Sometimes, despite our best efforts to do the right thing, say the right thing, prepare and protect our children the right way, and set realistic expectations regarding the behavior of others, people can be mean.
The truth is, we cannot control the actions of others. We can only control ourselves. It’s a basic fact that, when accepted, can help alleviate many of life’s disappointments. While you cannot stop other people from being mean, you can decide and choose how to best care for yourself in response.
My first memory of someone being mean to me was on the elementary playground. There was a group of girls, and I wanted them to like me, but I felt, on the outside, less than. In my mind, they had better houses, better clothes, better hair bows, better hair. And none of them wore glasses.
These girls were the determiners of the social order, the gauge by which I determined my own level of acceptance and, on that distinct day, I was found lacking. I cannot even remember the specifics of the exchange, but I do remember the leader of the pack throwing a very divisive statement my way in the vein of “None of us want to be friends with you!”
The incident instantly seared itself into the fiber of my brain. That’s the way trauma works. Our biology won’t let us forget pain, and it has mechanisms in place to prevent and guard against future encounters which might potentially hurt us in the same way. Trauma leaves a brand on our brain. Permanently. The way I felt that day on the playground is so deeply lodged into my psyche that I still carry around a shadow of that early rejection into most social encounters I face.
I don’t have a memory of how I recovered or how I dealt with being treated so meanly. I wish I could say it was a rare occasion in my story, but it wasn’t. I have a lot of experience with mean people. I also have lots of experience digging deep to shine the light of truth on the scores of lies I have believed as a result of other people being mean.
I cannot control others. I can control my response.
What do you do when someone is mean to you? What do you tell your children? What do you tell yourself to make it possible to come out on the other side, able to function with a modicum of emotional health?
My first piece of advice is to find a trusted friend, a kindred spirit, a spouse, a therapist, and let it out. Whatever “it” is, I let it out. Raging anger. Shocking sadness. Overwhelming disgust. Snarky judgements. If you are walking with your child through their own encounter with someone who treated them meanly, let them be honest and awful if need be, even if it seems a bit much.
My heart needs a safe space and the freedom to release hot, raw emotions while the feelings are still hot and raw. This does not make me a bad person. This makes me human. I let it out, let it go, give it all the tears and colorful language it deserves. This process itself is therapy and will often leave me exhausted, but I always find myself one step closer to healing from the wound if I can first honestly acknowledge the pain.
The alternative is ugly. Stuff it down, hide it, pretend, distract, numb, or deny. None of these work. Everything I am feeling will eventually come out of me in one disagreeable way or another, so I like to give myself the gift of getting it out of my system sooner rather than later.
After a good venting, an ugly cry, a verbal batting cage (or maybe a literal batting cage, if needed), I’m ready for the next step.
What all of us do next is determined largely in part to how we view ourselves and where we find our identity. This step is universal, but it is also where the road forks, dividing humanity into two camps. My path, and your path, is chosen by a foundational belief that either is or is not intact when the mean occurs. In order to know which path is yours, we must all answer one question.
Who names you?
Do other people name you? Do they determine and decide who you are, what you’re worth, whether or not you will feel the wash of acceptance or the warm fuzzy feeling of friendship?
For me, that day on the playground, those girls absolutely named me. I gave them jurisdiction over my identity. Therefore, having them reject me was detrimental, and I felt I needed to twist who I was in order to maybe, eventually, gain their acceptance. I wanted to hide, change, mask, bargain, fix. I wanted to stop feeling less than, and in order to do that I needed to do whatever it would take for them to name me “accepted” instead of naming me “rejected.”
We can live an entire lifetime this way. We can squirm and contort who we are, hoping to find the right combination of things that will bring the name we long for, only to discover what everyone discovers at some point. At its core, acceptance by others is empty. When we let others name us, we will never be enough.
Thankfully, there is another path, another option.
What if someone else named me? What if, instead of looking to broken, hurting souls to tell me who I am, what if there was an antidote to the empty naming they offered? What if I let someone other than those mean girls name me?
Who names me?
Someone greater. The One who created and fashioned me. The One who knows me. The One who loves me with the passionate, forever love of a perfect Father.
Because He names me, I never have to twist or hide or please. I am home, welcomed, seen, and known. I am fully loved and accepted, even before I stepped out onto the playground that day. Even with a small house, or an ugly hair bow. Even with hair I didn’t care for. Even with glasses. Through the gift of His Son Jesus, I am perfect in His eyes before I considered comparing and measuring myself to others. Because He names me, I am never found lacking. I am found.
Who names you?
If He names you, then when someone is mean to you, it does not change who you are or how He loves you. It also does not mean your pain is ignored or looked over. Instead, it is reflected in His extravagant care and provision. He weeps over our pain, as any parent would. He is sorrowful at the sight of someone hurting His beloved. You are His child, and He hurts when you hurt. I am His daughter, and that day on the playground, His heart broke for mine.
I wish I had known all of this when I was little. I wish I had known earlier what to do when people were mean to me. I wish I had known that it was perfectly acceptable to feel sad or mad at the way the girls had treated me, but that I didn’t need to twist or hide or hate what I saw. The only thing I needed to do was remember my name.
When others are mean to you, what can you do? Remember your name.
Recall and recount the truth of who you are. Choose to agree with the name He gives you instead of whatever poisonous arrows the mean ones shot at you. Don’t waste energy convincing the mean ones of your worth. They don’t define your worth. Deal honestly with the sting, and then recover in the shadow of His wing as He sings over you, gently reminding you, the apple of His eye, that He alone names you. And that name is written on the palm of His hand, never to be removed or forgotten.