What does “mean” mean?

I often hear clients say that they can’t assert themselves with various people in their lives because it would be too “mean”; I often wonder what exactly that signifies to them and I ask them to explain their definition of “mean” to me. Often, I find that being assertive has come to be seen as “mean” in their eyes. This is usually because they have grown up with controlling, overly strict, or abusive parents who don’t allow them to be themselves by saying “no” to their parents or family members. To me, there is a difference between being mean and being assertive, and I’d like to share the distinctions with you.

First, there are many ways we as humans can be unkind to each other, but they basically boil down to three basic types of behavior: being overly critical or insulting; being deceptive or manipulative; or being dismissive and withholding when upset. In future posts I can go into the details of these headings but for now, I wanted to provide a loose framework for you to measure your behavior against. The idea is that we can think about what we want to say and ask ourselves, “Am I being overly critical or insulting? Am I deceiving or manipulating the person? Am I withdrawing my affection from the person in order to control their behavior, when I could share what I’m upset about with them instead?” If you can honestly say that you are doing none of the above, it might be worthwhile to share with the person what you want to tell them. I think most emotionally healthy people would rather you tell them that you didn’t like something they did, than secretly resent them or live in fear of hurting their feelings. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they can handle a simple statement like, “I didn’t like what you just did” is usually not too threatening for most people to hear.
Now, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the other person would regard what you do as mean. Sometimes we imagine that we “know” people and can predict how they will act in advance, when in reality they might surprise us and actually react neutrally or positively to what we would like to tell them. Sometimes we might ask a trusted friend, “How does this statement sound to you? Would you take offense if I said this to you, if you were bothering me?” This way you avoid gossiping about the person with whom you’re upset but you can also get honest feedback from them. It’s healthier, I believe, to give the person with whom you’re upset the chance to hear you and possibly modify their behavior, than to assume that they will not hear it and resent them for not changing. After all, you haven’t told them what’s bothering you, so how can you expect them to change if they don’t know?

There are people, however, who have narcissistic personality traits and/or full-blown personality disorders and these people have an extremely hard time taking responsibility for their behavior and its effect on others. Those people always see interpersonal issues as arising from “out there” (other people) and are too emotionally fragile to accept any responsibility for their own behavior, much less see that they’re hurting others (even inadvertently). Sometimes you don’t know you’re dealing with someone like this until you innocently share with them that you’re not happy with something they do; the result is often not, “I wasn’t aware I was doing that. Let me think about that, and we’ll discuss it some more.” The response is more akin to what you probably fear: “I always knew you were against me! How dare you say that?” Or, “how could you be so mean and selfish to say such a thing! Don’t you know how much I’ve sacrificed to be with you?!”

If you get a response like that, chances are you are probably dealing with someone who can’t take a step back and observe themselves interacting with other people. This lack of perspective makes people very touchy and defensive, and that can be rather unpleasant to deal with. You may know some people like this in your life, and my hope is that you don’t have to deal with them on a regular basis, because they can be very wearying to encounter. Even if you do have people like this in your life and fear their retribution, you can still assert yourself and set boundaries with them. It will just be harder to hold the line because they lack boundaries themselves and find other people’s assertiveness “mean.”

So if you can deliver your message of discontent cleanly, just stating their behavior as an observation and your emotional reaction to it, you can reasonably assume that you are not being “mean” when you state this. For more information on how to communicate effectively, I recommend Marshall Rosenberg, PhD’s book, Nonviolent Communication. It has some really good tips for how to talk to other people in ways that facilitate communication and not defensiveness.

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