Mean People Suck

by Abby on September 17, 2012

frowny faceYears and years ago when I was preparing to leave the corporate world to make my living as a freelance writer, I hired a life coach. She cautioned me that in a profession like writing where rejection and competition are so common, I would need to be very vigilant about guarding myself against negativity.

I would need to shield myself from the Debbie Downers and the naysayers out there. (“How will you eat?” said my soon-to-be ex-boss when I gave my notice.) I pictured myself surrounded by an invisible force-field of positive vibes, deflecting the slings and arrows of the cruel, cruel world.

Some people have the good fortune of being immune to criticism and other people’s foul moods. They can shrug it off, let it roll off their back. I am not one of them. Remember the Negative Nellie at the gym? Whenever I’m around people like that long enough, their bad vibes inevitably rub off on me. I wish this weren’t the case, but it is.

My natural inclination is to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re just having a bad day. Maybe they’re wearing uncomfortable underwear. Maybe their parents didn’t hug them enough. Given the right conditions, I like to think that most people are generally good and nice.

I’m not a Pollyanna; I’ve just learned through experience that people can change, and that first impressions aren’t always accurate. Several times in my life, I have encountered people who made my life miserable, who I never DREAMED had any redeeming qualities, who later did a complete 180. We ended up being, if not friends, then at least friendly acquaintances.

But that assumes that the mean people and I are all on the same playing field, that we’re all playing by the same rules. And let’s face it: some mean people are just plain MEAN. Some are mean AND crazy. Some don’t think they’re mean at all, but just being “real” or telling you something “for your own good.” Anna Quindlen has a great line in her book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, about how she’s ditched those people as she’s gotten older.

You must realize, however, that some people not only don’t consider their sharp tongues and negativity a bad thing, but embrace it as one of their defining characteristics. These people usually end up on TV or radio.

Avoidance is my preferred method of dealing with these people. Change the station, change your gym schedule, change your job if you must to stay away from these positive-energy vampires. I know people who’ve pulled their kids out of a certain teacher’s class, or blocked frenemies on Facebook. But we all know it’s not always possible, or even preferable, to avoid all mean people.

Today I’m opening up the forum to my readers. I really, truly want to hear from you guys how you handle mean people in your lives. The critical in-laws, the nasty teen, the inconsiderate neighbor, the difficult boss, the judgy mom, the rude clerk. Or, hey, maybe even the patronizing midwife who – during your third hour of pushing in your 21st HOUR OF LABOR – tells you that you’re “doing it wrong.” (And, yes, that really happened to me.)

How do you deal with these people? How do you keep them from bringing you down? And can we round them all up, tie them down, and force them to listen to Taylor Swift’s “Mean” on repeat until they change their evil ways?

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Lou Mello September 17, 2012 at 8:15 am

First, I try to choose wisely in terms of friends and acquaintances, not always possible, but, it helps. You have to screen folks and be cautious about first impressions and admittedly I am probably one that “holds back” a bit when first meeting someone.
Second, don’t be mean back, it’s not worth it and only causes grief for yourself. Just walk away, turn around, tell them you have something else to do.
Best thing to do is hang with folks you like and get along with and have generally similar thoughts about what’s fun to do. I also avoid political and religious discussions, even with friends; all the politicos are weasels anyway to some degree.


Abby September 17, 2012 at 10:50 am

The second part of what you said is so hard for me. I know it doesn’t help to be mean back, but I sometimes I want to sooo bad. You’re right about avoiding hot-button issues, too!


Rhonda September 17, 2012 at 8:26 am

This post caught my eye right away.

I used to be very intimidated by mean people, but after experiences with a few, that has, for the most part, gone by the wayside. It still shocks me & bothers me, but I have to try and push it out of my mind, forgive it, and give it to Lord. I’ll avoid them if at all possible, but you can’t avoid those mean family members. 🙂

The other thing that has helped me is to stand my ground. That means different things for different mean people. How I wish I always had something witty, even humorous, in reply to someone showing their unkind side; it would help deflect my tension while making it clear there words won’t have a lasting effect. (People who are truly mean-spirited are just bullies, I think).


