The Simple Brain Trick For Dealing With Mean People

It's understandable to want to react after someone is rude to you, but here's what you should try to understand first.

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“I am so sick of moving you out of apartments. I’ve moved you out of five apartments in four years and enough is enough!!”

“You know Jeremy threw me out and I have to move today! I thought we were friends, but I guess if you have to go to your niece’s baptism instead of helping me move my few paltry items a few blocks that tell me how you really feel about me!”

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“If I gave you a kidney you’d think I was a bad friend!”

“Don’t worry about it, because you wouldn’t give me a kidney if I was on death’s doorstep!”

“Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” (sound of me screaming)

This is an argument I had with a “friend.” Except for the fact that the friend wasn’t actually present!

It was the argument I had in my head waiting in line at the grocery store to buy laxatives since my annoyance rendered me constipated.

Have you ever had feuds with those you love or loathe in your head? Literally spending hours — nay, days and weeks — grappling with this person and they don’t even know about it?


I’m going to say this because I want you to know that I love you and I’m on your side: You may be right.

This person you’re arguing with in your head may indeed be a martyr, sadist, cheater, suffocatrix (not a word, but should be), and just all-around annoying as crap. But if this is a person you must have in your life (a child, a mother-in-law, a boss, a co-worker, a spouse you don’t want to divorce) then the bottom line is: it’s your problem.

And you’re the only one who can fix it. So, here's how to deal with mean people.

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My client Christine came to me for advice about her mom, Susan. This was their cycle:

  • Susan frequently offered to pay for things when she was with Christine; restaurant bills, movie tickets, and cab rides which Christine often accepted
  • Susan also had unexpected fits of rage directed toward Christine which included blaming, shaming, and crying
  • Following this, Christine spent days arguing with her mother in her head

This was taking up a great deal of room in Christine’s emotional life.

When we’re dealing with mean people, it helps to understand that they have emotional triggers stemming from childhood hurts that cause them to act out in destructive ways.

Christine’s mom might’ve been a people-pleaser (giving to maintain serenity in her childhood home), who ended up resenting it and exploding at inappropriate times in adulthood.

First, I told Christine she had to create a healthy boundary by not allowing her mom to pay for her. Until she did that she’d feel responsible for Susan’s flare-ups.


Next, I gave her a little brain trick to learn how to deal with mean people.

We’ve all sustained emotional childhood injuries because no parents are perfect, but there’s definitely a sliding scale and mean people may be more injured than the rest of us. So let’s trick ourselves.

If you knew the person raging, criticizing, guilting, or shaming you had been in a traumatic car accident and had sustained a brain injury, and that every time they acted out it was the brain injury at fault, how would that make you feel?

Maybe you’d feel more neutral. After all, you don’t have to take the mean behavior personally, it’s that damn brain injury.


Maybe you’d feel less ashamed, and less defensive. Less triggered yourself.

Maybe you could detach from them with compassion. Because nine times out of ten it’s not about you.

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Maybe then you could act, rather than react to the mean person’s behavior.

Christine stopped allowing her mom to buy her things. That made Susan mad too! (People aren’t always happy when we set healthy boundaries.) She blew up at Christine, saying she’d always need her help and eventually come begging for money.


Christine stepped outside of the situation and observed her mother like a doctor would her patient. Boy was that brain injury wreaking havoc. Christine just let that wave of aggression roll on by.

Eventually, Susan calmed down, since Christine wasn’t fighting back. That’s when Christine was able to reach for her mother’s hand and say, “You don’t have to give me money to see me. I love you, and that’s enough.”

Christine had NO IDEA where that came from. But she was available to it. Susan burst into tears and they embraced. While their relationship isn’t perfect, they’ve come to a new level of understanding.

So give it a try when your boss goes off on you or your mother-in-law criticizes your mothering. Consider that an injured part of them makes them mean. Don’t take it personally. Take a deep breath, detach.


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Shannon Bradley-Colleary is a writer of films, books, and several teenaged/young adult journals. She's the author of To The Stars: A Novel.