People can be mean, whether they are children or adults. Obvious meanness may involve bullying, excluding, teasing, disregarding, or criticizing. Less apparent meanness includes behavior that is controlling, manipulative, denigrating, and extorting. In any case, meanness is shaming, threatening, or both.
You may believe that people who behave in a way that is mean do so because they have low self-esteem, but actually that is not the case. Studies have shown that children who bully, for example, tend to have high self-esteem and they are highly shame-prone (Thomaes, Bushman, Stegge, & Olthof, 2008). High self-esteem does not necessarily constitute psychological health, and, at the extreme, it may be indicative of narcissism. Such hubris is a characteristic of someone who can withhold empathy and temporarily disavow his own shame by imposing it on someone else through meanness. Thus, some people who behave in a mean way towards others are hiding their own shame from themselves by disowning what they feel and giving away the feeling in an attack other response—which Nathanson (1992) considers to be a typical response to shame, among others. The attack may focus on certain characteristics of another person or any aspect of another person’s sense of self. These characteristics often involve the more common insecurities of people—things that can humiliate you when someone else points them out. Someone who knows how to be mean can use shaming as a destructive weapon against you.
Yet meanness that uses shaming can be far more insidious: one person can diminish another with subtle shaming that leads the victim to feel less than, helpless, or inadequate. Shame is a painful feeling of exposure to an external or internal judgmental observing other—a sense of shrinking or being small, or a feeling of being out of control or incompetent. These self-images are imagined from bodily feelings of downward contraction of the viscera, tightening of the neck muscles, and the inability to look others in the eye. Victims of mean behavior will exhibit typical shame responses—anger (attacking others), self-attack, withdrawal, or avoidance (Nathanson, 1992)—even though the shame did not belong to them in the first place. Those who withdraw, in an effort to hide feelings from others, may believe they don’t fit in because they are different or inadequate. Avoidance behaviors—an attempt to hide feelings from oneself—may involve the use of alcohol, substances, food, or casual sex.
Similarly, fear is a maneuver that can be used to threaten or control another, particularly when the perpetrator is extremely vulnerable in an intimate relationship. Physical meanness is exceedingly violating and traumatizing to a victim. Psychological meanness that aggressively and manipulatively activates fear in another may involve threats of abandonment and guilt-inducing accusations. The literature on child maltreatment and trauma widely recognizes the harmful impact of physical and emotional abuse on a child’s reflective capacities and sense of self, and the maturational discrepancies between perpetrators and victims play a part.
Yet in adult intimate relationships, the activation of fear in another by a perpetrator who is him- or herself fearful or distressed is also impactful. Consider those who devalue or denigrate the self-esteem of partners when they fear abandonment themselves. The aggression of such meanness also can be used to evoke fear in another in order to raise the aggressor's esteem. At the very least, meanness serves to create a platform of insecurity in a partner and hides the perpetrator’s vulnerability and need for emotional connection.
Recognizing that people can be mean includes acknowledging that you can be mean to yourself. You may behave in a way that is self-denigrating, injurious, negligent, or harmful: responding to shame or fear that is triggered within, rather than from without. The malice that we may impose upon ourselves may be terribly wounding, since no one knows our vulnerabilities more than we do ourselves. Thus, attacking the self is perhaps the ultimate in meanness that hurts. An exception may be found in the comedic relief attained in exposing one’s own shame or fear to others. The intentional display of shame, according to Donald Nathanson (1992) can evoke kindness in the observer. Yet he notes that attacking oneself in the name of bonding with others is a hedge against shame: an alternative to unintentional, uncontrolled shame in which one bargains with the devil. Meanness hurts. We may wonder if this is especially so when we are mean to ourselves and ignore the impact of our actions.
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Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
Thomaes, S., Bushman, B. J., Stegge, H., & Olthof, T. (2008). Trumping shame by blasts of noise: Narcissism, self-esteem, shame, and aggression in young adolescents. Child Development, 79, 1792-1801.