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The Porcupine Effect: When People Are Mean

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Why Are People Mean? Reasons for Meanness Inventory

Reasons for Meanness Inventory

So often we view other people's behavior as mean or deliberate. Yet, when we engage in the same behavior, we may not view ourselves in the same way. Usually, this is due to us knowing the reason for our own behavior but not thinking through the possible reasons for other people's behavior. Those who are sensitive to rejection tend to have an ego-centric view of the world, believing that other people's comments or behavior is about them. However, this is frequently not true.

The purpose of this inventory is for self-reflection regarding a particular event. This series of questions helps you to think through others' behavior to help you understand that either they are not truly being mean or that their behavior is not personal about you but, instead, is about them. By doing so, you can then determine what is the best course of action. In particular, you may be able to recognize that most behavior is not a true rejection of you but is due to the other person's problems.

Prior to using this scale, determine whether your behavior caused the reaction. If you truly did something that caused their behavior, then you need to address your behavior and make changes or amends, if necessary. Ask yourself the following questions: Did you do something that could cause rejection? Did you do something that could hurt the other person? Keep in mind that these questions need to be answered from a rational perspective. Just because the other person believes you did something wrong, it doesn't always mean you did. Also, many people with rejection sensitivity tend to over-estimate the impact of their own behavior. As described under the section about the inaccurate thinking style of emotional reasoning, feeling guilty about something doesn't always mean you actually did something wrong.

Using this inventory repeatedly over time with different situations will help you change your thinking about other people's reactions towards you. After awhile you won't need to use this inventroy to assess a situation but will more automatically be able to understand people's hurtful behavior.

Instructions: Think of a particular interaction with someone that caused you distress. Indicate “yes” or “no” for each item. As you use this scale, you might find that your responses tend to group in one section or you might find that several sections provide reasonable explanations for behavior. Use your judgment to determine whether one reason or several apply.

Reason 1: Lack of Skills/Knowledge or Awareness

Yes   No

        Is it possible the person didn't notice or wasn't aware of you or the situation?

        Could there be a cultural difference?

        Could the person have poor insight or understanding of his/her behavior or comments?

        Could the person lack social skills?

        Could s/he not have access to necessary knowledge?

        Is it possible your judgment of the tone isn't accurate (especially with written communication)?

If you checked “yes” in this category, the situation may be completely unintentional and due to lack of skills, knowledge, or awareness. The best way to handle this type of situation is to clarify by obtaining more information. Often problems in this category can be easily resolved with additional details.

If you are unable to obtain more facts, knowing that lack of awareness or skill could be an issue can help you think of the situation in a different way. For instance, if you realize that someone may not have noticed you, then you can re-frame your thinking about his facial expression: “He was probably making that funny face for some other reason because I don't think he was aware of me.” Or, knowing that someone generally has poor social skills can help you attribute the behavior or comment to lack of skills rather than intentional meanness or rejection.

Reason 2: Miscommunication/Misunderstanding

Yes   No

        Is it possible you didn't communicate clearly?

        Is it possible s/he didn't hear you?

        Could s/he have misunderstood?

        Is the person's style to be direct or blunt when communicating?

        Is the person being indirect to soften the communication?

        Could the person have used the wrong word choice but had a good intention?

If you checked “yes” in this category, the situation may be unintentional and due to problems in communication leading to a misunderstanding. The best way to handle this type of situation is to be clear in your communication and obtain clarification from the other person regarding the content of the communication. Again, these types of misunderstandings can often be easily resolved with further communication.

If further clarification is not possible, just being aware of potential communication issues can help you consider the situation in a different way: “I think she made a poor word choice and didn't intend to be insulting.” Knowing that another possibility exists can help you change your perspective and cope with the situation.

Reason 3: Misdirected Intentions

Yes   No

        Could the person have been trying to help?

        Is the intention good but the behavior excessive?

        Is it possible s/he is overly concerned about you?

        Is the intention good but expressed poorly?

        Is the person providing unwanted advice?

If you checked “yes” in this category, the situation may be unintentionally hurtful. In other words, the person's intention may be to assist or help, but the manner in which it is expressed is controlling and hurtful. The best way to handle this type of situation is to let the other person know how the behavior is received.

If you are not able to express your feelings about the situation, knowing that it is possible the person had good intentions allows you to think of the situation differently. Instead of feeling rejected you can see that the person may have been concerned about you but expressed it in a way that was unclear or not helpful: “I need to consider what the person's intentions are, not just how it feels to me.”

Reason 4: Self-Protection

Yes   No

        Could s/he have been protecting him or herself?

        Is it possible s/he has low self-esteem and is using inappropriate behavior as protection?

        Is it possible the person is uncomfortable with emotions and distancing through intellectualization?

        Could the person be controlling due to his/her own anxiety?

        Does s/he have a need to be perfect?

        Could the person be controlling for self-validation?

        Could the person have problems with trust due to previous hurt?

        Is s/he avoiding being vulnerable?

        Is s/he afraid of being seen as weak?

        Could s/he be protecting him or herself by armoring with power?

        Could s/he be using a strong offense to protect him or herself?

If you checked “yes” in this category, the situation is much more complex and may require different responses depending upon the type of self-protective behavior from the other person.

Generally, self-protection by the other person can be quite hurtful because he or she is focused on personal issues and pain and not on how it may affect you. Yet, the more you are aware that the behavior is not about you but is due to their personal problems, it helps you to not feel rejected and to have other options available to you.

Obviously, it may still feel like rejection. However, knowing it is due to the other person's problems, the more you can distance emotionally: “This is not about me. She tries to control my behavior so that she won't feel anxious. She is wrong in how she is handling the situation.”

