Throughout our lives, we all come in contact with at least one person who we consider nasty, unkind or deliberately malicious.
Like me you might have been teased, gossiped about, shouted at, hit, defamed, backed into a corner, intimidated and unjustly punished – and your reaction might be “WHY?”
Why are people so cruel with you and venomous towards each other? Why do some people seem to actually enjoy bitchiness and venomous behavior?
If you are like most people your immediate answer might be something along the lines of, “ … because they’re bad people,” “ … because they’re psychopaths/sociopaths,” “… because they’re evil,” “… because some people are just like that!”
While these answers are normal and widespread, they are nevertheless two dimensional and narrow in outlook. While such answers would have sufficed for our younger childlike selves, it is time that we develop a more seasoned understanding of why “bad people are bad.”
**Important note:** This article is written for understanding those in your life who, as far as you’re aware, are psychologically sound (but exhibiting unkind behavior). Please do not seek advice or guidance from this article if you have come across an individual in your life who has been diagnosed with or show clear signs of pathological mental illness (e.g. narcissism, sociopathy, psychopathy). If you have been physically, emotionally, mentally, or sexually abused by any individual (or group) in your life, please seek professional help from a psychotherapist or abuse counselor. This article will not be helpful for you and may actually make it harder for you to heal or seek recovery. For example, if you have been narcissistically abused, sympathizing with your abuser may deepen any toxic codependency you may have. Please call a hotline to seek further help.
Why It Feels Good to Be Hurt By Others
You are in a conversation with someone, you say something apparently offensive and the other person gets angry at you. They stand up menacingly and say, “You know, I’ve learned a thing or two about you. You’re a real bitch/bastard and you don’t give a DAMN about anyone but yourself. It’s no wonder that you don’t have many friends.” Then, they leave abruptly.
What would your reaction be?
You might jump up in rage and start challenging the person’s unfair assessment of you, hitting back with your own most vicious attacks. Or you might sit down, stunned, wondering what you said wrong as sadness and resentment slowly builds up within you. “How could they treat me so badly?” you might wonder, “What the hell did I do?” Then you might boil with hatred for the rest of the day, demonizing the person in your mind in the meantime.
These two reactions are fairly common among us in society and I have personally reacted in both ways on a number of different occasions in the past. The result of getting consumed in another person’s toxic words and behaviors is devastating to our well-being … but you know what? It feels kind of good to be righteously indignant. It feels kind of nice to be intoxicated with anger.
When we feel unjustly wronged, we are immediately rewarded with the self-righteous feeling of being “victims” and not only that – we also feel a sense of immediate self-superiority. How often in the past have you raged against a “terrible person” with the underlying assumption that “you are a much better person”? Probably a lot. But don’t worry; this is normal. We all do this.
The truth is that anger is like a drug because not only does it give us a false sense of being “better,” “nicer,” “more correct” and “justified” in our righteous indignation, but it also keeps up the illusion of separation between us and the world (or in other words, it solidifies our egos). This can be one of the greatest hindrances of looking behind the veil of mean behavior: our refusal to let go of our anger.
Once we are ready to release our anger and once we are willing to let go of the benefits it brings us, we can then learn to truly understand “why are people malicious?” And the benefits of genuinely understanding why are endless.
Learning to Look Behind the Veil of Mean Behavior
In the process of demonizing mean and cruel people, we dehumanize them. Of course, it can be argued that there truly are “psychopaths” and “sociopaths” out there who feel no empathy or remorse, but these types of people (who constitute a very low percentage of the population) are not automatons either. In fact, it has been proven that even sadistic types of people suffer from feelings of rejection, anger, loneliness, frustration, depression and other forms of emotional suffering (motivating a large percentage of their behavior). Psychopaths have even been proven to feel empathy when they try.
This aside, I believe it is reasonable to say that most of the unkind people we come across in life aren’t sociopaths or psychopaths, but are in fact normal, deeply wounded people. We don’t take time to understand them because we are greatly repelled by their behavior (and because let’s face it, we’re deeply wounded as well).
We spout excuses like, “So what? Everyone suffers but that’s no excuse for their behavior,” but this is only another way of perpetuating our self-righteous indignation and therefore our continuous suffering.
However, if you would like to take responsibility for yourself, your life and your happiness, one of the most important things you will ever learn is this:
All unkind, cruel, and vicious behavior has its root in pain.
If you want to look behind the veil of mean people and bad behavior you have to understand a person’s pain. You have to be willing to be curious, you have to be willing to be open-minded, you have to be willing to be empathetic.
Understanding another person’s pain involves disintegrating the boundaries between “you” and “other.” It might involve reflecting on what you know of a person’s past, it might involve asking your friends or colleagues why a person is behaving the way they are, or it might involve guess work.
No matter what approach you decide to take, you will always discover something surprising: their behavior comes as a result of misdirected pain.
Whether that pain be family stress, work pressures, a break up or divorce, a tragedy, or something more vague like depression, fear of failure, fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, anxiety or any other emotion, when a person doesn’t know how to deal with their pain they will misdirect it towards others. And that equals pain, multiplied.
But you can break this cycle of pain and you can stop it from impacting your thoughts, your feelings and your life. Learning how to emotionally understand a person is the best way to do that.
Next time a person treats you badly, stop. Let yourself feel your emotions of anger and resentment, but also let them pass. Ask yourself, “What type of pain is this person feeling that is causing them to act out in this way?” Then, allow yourself to expand as you open yourself to emotionally understanding them with empathy and forgiveness.
Perhaps someone will do the same favor to you one day. After all, none of us are saints.
Any insights are welcomed below.