People might be cruel for many reasons.
For example, it can be a test: “How will you react if I say something you don’t like? Let me find out before I get further involved with you.”
It might be simple bullying: they can, so they do.
Cruelty can be used as a threat: do what I want, or I’ll be cruel to you.
For these however the cruelty needs to be overt: it can’t be hidden, or it isn’t effective.
Here I want to talk about covert cruelty, when cruelty is hidden, masquerading as something else.
For example, cruelty might be cloaked as “helpful” advice.
When someone is being cruel, a reason why they may be acting that way is because it’s helping them feel better.
Suppose I gave $25 to everyone in a room. Everyone would be happy. If instead I gave $100 to everyone except for one person to whom I gave only $50, the person who received only $50 would usually be mad or upset about it.
If people were perfectly logical, we’d be happier to receive $50 instead of $25. But, of course, people aren’t perfectly logical. Often we care more about relative differences than absolute amounts.
Thus if someone is envious or jealous of you in some way, if they perceive you as having something they don’t and wish they had, one way to respond to that discomfort is by being cruel. To tear you down a bit. Now the disparity isn’t so great.
However, to be overtly cruel invites judgment and reprisal. And here, they don’t need you to realize that they’re being cruel for the cruelty to be effective.
So it’s better for the cruelty to be hidden.
Someone can also be self-deceptive. They may not realize, or let themselves realize, that they’re being cruel. Being cruel feels good which reinforces the behavior… but to admit that they’re being cruel would cause them to feel bad.
When someone says something cruel to us, a temptation is to respond to the overt message. To argue the claim. However, to engage with someone being cruel may merely provides them more opportunities to be cruel.
Instead, a first step is to hold strong boundaries. To not participate with someone who wishes to be cruel to you.
Those of us who are naturally strong in the personal development principle of Power probably don’t have much trouble maintaining strong boundaries most of the time. It’s automatic. For others like myself for which Power isn’t a natural strength it takes more practice. “Ah, someone is being cruel to me, my next step is to make sure I’m holding strong boundaries”.
Because cruelty is often disguised, it can be hard to tell whether someone is actually being cruel or if perhaps they might have just inadvertently said something hurtful.
What I notice is the pattern of behavior. If, for example, they offer some advice, and I say, “thank you, but that advice doesn’t apply to me in my situation”, and they accept that, then they probably weren’t trying to be cruel, even if it might have inadvertently triggered something in me.
On the other hand, if the first barb doesn’t sink in, and they come back with another barb… now I know.
The underlying driver behind cruelty is hurt and disconnection. I often feel compassion towards someone being cruel me because I see the underlying pain. But do they want my help? Probably not while they’re being cruel.
Cruelty can a form of addiction, as it provides short term relief from pain despite the longer term negative consequences. Personal growth on the other hand, confronting one’s underlying issues, can be more painful in the short term, with a long term benefit.
My own impulse is to jump in and try to help someone. However, from How to Help Negative People:
As a last resort, you can consider working one-on-one with the person yourself to help lift them out of their negativity. For this to work, you must be very conscious of your own state and possess the ability to keep your energy positive even when surrounded by negativity. Not many people are able to do this successfully.
Much like the airline safety announcement which says “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others”, I need to remind myself that I’m not going to be helping either myself or others if I allow myself to be drawn into to the pit of anger and despair with them.
Email me: [email protected]
Return home to Congruent Joy.