little, ok?  By the way, if you haven’t figured it out yet, it means question of the day.

So, my question of the day, and one that comes to mind quite often, is why are some people so mean?  We all know the Golden Rule, right?  Do unto others as we would have others do unto us.    It seems like such an easy concept but much more difficult for many to put into practice.

I remember back when I was a young, eager manager, working with the public.  I decided to have a staff meeting and one of my first reminders to the staff was the importance of treating others as we would like to be treated.  Something our mothers taught us and simple, right?  Everyone should just nod their heads in agreement now and I can move on to other business.  What I got instead was the big eye-roll.  What the heck?!

We certainly can all theorize over why people are so mean.  So let’s start by laying out some of the reasons for this behavior:

  • unhappiness with our own lives
  •  emotional or physical pain
  • fearfulness
  • jealousy
  • anger
  • low self-esteem

There are any number of reasons, or excuses, some might say, for why we are mean.  It is true we are products of our upbringing but this becomes a tired, worn-out expression, doesn’t it, when we use this as justification for being so hateful to others.  To me it just feels like I expend more energy being mean (and yes, I can be) than when I practice compassion.

Martha Beck, PhD and columnist for O Magazine, wrote a very interesting piece on the subject, addressing how we can and should respond to those mean-spirited people we meet in our lives.  No, you guessed it, we shouldn’t slap a “Mean People Suck” sticker on our back bumper and call it good.  There are much more fruitful ways of empowering ourselves.

Given the world we now find ourselves in, it is not surprising to hear more reports about bullying, domestic violence, hate crimes, and child abuse popping up in the news.  Sometimes I’m shocked I don’t meet more hateful people than I do!  I’d like to think that maybe it has something to do with how I treat people (for the most part, lest you think I have a Mother Teresa complex, or something).

Since I can’t fix anyone else (and goodness knows I’ve tried!) I choose today to practice compassion with everyone I meet.  Given that it is an overcast, chilly day (a good day to stay indoors), one of the few I will see today is my husband.  What a lucky man he is, at least for today!

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30 thoughts on “Why Are Some People So Mean?

  • What a great question. My sister called me last night…crying. My sixteen year old nephew is cutting himself, skipping/failing school, depressed, he doesn’t have many friends…etc…etc…etc…and do you know what a caring, concerned family member said to her? She was told that she should have had him committed years ago. Not only are people mean to each other, I think we can be incredibly mean and hurtful to those we should be the most supportive of, our family. I would have to add to the list of reasons why people are so mean. I think some people have a complete and utter lack of compassion towards our fellow human beings. I don’t believe this is always intentional, we often speak before we think, I know I’m guilty of doing it! I also feel that we get so caught up in our own lives and the problems we might be dealing with that we just don’t take the time to listen, to commiserate, to care or to help. The world we live in can be so hard and stressful, but it doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t reach out a hand, give a shoulder to cry on or when all else fails, just listen and BE THERE. It doesn’t take much effort, but the results can be life-changing.
Miss you,

    • Sonya

      Thanks so much for writing. I am so sorry to hear about your sister and nephew. I cannot even imagine ever making a comment like that to someone. When we know how hurt we can be by others’ words, why do we persist in being so mean to others? It just doesn’t make any sense. I am certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but I am choosing to work on being more compassionate to everyone. This is a big challenge I am giving myself this year. I miss you too and am looking forward to seeing you soon.

    • Sonya, I will pray for your sister and her son! The people that say those things are usually talking about themselves… keep your chin up, love in your heart, and encourage your sister from me to her! Hugs!

  • Great question and one I’ve asked myself many times. Most of my experiences with mean people were at work. At one time I worked for such a mean boss, I ended up depressed and sick. My doctor had to put me on a medical leave it was so bad. I took the matter to HR and they moved me to another location, but the mean guy kept his job. At another job I worked with an incredibly mean woman who gossiped about me and everyone else. I’ve come to the conclusion that the mean people I have come across are miserable in their personal lives and being mean to others gives them some kind of sick satisfaction. I’m so glad to be out of the business rat race. I haven’t run across many mean people since we’ve been fulltiming. We’ve had a couple of different workamping positions, and so far, so good. And, if we do come across someone that’s too mean, we can move on. I love this lifestyle! I also try to treat other with compassion, but sometimes it can be hard

    • Thanks for your comments Evelyn. I too came across a number of mean-spirited people in my corporate days. It seemed like it was a badge of honor to be the “tough guy”, whether you were male or female. Getting out of the rate race and having an opportunity to step back and reflect, it is so refreshing to encounter “real” people in this lifestyle we lead. My goal this year is to try to show compassion for those who can be trying to be around. We will see how I do. Hopefully we will have the chance to meet you and your hubby someday. We have heard some great things about the two of you from Janie and John. Take care.

