How can I have empathy for someone who is mean?

The Golden Rule says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

Sometimes this is challenging as people can be mean or down right dangerous to others. 

As challenging as it is, the best way to manage someone who is mean is to send them love. (Did you just moan and groan over that idea? Don’t give up. Read on.)

Let’s use dogs as the analogy. 

Imagine dogs that are raised by abusive owners. They eventually become very mean spirited and no one wants them (the dogs). They end up in shelters impossible to be adopted because they growl and bite.

But along comes someone who recognizes that love is the answer. The “mean” dog is adopted and slowly taught to trust the new owner—because he won’t beat the dog. The new owner loves the dog. Over time, the dog literally rewires his brain from all the love that he feels from this new owner and becomes a more trusting dog. He slowly lets love into his heart (replacing the fear that was there from the previous abusive owner) and settles down into a sweet family dog. 

Now, before you go running to the shelter to rescue the meanest dog there, know that this is no easy feat (meaning, accomplishment). Dogs, just like people, who have been beaten and treated cruelly take time to heal and trust again. Some dogs may never recover.

But that healing definitely will not take place when the dog (or the person) continues to be treated horribly. Now let’s imagine an analogy that uses real people. 

Silvio was abused and neglected from the time he could remember until now. He is 14 years old. While being beaten by his mother, she would constantly say to him, “You are such a horrible boy! How could anyone like you?” This made Silvio believe that he was, indeed, horrible. So, having that literally beaten into him, he decided that this was who he was. So, he did horrible things. People told him he was horrible and so he acted that way. It was all he knew.
Then, one day an incredibly empathic and loving person entered his life—his 9th grade history teacher. This teacher had known a lot about a life of abuse and had much empathy for Silvio. For months the teacher worked at letting Silvio know that he was a needed part of the school community. Even if Silvio beat up another kid, the teacher would pull Silvio aside and say, “You will need to stay after school for what you did and write a letter of apology to that student, but I know that you are a good person deep down inside. You just need time to find that person and let him out.” 

The teacher was patient and kind. By the end of the year, not only had Silvio stopped being abusive and angry all the time, his grades picked up and he began to feel a sense of purpose outside of his own self-image of being horrible. 

By understanding Silvio (having empathy and compassion for him) and taking the time to reverse the damage caused by all the abuse he had received, the teacher helped Silvio to rethink himself as a good person, not a bad person.

Getting back to our original discussion, this is similar to your response, Steve, to what the guy at school did to Mikey. The guy at school may appear to be mean, but he’s really a guy who is making poor decisions based on the thoughts and feelings he has about himself. Those thoughts and feelings seem to stem from the way he was treated. By being nice to him, you may be able to help him.

Yeah, I see that, but it’s not always easy. And sometimes it feels wrong. I mean, I don’t want to be nice to someone who is mean. I want him to know what he is doing is wrong.

Being nice to someone doesn’t mean that you agree with what he is doing. With Silvio, his teacher made sure to set boundaries, and to let Silvio know his behaviors were not acceptable, but that Silvio himself was worthy of respect and attention. Silvio was a good kid who made some bad decisions. The decisions were the problem, not Silvio. 

But sometimes being nice to someone like that can also feel scary.

Absolutely, and you must use your judgment as to when you feel safe or not. Never attempt to “heal” someone who seems disturbed. Leave that to the professionals. But kindness can go a long way, with everyone, in almost every situation.

So, by sending positive energy to those who need it and by being nice to people, especially those whom you truly do not know well, you can make a difference in the lives of those around you. And they will, in turn, make a difference in the world. 

For example, help a new neighbor shovel his walk after a snow storm. Help an arthritic elderly person bag groceries at the market. Smile at a stranger.

But! Listen to your gut as well. We are not suggesting you run down a dark alley to give a stranger a hug just to spread humanity. Common sense prevails, but extending your good wishes makes the world a better place.

Post Question:

Do you think you could be nice and have empathy for a person who bullies? Do you think it would be the right thing to do to be nice and have empathy? Why?

Answer the post question here

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