The Deeper Issues that Produce Meanness

Meanness is a symptom of unresolved emotional issues.

Tired of being mean? Tired of being on the receiving end of meanness? The nasty trait produces a lot of unnecessary suffering, both for the person who’s being mean (the “hell of your own meanness,” a character says in Jane Eyre) and for the recipient of the meanness. Meanness is often a compulsive behavior that’s difficult to remedy without deeper insight.

Puzzled by his meanness, a fellow wrote, ”Every time I see a girl I like I always end up being mean to her. I try not to, and I know that I’m doing the wrong thing, but I just can’t help it. I don’t know why. I mean I’m really nice to my friends who I know really well, but to people I’m attracted to I end up being mean. Can someone give me some tips on how to fix that?”

“Tips” or advice won’t usually help that much in resolving an emotional problem such as meanness. Insight is a better tool. Mean people have psychological issues that can be resolved with insight. People who are frequent targets of meanness also have their issues, since unwittingly they can be attracting aggressive behavior from others.

Let’s take a deep breath and dive into the issue, using as an example the situation described by the fellow above. His meanness could be a symptom of his unconscious expectation that he is going to be rejected or seen in a negative light by others. More is at stake for him emotionally when the problem involves a girl he likes. If she sees him in a negative light, he feels the rejection more deeply. Consciously, he wants her to like him. Unconsciously, he likely expects her to reject him or to see him as inadequate or defective. He is psychologically entangled in the feeling of rejection, which means that, even though it’s painful, he’s attached emotionally to rejection or to being seen in a negative light. Instinctively, he feels the need to deny (defend against or cover up) this emotional attachment. By acting mean toward her, he can claim that he caused the rejection to happen: “I’m not looking for the feeling of being rejected—the problem is I get mean and cause it to happen.” Now, however, he feels bad and guilty for being mean.

So his meanness can be a defense covering up this deeper issue. Once he sees the deeper issue—his unconscious expectation of rejection and his readiness to feel it—he can begin to resolve this emotional weakness.

Our psyche is a mysterious realm where all sorts of peculiar processes take place. Yet if we’re smart enough to be computer literate, we’re smart enough to be “psyche literate.” When we penetrate our psyche, our intelligence can figure out and work out the inner conflicts that produce emotional and behavioral problems.

There’s another way to see the situation involving this fellow. He might be afraid that others will see him as being unworthy of their attention or respect. That means he is emotionally attached to that negative feeling. As a defense to cover up his resonance with that feeling, he beats them to the punch, meaning that his meanness toward them disrespects them first. Through his meanness, he treats them in a way that corresponds with how, unconsciously, he imagines they are evaluating him. This is because he has not cleared out of his psyche his attachment to that emotional sense of being unimportant or unworthy. Even though he’s likely a good person, his emotional perception of himself is, deep down, quite negative. This means that, though he wants to believe he’s a good and worthy person, he still feels wrong about himself at some deeper level.

Meanness has many dimensions. It’s a characteristic of bullies and bitter people, and a variety of issues influence its emergence from our inner life. Often it’s simply the spill-over from an individual’s accumulation of unresolved negativity. A bitter person has nothing much to offer but his meanness.

At the other end of the spectrum, people who are frequently on the receiving end of meanness need to consider their contribution to the problem. Often, for instance, one partner in a relationship is particularly mean, while the other partner is passively tolerant of what amounts to relentless negative comments and “vibes.” The passive person can, unwittingly, be absorbing the abuse or negativity because of his or her lack of inner strength. A strong person would not tolerate constant exposure to meanness. So the weak person has to examine the aspects of his or her weakness, rather than simply blaming the dysfunction on the mean person. The mean person, meanwhile, is inclined to continue behaving that way when the person on the receiving end remains passive (unconsciously receptive to the abuse).

Meanness is a social problem. It’s a factor in domestic abuse, schoolyard bullies, children and adults who mistreat or torture animals, and bosses or supervisors who mistreat their subordinates. It’s a common characteristic of those elderly people who no longer can repress their unhappiness, regrets, and unresolved issues.

Meanness can escalate into mental torture and serious malice, and we are each responsible for addressing its causes in our psyche and for protecting ourselves from it.