Abby September 17, 2012 at 10:52 am

Oh, I go over and over the comebacks and what I should’ve said after the fact! It’s true about standing your ground – on the rare occasions I’ve been able to do that, I’m always surprised when the mean person backs down.


Joyce September 17, 2012 at 9:15 am

I’m definitely an avoider. I have unfriended facebook “friends” (recently when someone ranted about how people shouldn’t bring children on planes, ugh) and I generally distance myself whenever possible from negative people. I used to have weekly coffees with another mother, but after time I realized after each meeting, I felt terrible about myself; she was very competitive and materialistic. We moved (only 15 minutes away, but still) and I have very purposefully lost touch with her. I find as I get older, I tend to take things less personally and try to feel proud/unashamed of who I am, which makes handling mean people a lot easier. I try to make their issues not my problem, not always easy, but still something I aim for.


Abby September 17, 2012 at 10:53 am

Yes! That is a tough lesson that comes with age and experience — that it’s THEM, not you. I always wonder why the pleasant, easygoing people don’t rub off on these folks instead of vice versa.


Jennifer September 17, 2012 at 11:00 am

A friend of mine once told me that a true friend will “lift you up” and help you be a better person and generally is just a positive force in your life. That doesn’t mean they’ll always tell you exactly what you want to hear, of course. But someone who always drags you down or makes you feel bad about yourself isn’t a true friend and why would you want to continue to be around that person, she continued.

Makes sense to me!

Of course, it’s not always easy to just cut yourself off from those people. I tend to “hide” people on Facebook and avoid them as much as possible in real life. Maybe I should be a bigger person and try to be a force for positive change in their lives, but gah, who has the energy for that? 🙂


Abby September 17, 2012 at 11:44 am

Yeah, who has the energy to be the bigger person?? Lol!


Very Bloggy Beth September 17, 2012 at 1:18 pm

I’m very much like you. I never really know what to do or say when confronted with meanness, and it very much affects the way I feel about myself. I wish it weren’t that way, but it is. I’ve gotten better at dealing with it now that I’m a bit older, but there are moments from childhood and high school that have stuck with me all these years, and I still think back on them. Often, I think of some clever, snarky comeback, hours after the encounter, and wish I had them in front of me to tell off. But then I wonder, would it really even be worth it if I had the opportunity? Because then I’m just as mean as them. I hope somewhere deep inside these people have realized the only way their meanness is allowed to pervade is because of the nice people in the world.


Abby September 18, 2012 at 9:08 am

Never thought of it that way: they can only be mean because the nice people let them. Good point!


Kathleen Basi September 17, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Being careful about political and religious discussions is an important one. I’ve made a really deliberate attempt to do all engagement on flash-topics from a standpoint of reason and simply ignore the cheap shots. But there are times when you have to point out the cheap shots. It does take a lot more energy to be the bigger person, and I would imagine it might be healthier to avoid the toxic people altogether. But sometimes you can’t.


Abby September 18, 2012 at 9:09 am

Right. You can only avoid and ignore so much.


Bruce Smith September 17, 2012 at 4:56 pm

Generally, when confronted by an angry or mean personality I’ll just check out. I take a mental half-step back and let them spout off about whatever is twisting their buttons and I slip into analysis mode, wondering what happened in their life to make them so consistently miserable. Sometimes I may initially ask a carefully composed question, like “why does that upset you so much?”. But once I’ve determined that they are in their natural state, I don’t engage.


Abby September 18, 2012 at 9:10 am

Ha! I like that – go all therapist on them. 🙂


Rachel September 17, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Not much to say on how to handle mean people. But your midwife’s comment made me think about my own experience during my second child’s birth. I was pushing (I’d only been at the hospital for less than two hours and was in the middle of pushing out my baby, so I wasn’t doing too bad) and a nurse next to me, said to another nurse, “Her pushing isn’t working.” I guess she thought that I couldn’t hear through all the pushing, but I did. I turned, looked right at her and said, “I’m sorry,” in a tone that really said, “Oh, I’m soooo sorry you don’t like how I’m pushing. You poor thing. I’ll try harder for you. And please, keep talking about what an awful job I’m doing. It’s really helping!” She kept quiet after that.


