As we live and study at the intersection of text, soul, and culture, we find that theology and psychology together offer a fuller, deeper understanding of our lives and the world around us. Here, Kelsey Paulsen, second-year Master of Divinity and MA in Counseling Psychology student, reflects on both the theological and psychological roots of an internal tendency toward meanness. This post originally appeared on Kelsey’s personal blog.
“Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.” —Proverbs 10:12
Behind my kind eyes, smiling face, friendly attitude, and outgoing spirit is the capacity to say the cruelest, most hurtful things to another person. I have belittled, name called, and hurt the most beloved people in my life. Over the past few months, as I work through my own brokenness, I have come to realize how hurtful I can be, and I’m beginning the process of asking for forgiveness, especially of myself.
The old adage is right: “We hurt the ones we love the most.” Yet, why? Why are we so mean?
Psychologists would answer that our capacity to be mean to others stems from our capacity to be mean to ourselves. If we call someone a hurtful name, chances are we’ve spoken worse things to ourselves. Meanness comes from somewhere, it’s a learned character trait, and it’s often misguided and directed toward the ones we love the most, the ones who we know love us back. Meanness is a symptom for lack of love—whether we were unloved as children, cast aside on the playground or bullied at school, or fail to have the capacity to love ourselves as adults. We learn to be mean from the people we surround ourselves with, but our meanness toward others bubbles up from the meanness we speak to ourselves.
Theologians would argue that meanness comes from sin. It’s an unfortunate consequence of the fall in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve ate some fruit and now we all have the capacity to be mean to each other. In fact, Adam was the first to blame Eve: “The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it’” (Genesis 3:12). I wouldn’t necessarily accuse Adam of being mean, but I would definitely put blame in that category.
Meanness sprouts resentment and bitterness, not only toward people we love, but—especially—toward ourselves, which can deter us from our relationship with God. Meanness is often a battle within one’s inner world, as opposed to an external conflict with another. Being mean to a friend, partner, or spouse comes from an internal war within one’s self. Yet, the question I ask is this:
If we are at war with ourselves, is there room for the Spirit to reside?
Being mean creates a rift in relationship. Meanness causes a schism between you and your loved one, but it also causes a schism between you and God. I think this is why we see that much of Scripture speaks into how we should approach others and how we should see ourselves. (See Colossians 1:22, Psalm 129:14, Proverbs 15:1, Ephesians 4:32, Song of Solomon 6:3, John 13:34-35, and Matthew 5:44—just to name a few.)
Meanness is both a psychological and a spiritual issue. Meanness lies at the jagged intersection of theology and psychology, and it’s here where I find myself struggling with moving forward in kindness—toward others and especially toward myself.
My experiences with bouts of meanness come directly from shame. I mess up, I make a mistake, and immediately an onslaught of shame rises in me, like boiling water. I can physically feel my face get hot and all I want to do is hide. Shame is the worst feeling in the world, and I will go out of my way to rid myself of this wretched emotion. So I throw it on someone else. I can’t bear my own shame, so I cast it onto someone else in the form of meanness and I walk away. However, the shame always comes back, and it often comes back with a vengeance as I recall the hurtful words I spoke earlier to my beloved. Soon, I’m doubled over with shame and I’m stuck.
My meanness isn’t simply being a bully because I feel unloved. Yes, this definitely has something to do with it, but it’s the perfect storm of feeling unloved, ashamed, and afraid that I’m “too much” for the ones I care for the most. If I were to honestly communicate my feelings of shame and inadequacy to those I love, would they stick around? If they only knew, would they be willing to stay? Unfortunately, my narrative is dotted with people who have left, so I find myself taking the opportunity to push others away with meanness, rather than risk rejection yet again. I crave consistent relationship with another, yet I push away in fear. It’s the unfortunate juxtaposition of, “Will you please come closer?” and “Too close! Get away from me!”
Why are we so mean? Everyone has their own story, but I’d bet yours is not much different from mine.
I find myself curious about love. If meanness stems from an internal bully who torments us in our brokenness, what would it look like if we began to love the bully, to love ourselves?
If we learn to love ourselves, we may be able to love others in return.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” –1 John 4:7 (NIV)