December 28, 2021

How to Respond to a Mean Person [Advice from a Therapist]

by | Dec 28, 2021 | Other

It can be hard to deal with challenging or mean people in your life. Whether you’re dealing with a single negative encounter or facing a persistent pattern with a loved one, it’s important to learn how to respond to these individuals appropriately and effectively. 

Consider the Context First

Before you even respond, take a moment to reflect on the situation. For example, who is the other person? What else is going on right now? And how are you engaging in the current conversation?

We can be quick to assume that someone else is entirely at fault when we feel upset with them. Sometimes, this prediction is accurate. But life is also nuanced, and it can be helpful to reflect on the overall situation and your part in it.

For example, is this a close friend, or a total stranger? The level of connection you two share will impact how you choose to respond. You’re likely going to be more invested in expressing your needs and strengthening the dynamic if it’s someone close to you.

Moreover, were you disrespectful, rude, or even standoffish in any way? It can be challenging to be objective with ourselves, but try to get in the habit of being introspective. How was your body language during this interaction? Did you say something sarcastic or roll your eyes? Were you dismissive of anything they had to say? 

Finally, what’s currently going on in their life? Have they been under a lot of stress? Did they just have a terrible argument with their spouse? While these situations don’t necessarily excuse rude behavior, they can explain why people lash out.

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Recognize Your Triggers

Do certain people seem to press more buttons than others? Can you react calmly in some situations, but you become explosive other times?

Most people have triggers when it comes to facing difficult interpersonal situations. For example, a negative comment from a specific family member may feel far more devastating than a similar comment from a distant coworker. 

Recognizing your triggers is an essential part of coping with challenging dynamics. After all, if you know that you tend to get frustrated with someone, it may be helpful to reduce the time you spend with them. Or, you might benefit from limiting what information you disclose when you’re together.

Of course, having insight into your triggers doesn’t mean other people have the right to disrespect you. That’s never okay. But understanding which situations may be more toxic than others helps you prepare to take care of yourself in advance.

Express Your Feelings Quickly and Appropriately

Some people do or say something mean without recognizing the impact their behavior might have on someone else. This can happen if others have enabled their habits. It can also occur when they feel stressed or overwhelmed and aren’t necessarily thinking of other people.

That’s why it can be beneficial to share your feelings. Doing so serves two purposes. First, it lets the other person know how their behavior affected you. Second, it releases some of the tension or resentment you might be experiencing. 

Processing those feelings- and saying them aloud- can help you feel better. Here are some tips to consider.

Pull Them Aside

If you’re in a group setting, publicly calling someone out may cause the other person to feel ashamed, combative, or defensive. These reactions won’t resolve the conflict, and they may even worsen the situation.

Instead, pull the other person aside or wait for when you two have a moment alone. Then, ask them directly if you can have a few moments of their time.

Speak Calmly

Don’t raise your voice, even if the other person starts yelling. Instead, aim to talk in a calm, relaxed manner. If you don’t feel like you can do this, take a moment before saying anything at all. 

Avoid Making Assumptions

Don’t label someone else’s feelings or experiences. Likewise, don’t assume you understand where they are coming from, especially if they haven’t told you.

Instead, focus this emotional expression on yourself. This is about you owning your feelings and needs- not about you telling someone else about their experience.

Use Direct Language

I-statements can help articulate how someone else’s reactions affected you. An I-statement may sound like I felt hurt when you told me my shoes were ugly. This statement highlights your emotion while also describing the situation that triggered it. 

However, it does not place blame on the other person or ascertain that they made you feel a certain way. Instead, it simply acknowledges the reality of what happened.

Anticipate Pushback

Some people may be receptive to your emotions and genuinely apologize for their behavior. This is a great outcome, and it can reinforce the benefits of having vulnerable discussions with other people.

However, some loved ones may become even more defensive or critical when receiving such feedback. These reactions may necessitate you to set limits in your relationship.

Set a Boundary

You have every right to set personal boundaries in your relationships. Your boundaries honor your integrity and self-worth. In addition, they ensure that other people treat you respectfully.

A simple boundary may sound like, If will not tolerate your criticism. If it happens again, I will ask you to leave my house. With that in mind, it’s crucial that you only set boundaries you intend to implement. Expressing what you will do- without actually doing it- will often result in you feeling disappointed, angry, and frustrated by repeated patterns.

Focus on Being Kind

Maybe you’ve heard of the cliched phrase, kill them with kindness. Or, perhaps, a parent used to tell you to be the bigger person or treat others like you want to be treated.

These phrases undoubtedly have some merit. It can be tempting to stoop down to someone else’s level and act negatively when you feel upset. But engaging in conflict this way doesn’t solve the problem, and it probably won’t make you feel any better. If anything, it might trigger even more frustration or shame.

