What to Do About Your Mean Streak

Checking in with your intentions when you feel tempted to be unkind can help you rethink your reactions.


Internet trolling, bullying, and epidemic snarkiness (online, in the grocery store, or even directed wordlessly to random people walking by) seems to be the new black. Sometimes I wonder, is this our paradigm now? Are we becoming meaner? Is our nature essentially nasty? Have we stopped noticing how participating in meanness never makes us feel better, really?

In fact, being mean—spreading rumors, excluding others, trying to make someone feel bad, or even just indulging in mean thoughts—truly is like drinking your own poison, according to Richard Ryan, professor of clinical and social psychology at the University of Rochester. Giving in to meanness generally just leads to feelings of guilt, shame, and social isolation. 

Then why do it? Why would we intentionally or casually choose to act in a way that not only hurts others, but ultimately ourselves? 

Meanness is not new. It’s used to gain a competitive edge, alleviate boredom, or just to let off steam. We may indulge in it as a reaction to something we don’t like, or simply because anonymity (when online) makes it so easy to get away with. Maybe we find ourselves hanging out with gossipers and nastiness is part of the group sport.   

There’s another way to live that’s closer to your inner wisdom and compassion. It requires practice, but there’s a big payoff. Checking in with your intentions when you’re tempted to be unkind can help you rekindle your good-heartedness and curb the compulsion to magnify meanness.

Taking the High Road

Perhaps you feel down, bad things are happening to you, or you feel abused or picked on. You want to feel better and you think revenge will get you there. Feeling defensive or sensitive are normal reactions when you believe you’re being attacked or that your sense of self is threatened. For a moment, you might draw pleasure in writing that extra-scathing customer review or delivering a biting comeback.

But what kind of world are we creating when we follow the impulse to lash out when someone has hurt us? Or unhesitatingly share a tidbit that paints someone else in an unflattering light? To get a laugh at another’s expense? Or, rising higher on the meanness spectrum, to demean or even bully someone at work, or to smugly exclude the new neighbors or their children because they aren’t your “sort”?

The more we give in to our own mean tendencies, the less we notice the corrosive impact all this meanness has on our world.

All our thoughts and actions subtly shape the world around us. The more we give in to our own mean tendencies, the less we notice the corrosive impact all this meanness has on our world. How judgment, division, pettiness, even cruelty become the norm. 

Living with awareness offers us the opportunity to put ourselves in another’s shoes. It allows us to stay awake to the reality of our actions as we stop shielding ourselves from seeing the hurt and mayhem that meanness sets in motion. It can start small. You repay someone for cutting in front of you in the restaurant line by dropping some loud mean-bomb on them, and they repay your meanness by dropping a mean-bomb on the waiter. Just like kindness, meanness gets paid forward. 

Mindful practices can train you to stay present to the impact of your thoughts and the emotions they incite. They also help you stay tuned in to communications from your body—such as grinding your teeth or even clenching your fists—that manifest when you’re tempted to give in to the impulse to be unkind.

Only once we have awareness of what’s been stirred up, do we have options. We can choose to be gentle and curious when negative thoughts and emotions push us around. If we don’t want to live in a harsh world, we have to agree to investigate our inclinations to be mean when they show up in us—and more than likely, they will show up.  

Certain that you are never mean? Be honest with yourself. Have you ever passed along a nasty rumor? Denigrated a rival, or snubbed a friend when a better offer came along? And what is the price? Did your mean moment bring you closer to yourself or to others? Does it ever bring you real freedom or happiness? 

Don’t Take it Personally

A regular mindfulness practice helps you notice the triggers, and the temptation to strike back (or first). There may be a moment of pause, when you can calm yourself by remembering that you don’t really know what’s going on in the head of the person who just lobbed meanness your way. It may have nothing to do with you. It could spring from their own prejudice, a misunderstanding, or even mental illness or drugs. We offer ourselves the greatest potential for easing our own suffering when we do our utmost not to take it personally. The best way to work skillfully with everything we feel assailed by is to always offer kindness to our own ruffled feelings. 

There’s also an opportunity here for understanding, remembering that we’ve all been there. When you realize that you don’t need to volley the meanness, you may feel your heart soften a bit; your hands unclench. Is their cruelty a result of their own fears or wounds? Might a non-reaction from you provide them a small glimpse of what’s possible when you approach life with friendliness instead of swords drawn?

When you choose to live a mindful life, you grant yourself a way to stop and check in with the choices you are making, and see if they are truly a good fit for how you want to be. You get the answers by noticing if your actions bring you closer to yourself and others, or whether your justifiable meanness serves to take you further away from connection and camaraderie, warmth, and friendliness. Just ask yourself, which world do you want to live in?