Abby September 18, 2012 at 9:11 am

That’s exactly how I felt! Thanks, lady. Super helpful.


Ali September 17, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Hi, Abby. It’s been a while since I’ve commented, but I still read every one of your posts. It’s just been a bit hectic now that I’m back to work and trying to soak up every spare minute with my son. I read your posts on my phone during my ONE HOUR commute into work. Every one.

Anyway, this was a great post! I’m very much like you: I avoid negative people. It may not always be possible, but it sure does work most of the time. People sometimes frown at me when I say that we’re estranged from my husband’s entire side of the family, or that I no longer speak to my childhood friend. But you know, when I look around at the people I have in my life, I feel so loved, supported, and appreciated. I never felt that way around the meanies I used to keep around simply because I thought I had to. And I no longer suffer from low self-esteem as a result.

You really don’t realize how much of an impact negative people have until something devastating happens, like losing a baby at +5 months gestation. Those are the moments when you really need a strong, supportive group to get you through.

Life is too short to waste it on people who add no value to your life.


Abby September 18, 2012 at 9:14 am

Ali! So good to hear from you! I was *just* thinking about you the other day and wondering where you’d been. Working and commuting, huh? I know some people who have truly awful inlaws and maintain a relationship with them for the sake of their kids. I think they’re saints, but you do have to wonder at what price. I think it’s great that you’ve found your own group of loving, supportive people to surround yourself with.


Nadine Feldman September 17, 2012 at 11:20 pm

I was astounded when I read what you wrote about the midwife. Wow. What a horrible thing to say!

I’m more thin-skinned than I would like to be. I wish I had some words of wisdom for you. I tend to be an avoider, and I’ll have a good cry from time to time. The good news is, I don’t hang on to things for long. Usually, once I have my cry, I dust myself off and get moving again!


Abby September 18, 2012 at 9:15 am

I know! And according to Rachel’s comment above, I’m not the only one. Yikes! That’s great that you can deal with things in your own way and then let them go. I tend to be a grudge-holder who has trouble with that, but I’m working on it.


jetts31 September 19, 2012 at 10:59 am

Being in car sales helps build up a thick skin. I’ve been told ‘No’ more times than I care to remember.
I’ve been able to put up a barrier and shrug off whatever negativity comes my way, or make fun of it, or internalize it to fuel whatever it is I’m working on.
Or I find out where they live and punch them in the throat.


Abby September 19, 2012 at 12:40 pm

LOL! If I had a nickel for every time I’d considered that last option, I’d be able to buy a new car from you. 🙂


Geng September 20, 2012 at 4:37 am

Hi Abby! you’re right that there really are people who just doesn’t realize that they’re being mean and probably don’t think first before they speak out. unfortunately I’m not very good at situations like this. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I never seem to realize that something blew hard on my face and I would continue to smile and sometimes even agree with the person. then when i’m all alone and too late to redeem myself in the conversation prior, it’s like i’d be splashed with really cold water and feel bad. then i’d think of all the answers i could have said to that person in return (maybe even in defense). but what can I do? it’s too late isn’t it? but then again, maybe I am a bigger person for not stooping down to that person’s level, so I let it go slowly.

n.b. love your posts! 🙂


Abby September 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I think it’s human nature to go over and over all the “should’ve saids” and “could’ve dones” in your head after the fact. I don’t think there IS any perfect response to difficult people, though. Thanks for your comment!


Evelyn September 27, 2012 at 11:14 am

For me, avoidance is definitely the best tactic – life is too short to waste it on people who drain your energy. If that’s not possible, I try to keep in mind that most times, negativity says more about the person it’s coming from than the person to whom its directed. And every once in a while someone says something that is so egregious that I am forced to come back at them – I just try to do it in a way where I don’t feel mean myself 🙂


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