Instead, try to cultivate living a compassionate, giving life. Aim to be the friend you want to have. Volunteer your time generously. Practice gratitude and try to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Empathy can also go a long way. When you feel empathic towards other people, you naturally assume that their meanness comes from a place of hurt. You recognize that they have unfulfilled needs, and they are projecting their anger or shame onto you. In that case, it’s nothing personal- you’re just a person who might be in their way. 

It should be noted that this positive outlook doesn’t mean enabling malicious behavior. Being kind doesn’t mean you need to be a doormat (and doing so will often jeopardize your good efforts).

But being a kind person can help reduce your likelihood of feeling consumed by negativity or rage. It can also cultivate a sense of self-compassion and optimism, both of which can reduce how reactive you feel when faced with negative experiences.

Avoid Responding to Strangers (In Most Contexts)

In most cases, responding to mean strangers won’t get you the resolution you want. For example, someone yelling at you across the street or trolling on the Internet might just be trying to get a rise out of other people. 

While their actions may be harmful, engaging in conversation can perpetuate even more harm. Chances are, they just want a reaction. And you giving them a reaction- even if it’s negative- can validate that what they’re doing is working. 

As a result, saying nothing and moving about your day may be the best response of all. Consider unwinding by taking a few deep breaths and processing what happened with someone you trust. Remind yourself that someone else’s actions or words have no reflection on you as a person.

Of course, if you feel physically unsafe, it’s crucial to get the help you need. If someone is threatening your life or well-being, you have every right to act to protect yourself.

Recognize the Signs of Emotional Abuse In Your Relationships

The occasional snide remark or negativity might indicate someone is in a bad mood. These situations happen. If these moments are rare and out-of-character, it’s probably reasonable to dismiss the problem. 

But if the negativity persists- or if things worsen progressively- it could indicate the presence of emotional abuse. Here are some common symptoms.


People who gaslight psychologically abuse others to make them question their reality. They may downplay, distort, or lie about situations to confuse you. For example, gaslighting can sound like, I never said that- why would you even make that assumption? It can also sound like, how could you even think I’d be cheating on you? Your ex must have really messed you up!

If someone gaslights you, it can be confusing. You may really believe that you’re overreacting or causing problems. As a result, you might find yourself justifying the other person’s behavior.

Constantly Wanting to Change You

It’s normal to set boundaries and expect particular treatment from your loved ones. At times, this may require asking people to change how they communicate or behave around you.

But if someone is constantly demanding changes (and if nothing seems to be good enough), that’s a serious cause for concern. It probably means that they want to control you and that they believe they have the right to suppress your autonomy.


Stonewalling happens when one person completely disengages from a discussion. Usually, this withdrawal occurs during a conflict. Instead of responding or letting the other person know they need a break, they stop reacting altogether.

This pattern creates numerous problems. First, it tends to make the other individual feel responsible or guilty for the conflict occurring. It also reinforces a pattern where conflicts aren’t really resolved- they may just “run their course” until the stonewaller decides they’re “over it.”

Ongoing Criticism

Healthy relationships are built on trust and mutual respect. If someone constantly criticizes you, they aren’t meeting those basic needs. Instead, they are likely making you doubt yourself and feel inadequate.

If it needs to happen, criticism should be compassionate, constructive, and packaged as objective feedback. So, if someone seems to be attacking your character or blaming you for everything, that’s a serious cause for concern. 

Consistent Pressure 

Respectful people understand that others have needs and boundaries. Whether it’s trying to coerce you into having sex, drinking alcohol, or stopping talking to a certain person, any form of pressure may be a sign of emotional abuse. 

If you feel consistently pressured to do things you don’t want to do, the other person exerts power over you. Over time, this pattern may result in serious trauma and other related consequences.

Reevaluate the Relationship

If you are struggling with a chronically mean person- or suspect you are dealing with emotional abuse- being kind or reframing the situation will not be enough. At this point, you need to consider your relationship altogether.

Sometimes, it can be hard to engage in this kind of self-reflection. But self-respect often starts with how you let other people treat you. If you don’t set limits, you risk being hurt over and over again.

Reevaluating the relationship may entail revisiting new boundaries that help you feel safe and supported. It might include avoiding discussing specific topics or engaging in certain activities together. In some cases, you may need to end the relationship altogether. If you feel stuck on how to proceed, talking to a therapist may help. 

Final Thoughts

Mean people may be an unavoidable reality in life, but that doesn’t mean you must tolerate or enable the toxic behavior. You have every right to set healthy boundaries in your life. Similarly, you can choose who you spend your personal time with. Choose people who respect you and treat you with the kindness you deserve.

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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