Reason 5: Reactive

Yes   No

        Was it possibly an unintended reaction they may have regretted?

        Is it possible the person was frustrated by something unrelated to you?

        Could s/he be inappropriately displacing personal stress onto you?

        Could s/he be denying problems as a way of dealing with stress?

If you checked “yes” in this category, the situation may be unrelated to you or may be a way of responding to frustration or stress. If it is an expression of frustration unrelated to you, don't take it personally. For example, if your spouse is working on the budget, curses and says “This is impossible! I don't know how we can make it this month” don't assume it is a criticism of you. It might be. Or, it might be a self-criticism. Or, it might be a statement of fact with no judgment.

The more serious problem, however, is someone who is emotionally reactive and uses you as a way of alleviating frustration. For example, your spouse has a bad day at work, comes home and criticizes you to release pent-up stress and frustration. You wind up feeling worse while your spouse is relieved of the frustration. However, even in this situation, it is not about you! In this situation, especially, it is critical to recognize that it is not personal. If you believe you are at fault for the other person's frustration, you will blame yourself and try to change your behavior to control the other person's frustrated reactions. This is an exercise in futility. No matter how carefully you walk on eggshells, it will not change the other person's reaction when he or she is using you as a release for frustration. What it will do, however, is cause you to feel more stressed.

When you recognize the other person is displacing frustration onto you, then you can address that behavior more directly. However, you may find that the other person is unwilling to change the behavior because it is very effective to release frustrations onto someone else rather than taking responsibility. If that is the situation, you may need to find ways to protect yourself from the behavior.

Reason 6: Superiority

Yes   No

        Does s/he have a sense of superiority?

        Does s/he lack compassion due to feeling superior?

        Does s/he expect to be treated better due to his or her achievements?

        Does s/he believe s/he has a moral right due to superior ideals?

If you checked “yes” in this category, the situation may indeed be intentional because the other person doesn't care about his or her impact on you. This person believes in his or her own superiority which means that any differing opinion is unimportant or inferior. Recognizing this type of person can help you not take their behavior personally. Although this person may feel superior, it does not mean it is true. You don't have to accept their belief or behavior.

However, it is also critical to understand you are not likely to change or reason with this type of person, either. In fact, any type of argument is only likely to be further evidence for this individual of their superiority. It is often best to distance yourself from this type of person, if not physically, at least emotionally. Recognizing that their perceived superiority is a flaw in them and has nothing to do with you can help you manage any necessary contact with such a person.

Be careful, however, and not judge this situation or person too quickly. Otherwise, you might be committing the same error of superiority. Sometimes it is easy to assume that behavior is malicious when you haven't fully examined the evidence and the other reasons for meanness. This category of superiority, in particular, is often a conclusion people will jump to: “He just thinks he's better than everyone else!” It's best to be certain it is not one of the other reasons before concluding a sense of superiority as the reason. For example, someone who is trying to be helpful and tells you what to do (Reason 3: Misdirected Intentions) may seem to have a superior attitude when they are actually caring and considerate but come across in the wrong way.

Reason 7: Mental Disturbance

Yes   No

        Could s/he have a mental illness that causes the behavior?

        Could anxiety or depression cause the person to be reactive or controlling?

        Could delusions cause him or her to be self-protective?

        Could s/he lack a conscience and engage in anti-social behavior?

        Could s/he have poor behavioral control due to attention-deficit, bi-polar, or other disorders that affect behavior?

If you checked “yes” in this category, the situation may be due to a mental illness and can be either intentional or unintentional. Also, the impact could be mild to very severe. Again, as indicated previously, it is important to recognize their behavior is due to a personal problem or disorder and, as such, is unrelated to you. At times, people who have mental illness may seem to be directing rejection very personally. For instance, I knew a person with schizophrenia who would make a rude gesture at people if he thought they were watching him. Obviously, most people weren't watching him and probably were confused by the gesture. Frequently, people with severe depression may avoid contacting friends which could be perceived as rejection. However, if you recognize the behavior is not about you, then it becomes more possible to ignore or understand the behavior.

Other times, however, when it is very hurtful and deliberate behavior, even knowing that it is not about you can still be disconcerting or harmful to you. For instance, knowing that a person who mistreats you has an anti-social personality disorder doesn't make the situation any better. In these types of situations, you must take appropriate action to protect yourself.

Reason 8: Pleasure-Seeking

Yes No

        Do they seek to hurt other people?

        Do they find pleasure in hurting others?

        Does this person disregard others to obtain attention, respect, power, or money?

If you checked “yes” in this category, the situation is completely intentional and malicious because the other person wants to cause you and/or others pain for personal pleasure. Sometimes the transgressions may be small but other times they can be quite serious. For instance, an internet troll, someone who enjoys anonymously insulting others online, may be in this category. However, they don't have much power and may not be able to cause much harm. Yet, more seriously, someone who abuses you for his/her own personal enjoyment can cause a great deal of suffering.

Again, this behavior is not about you but is due to serious flaws in the other person. The best way to handle this type of person is avoidance. People who seek to harm others for their own personal pleasure or gain are toxic and should be avoided, if at all possible. If not possible, then develop ways to protect yourself. For instance, if you have a boss in this category, keep a record of his/her behavior so that you can report it.

What this category does illustrate, interestingly, is there is a time and place for avoidance. However, instead of avoiding all situations causing discomfort, it shows the importance of evaluating the reasons for meanness so that you can avoid people or situations that can be harmful to you. However, you may find that other types of situations are resolvable.

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