How do you handle it when someone is mean? Does it change you? Energy is the strength required for a physical or mental activity. It takes energy to do something and it takes energy to not do something. When someone yawns, that is contagious. When someone smiles, that can elicit a smile too. So what happens, when you meet someone who is unpleasant? What does that elicit in you?
When I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria, there was a small convenience store, a few blocks from my cinderblock, grey apartment complex, with a cashier who was as cold as the Iron Curtain. This was a post-communist, “upscale” neighborhood. There were stray dogs everywhere because, at least in 2000 when I lived there, many Bulgarians thought it was cruel to spay and neuter so the dogs ran freely. On my frequent walk to the convenience store, there was a lot to navigate emotionally from the dearth of color and the unkempt tall grass hiding its mysteries, to the threat of meeting an angry homeless dog.
Customer service was not a fruit of communism. It appeared that if you were just doing the job that you were paid to do then that was all that was required. Niceties like smiling or saying hello were unheard of. Since I frequented this store, I found myself taking in some of this cashier’s energy. She never smiled let alone said hello. She would barely look at you. I was uncomfortable and decided, joined by a couple of colleagues, that I would be friendly to her. I needed to do it for myself. I was living in this dreary neighborhood, many miles from home, and I had to inject a little yellow into it. So, every day I would speak to her, in Bulgarian. I would say hello and I would smile. My colleagues did the same. After about six months, she changed. She began to smile, and say hello and she was helpful. It became a pleasant experience going into this store.
So a change happened with a stranger but what happens when someone close to you is mean? How do you find compassion in that? How do you not allow their meanness to change you? I was thinking about that recently when a new-found friend handled a situation poorly. There was no communication and I felt hurt. At first I concentrated on the act of meanness and of course that didn’t help me to feel any better. I communicated how I felt and that helped but I found myself unable to completely shrug it off. I was having a conversation with another friend about it and suddenly the idea of killing pain popped into my head.
When people are uncommunicative, or are just plain mean, they are usually experiencing overwhelming feelings, so they try to kill, get rid of, them. In their terror, there is often collateral damage. The word kill is pretty provocative but it works nonetheless. In the extreme, people who are in incredible emotional pain, kill the pain by killing themselves. They cannot live with their loneliness or suffering anymore. Other people, who do not take such drastic measures, kill the pain through working, overeating, sex, sleeping, avoiding, etc. In a relationship or friendship, a person who fears the pain more than has the ability to receive the joy, will kill their fear even if it means taking the relationship down with them.
Hurt, fearful, people can be as mean as a wounded animal. An animal that has been injured and is in severe pain, can be dangerous if you try to go near it to help. If someone is drowning, rescuers have to be especially careful that the frightened person in the water doesn’t take them down as well. The extremely fearful individual in a relationship, will kill anything in their path to stop the pain of conflict, and the ensuing emotions, including killing their relationship with you.
So what does this have to do with shrugging off meanness? Well, it means that a person’s animosity often has nothing to do with you at all. Their actions put a spotlight on them. They are struggling and trying to find a way to comfort themselves…in sometimes unpleasant ways. This idea can open the door to understanding and that opens the door to healing from the meanness you’ve encountered. Once you can see it, you begin to step out of the shadow of hostility.
When a singer gives a great performance, often people will say “she killed it.” Now, “killing it” takes on a whole new meaning. If someone is mean to you, you could say that he is taking care of himself the only way he knows how. Or, you could say, he killed it, and you can rest in peace.