When I was in middle school, I had the not-so-unique experience of being "friends" with someone who was cruel to me. Plainly stated, she was a bully. She would make fun of me and intentionally embarrass me in front of others, she would reject and shun me when it was convenient for her, and I constantly felt like I had to work or perform just to be in her good graces. What I called a friend then is someone that I would hope to respect myself more fully around these days, but she was so "cool" that I thought it better to be associated with her than not.
I spent much of my time during our relationship feeling bewildered and confused by her hot and cold behavior, while simultaneously confronted with a bitter truth: I wanted her to like me. I wanted her to like me so badly that I bent and twisted myself in an effort to force it, that I broke myself in two just to be seen by her.
(We can pretend that all of this is typical only of middle school kids, but I respectfully disagree. More on that later.)
I came home one day, after a particularly painful rejection by this person, in tears. My mother was there to soothe and comfort me, and I told her what had happened. I told her what I felt about this person and how she treated me. I told her that I couldn't understand it.
You don't always remember the little nuggets of advice your parents or mentors give you, but my mother shared something very important with me that day that only recently crashed back into my consciousness, full force:
There are always going to be people like this in your life.
She followed this with some explanation, telling me that in order to deal with them, I had to tap into something inside myself. In short, I wasn't going to change my friend, so I had to stand firmly enough in my truth and my self in order to cope with her and people like her.
Surprise: Mom was right.
They were always there. In every school, every work setting, every social group, and they were inescapable. For a while I believed that the way to beat them was to get so good at making them like me that I was never the target of their cruelty. When I succeeded in my performance, I felt redeemed and validated. When I inevitably failed, I felt like shit.
For a while I believed that if I joined them I would find comfort, but it turns out being unkind isn't the solution to any problem. And it felt like shit.
For a while I tried just avoiding them completely. I became adept at spotting them, but since they were always around, complete avoidance was an impossible feat. And truthfully, I still wanted (want) them to like me. The more resistance I felt from them, the more I could feel myself twisting in to those old patterns of appeasement and performance. And this, too, felt like shit, reminding me of my vulnerability and my old wounds.
Each of these tactics worked for a time, but the better I got to know myself, identify my values
(and my value), and figure out who I wanted to be, the less they fit and the worse they felt. When you accept the thing that doesn't fit, you start looking for something new to fill in the blanks, and that's exactly what I started to do.
I met kinder people. I met people that I wanted to be like. I met people who lifted up the good in me. And those are the very people who taught me yet another important lesson about these ever-present negative forces in my life: Hurt people hurt people.
It is those in the most pain that inflict pain upon others. It is those with the most shame that shame others. It is those with the most self-judgment that judge others. And it is those who feel the most rejected that shun others.
These people that I wanted to hate and disassociate with had (and have) their own old wounds left untended. By extension, these people and I had (and have) something in common. We are in varying degrees of pain from the things we've experienced in our lives, and we are responding to that pain in the best ways we know. This is one of the most human things we do, I think, and it also feels pretty sad.
Disclaimer: They're not justified. Cruelty is never a logical or valid response to pain. They still need to be held accountable. Boundaries still need to be set. Expectations can and should still be higher. Sometimes the pain that these people cause is fatal, and it's not okay.
But they are also human, and the source of their humanity is inextricably linked to us. We are ever-connected by the reality of pain, and the inevitability that pain will make itself known one way or another.
On a good day, I swell with compassion for what it must be like to feel that kind of pain so constantly. I wonder what it must be like to rarely, if ever, have the privilege of accessing joy. I feel grateful that I've known what that joy looks like, even if I don't get to experience it as often as I want to.
On a bad day, I resent it, along with all of the tender places in myself that it pokes. We don't experience others without also experiencing ourselves, and if I can demonize mean people, I don't have to touch those tender places. I can deny them, keep them at a safe distance, and/or simply be better than "those people." But just as the bully responds to their pain with cruelty and aggression, I often respond to mine with denial, judgment (of myself and/or others), and appeasement.
What I know is that my most compassionate day toward them is also my most compassionate day toward myself. That my most judgmental day toward them is the day when my inner critic yells the loudest. And I'm beginning to believe that compassion is that thing I am meant to tap in to in order to better cope with a world that can be cruel. It may not be the right answer or the whole answer, but it's worth a shot.
Per usual, stay tuned.