Last summer my mom and I were walking along Lake Siskiyou in Mount Shasta, CA. We were working our ideas through; solving our little corner of the world one conversation at a time.
We were talking about women and the choices we make when things get hard. When we don’t know what to do. When our fear gets the better of us.
Sometimes we say hurtful things. We ignore people we love. We hide until we hope it’s all over.
My mom said, “You seem to think that people who do hurtful things are still nice girls. They’re not. I think they’re mean.”
My response? “We’re all mean. We all have the capacity to be mean. They are nice girls. Truly. Maybe they got scared or insecure or confused and they used their mean.”
As people who are always trying our best we don’t want to admit our flaws. Sometimes it’s easier to blame someone else. To shift the focus from our behavior to theirs.
Sometimes people do crappy things. I get it. I’m not excusing bad behavior. I do, however, think we could miss a valuable lesson if we don’t ask, “What role did I play in this?”
It’s like rewinding a game and re-watching it play-by-play. Watch, pause, reflect, play, stop, ask. Keep combing through the material until you find a missed step. A conversation gone wrong. A slight. Something you overlooked. A series of events that led to the meanness.
Very rarely is someone just plain mean for no good reason. Maybe it’s a bit Pollyanna of me, but I think people are mostly good. Believing that people are trying their best has allowed me to cultivate meaningful relationships. It has given me hope when I hear about darkness. So in my world it’s rare that people would be mean at their core.
We all have the capacity to act mean. We can have a mean thought. Say mean words. Use mean behavior. We’re not mean, but we can do mean things.
But why? Well…we get out of alignment when shame is all up in our faces.
Here’s what happens:
Someone sets a boundary and we feel like we’re wrong
Someone doesn’t choose us and we feel left out
Someone is doing something really well and we feel like we’ll never measure up
That’s shame’s game. Shame will get under your skin and tell you that you’re not good enough. It will pulse through your body and make you believe that you don’t belong.
Shame never wants us to be our best. It invites us to be our worst selves. Shame will flare our jealousy, our pain, our doubts. Shame pokes at our insecurities until they take over. Fear will spike. Everything will get too loud.
We’ll want to put the problem way over there away from us. So sometimes…we’re mean.
Here’s shame at work:
If you hurt me, then I hurt you back
If you take space from me, then I ignore you
If you succeed, then I throw shade
Yep, it’s ugly. But we’ve all done it.
When we live in a space where compassion, and questions, and love don’t come first then we make way for shame to dominate. How do we make sure it comes first? We DO THE WORK.
I probably say the phrase, “Do the work” at least once a week. I mean it. I live by it.
What does “do the work” mean? It means you ask questions. You look at your own behavior. Maybe you go to therapy. Get coaching. Reach out to people that know you well. Ask yourself, “What did I miss? What can I learn from this? How can this help me grow?”
Mean is not our default, but it’s a cheap and easy option. Are we cheap and easy? Um…NO. Absolutely not. So we do the work.
Doing the work is hard. The answers might not be easy to accept.
A long while ago, I took a problem I was having in another friendship to one of my dear friends. After a decade and a half of friendship this friend has earned the right to tell me straight. No fluff. She told me what I had missed. She pointed out what I could avoid repeating in the future. She helped connect the mean dots. To be clear, I didn’t necessarily enjoy hearing the truth. However, I want to grow and that’s the price.
Ask hard questions. Get solid answers. Grow.
The alternative is far harder to live through. When we go the cheap and easy route we become stagnant, or worse, we devolve. In relationships this means that we’ll assume the worst about others. We’ll blame them. We’ll ignore them. We’ll say hurtful things. When people do well we’ll let our insecurities control our perspective. We’ll feel jealous. We’ll roll our eyes. We’ll make fun of them. We’ll be mean.
Mean is lonely. It feels terrible. It lies.
If you believe the mean things are true it’s like inviting an ill-tempered dragon to live with you. You’ll burn through your relationships, your dreams, your self-esteem. Mean will invade your thoughts and change the way you see the world. Mean will eat your compassion away piece by piece.
Don’t be mean. Instead, do the work.
When you are triggered by someone, take a moment to look within. Figure out what bothered you. Identify the story you are making up. Ask yourself what role you played. Be clear about your response.
This is a practice of softening. When a mean thought pops up we learn to hold it with curiosity. We ask better questions. We try out compassion. We learn. We grow.
Jen Padilla-Burger helps perfectionists heal. She supports overfunctioning perfectionists with developing self-care practices, meditation, hypnosis, and self-compassion. Jen is a lover of coffee, plants, and podcasts.