  • Who needs a therapist., just reading your thoughts and commments from others gives you a lot of insights. I, too, like Evelyn had an ordered medical leave. I did go back, but decided to run. Really was the best thing I could have done as running led me to Yellowstone and inner peace. I’m hoping for some of that peace on this trip as well, but know I won’t run into many mean people there.

  • I truly believe that mean people are unhappy people and they just don’t want to be unhappy alone. As the old saying goes “Misery loves company”. I really try to stay away from negative people because it can be so contagious and life is too short for that kind of life, but when I do encounter them I try to remember that they are unhappy in life and compassion is in order.

  • I agree with your conclusion about compassion. We don’t have control over others, but we can control how we treat them. I was at a lecture last week offered by a man who mediates conflict over international water rights and trans-boundary water allocation. He maintained that, if anger is not met with more anger, it dissipates in 3-4 minutes: anger feeds on anger. Compassion feeds on compassion?

  • Wlhat a wonderfully well put thought. A gentle smile can melt even the most forzen of hearts and, I have found, surprise someone who is havinig a tough day. You are, my dear Lu, a gentle spirit and those of us who have had the opportunity to spend time with you and Terry, realize just how lucky we are and remain because of this wonderful blog. Thank you for that!

    • I find my mind wandering so often, thinking about how much I would love to spend time with you again. You have been such a bright spot in my life in the short time I have known you and I pray that you and David will be able to move closer to us so we can plan a trip to visit you two. There was a reason we found each other in Mexico. Love you!

  • Hi Paint, read your kind comments on readytochangenow and was compelled to visit! Just as I has expected, a wonderful other focused site! thank you, it was a pleasure to read, and so sad about the young boy! I will pray for him. He is hurting…

    • And there is another topic that is interesting because being happy is a choice we can make in our lives, isn’t it? It certainly can be tough at times but so liberating as well to make that decision to have a better life. Thanks Ruth!

  • it’s just so much easier to react with immediate fight or flight emotions than it is to sit back and take a compassionate response. and after years and years of the former reaction, it just becomes a habit, a point of view that is hard to break. maybe it just takes someone being nice when we wouldnt be. to open our eyes.
    i had a teacher who said the best way to end a fight was to refuse to get in one, or refuse to want to have the final word. the emotion and power of fights feel great when we are engaged in them, but they only leave sorrow behind.

  • Sometimes, being mean is just a bad habit. As a species, we’re pretty mean to ourselves – the way we talk to ourselves, treat ourselves, think about ourselves – and I think it carries over to the way we talk to, treat, and think about others. Practicing compassion isn’t so hard, but it isn’t always a habit as ingrained as meanness.

  • This brings to mind a well-known Native American proverb of which I am a fan:

    One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
    He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
    “The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
    The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
    The old Cherokee replied, “The one you feed.”

    This goes along, I think, with Eckhart Tolle’s “pain-body” metaphor. The pain-body is like a horrible monster who is constantly hungry for pain, anger, fear, etc, and it is always looking for ways to be fed. If you succumb to it’s desire, if you allow yourself to fall into that way of thinking, you’re feeding the pain-body which then, in turn, continues to grow stronger until it’s all-consuming.

    If, instead, you continue to look for the good, appreciate it when you see it, happiness multiplies. I think the main problem is people are constantly looking outside of themselves for something to fulfill them and then are always disappointed when “it” falls short.

    Celebrate other’s triumphs, comfort those who are suffering, and above all, be eternally grateful for the only thing you truly have: this moment. Right now. Be present.

    Lu, one year for Christmas you gave gifts to those of us in Reservations. Within each gift bag you’d placed magnets with famous quotes on them (and I think they were random so I believe fate brought me the one I received). I still have the one from that bag and I always think of you when I read it. It is Emerson’s “What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you are small matters compared to what lies within you.”

    • Jenny,

      I have heard this Native American proverb before and am a big fan as well.

      Having read everything that Eckhart Tolle has written, the “pain-body” metaphor is a perfect example. And it is amazing, isn’t it, how often we look to things or people not suited for us, to feed our souls. Since I began meditating, I try to focus more on the present moment and not worry about the future or have regrets about the past. It isn’t always easy to do but so rewarding when I am able to do it.

      As to the famous quotes given to each of you for Christmas, I must admit that they were not randomly placed into gift bags. I didn’t share that with any of you at the time because it was just me observing which quote had the most meaning for a specific person (in my opinion). I have always seen you as someone who has all these precious gifts available within you, just waiting for the right opportunities to present them to others. At the time I didn’t feel like you knew how special you were, and you may not yet know. You are a beautiful woman, a gentle spirit, someone who has grown so much in the short time I have known her. I feel grateful to be able to call you my friend.

      Love you,


  • I think people are mean because they are scared. My life goes better when I treat mean people as scared children – being mean to mean people only perpetuates the cycle.

Love to know what you're thinking.

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