What To Do With Our Inner Meanness

The other night my seven-year-old was being short-tempered with her younger brother and snippy with me. I asked her not to take out her mood on others and she replied “I don’t know what to do with the meanness!”

Huh. Isn’t that a great question? I was raised in a household that believed “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Which I think has it about half right – not saying mean things is an admirable goal. But since just stuffing it down is likely not to work long-term, what do you do with the meanness?

Tend the Body

On the night in question, my daughter was both tired and stressed. In fact, I think I can pretty accurately say that if one of my kids is grumpy, there’s about a 90% chance it’s because they are tired, hungry, cold or sick.

And that goes for me too. If I’ve depleted my energy reserves with a hard work out or am tired because I haven’t slept well, I’m much more likely to think, if not say, unkind things.

As my colleague on this blog, Jack Canfora said in his brilliant post on Things I Think I’ve Learned So Far, “There will be things you do and say in an offhand way that will stay with others their entire lives, for better or worse.” So how do we tip the scales so that those things are more often for the better?

Mind the Mind

Dr. Dan Siegel, neuropsychiatrist and author, talks about the structure of our brains. In his terms, fear and anger reside in our downstairs brain, the brain stem and limbic region, whereas thinking, planning and imagining reside in the upstairs brain, the cerebral cortex and its various parts. The more we exercise integration of these two parts by making sound choices, delving into self-understanding, practicing empathy, posing hypothetical moral questions, the better we can apply higher-level control over our instinctive reactions. From The Whole-Brained Child, those are the recommendations of what we can do to help kids integrate the upstairs and downstairs brains but they work equally as well to mold adult brains too.

As Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.” Cognitively busy being shorthand for when we tax our brains with concentration, complex computations and choices.  So we need to find a way to give our busy minds a break.

Feed the Soul

For me, giving my mind a break comes from meditation. I call sitting down on my meditation cushion “Irrigating the Irritation” because it so often helps soften where I’m stuck. It delivers me from the petty complaints by introducing a bigger sense of perspective.

This matches the experience reported by brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor when she had a stroke that quieted the mental chatter of her mind and opened her up to a sense of deep inner peace and loving compassion. Studies of Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns have shown a similar shift of neurological activity for those engaged in prayer and meditation.

From a recent study published by the Oregon State University, they found that meditation can help replenish mental energy in a way similar to sleep. In fact, according to the lead author of the study, Charles Murniek, “As little as 70 minutes a week, or 10 minutes a day, of mindfulness practice may have the same benefits as an extra 44 minutes of sleep a night.

Of course meditation is hard practice for kids. There are techniques like box breathing and just counting to ten that help in the throes of big emotions but I haven’t gotten my kids to sit for more than five minutes at a time on a meditation cushion. However, I’ve also noticed that just sitting and coloring also brings about some mental rest, both for kids and for me when I do it alongside them.

What to Do with the Meanness

I tell my kids that my job is to keep them healthy, safe and kind. I know the kind part is a stretch because kindness is a choice they’ll have to make. Also because I have my hands full just trying to practice kindness myself. But at the very least, I can help find ways they can manage their meanness and in doing so, help myself to do the same.

How do you practice kindness? Is there something you like to do when you are feeling mean or grumpy to get it out?

For more posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com or follow me on Instagram @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)


51 thoughts on “What To Do With Our Inner Meanness

  1. So much to think about in your post, Wynne — including deep admiration for your parenting of Miss O – so much so that she was able to articulate her condition (“I don’t know what to do with my meanness”). Pretty darn insightful for a seven-year-old, I say. And I love your quote from Jack Canfora: “There will be things you do and say in an offhand way that will stay with others their entire lives, for better or worse.” True, true, true – unavoidably true and you can’t REALLY rewind (even with a heartfelt apology). Words stick and the angry little morsels seem to have the most staying power. xo to you and thanks for another great post. 😊

    1. Angry little morsels – what a great way to put it, Vicki! And thank you for your comment. I appreciate all these little moments when we get to reflect on what’s really going on — and I appreciate others weighing in on them to help drive clarity too! Thanks, my friend!

  2. Sometimes, though, meanness is necessary and the judicious application is not only called for, but necessary. Understanding meanness is a step beyond merely dealing with it.

    1. I don’t know that I agree, Dave. I think clear firmness with intention is necessary – but meanness has an edge that’s hard to control, doesn’t it?

  3. Another incredibly deep post, Wynne; thank you for sharing it. No wonder I enjoy reading your posts so much.
    My resources were stretched for many years, working twelve-hour shifts, days and night; and I would be lying (which I will not) if I don’t admit that my family paid the price, at times, for being sleep deprived and working in a field that was never my passion.
    For me, meditation plays a key role in being very centered. This has deepened incredibly with awakening. From “Center,” apparent occurrences just do not hold the weight which they once did.
    Just for the record, I think you’re doing an incredible job at parenting. BRAVO. 🙏

    1. Thank you for the lovely compliment, Art. I think that coming to center is a hard practice but I agree, it helps put everything else in perspective. So glad that you have moved on from that work that didn’t fuel your passion!

      1. You’re very welcome, Wynne. Your writing is very rich. As for the center, keep “going.” It’s well worth the apparent journey. The resistance, of course, is who we “think” we are. 🙏

  4. I find yours and your daughter’s insights to be so elevated! I was brought up by a meanspirited, angry woman (who still struggles with these issues), so all my positive and healthy life skills were learned after I left home, even after my divorce(s). I find it absolutely amazing to watch you parent and to see a young mind blossoming under your care! You are both exceedingly fortunate to be able to live such rewarding relationships! You may not see the absolute incredibleness of it, but the rest of us do, especially those of us who didn’t experience that kind of parenting when we were young!

    1. Thank you, Tamara. I’m so grateful to hear your wise view of our relationship as you are right, much of it is too close for me to see well. And I so appreciate your kind words and encouragement!

  5. My children are teenagers and I spent a lot of their childhood working with them on this very thing—managing meanness and all big emotions. I’ve seen how it plays out in their lives now, particularly my 17-year-old son. He will tell me “I can’t talk to you right now because I’m hungry and stressed and it will be a fight.” Sometimes I respect that, other times when I’m not listening to my own stress level, I’ll press it and we will fight. Afterward, we come back together and I’ll apologize for not respecting his boundary. He does the same for me.

    My 15-year-old daughter says many of her teachers applaud her for her emotional intelligence and being able to manage others in her classrooms.

    All this to say, it’s such hard work to teach our children these lessons, but I’m seeing some of them in action now and it’s a beautiful thing.

    1. I love hearing how you see the effects of having all these conversations in these teenage years. It gives me a lot of perspective and hope that this work pays off. Because sometimes I don’t feel like having the conversation either. Thanks for reading and adding these thoughts to the conversation, Bridgette!

    2. I’m awed by both of your ability to pause and think in times when you’re hungry/tired/stressed, Wynne and Bridgette. It’s something I aspire to both when I’m content and relaxed, and when I’m hungry/tired/stressed, and guess when I’m more successful? 🙃 Your children are lucky to have you, and we are lucky to have such new additions to our society. Now if we could only clone you … 🤔

  6. An insightful post, Wynne. You are a wonderful mother. Your children are lucky indeed.
    Love the positive way you deal with your daily situations.
    If I am grumpy, I tend to be silent for as long as it takes me to quieten my mind. Because I know anything that comes out of my mouth will be harsh, I will regret saying it and won’t be able to retract it. However, if I do lash out, I apologize, explain my outburst, and hope to be forgiven.
    The best way I have found to deal with my hurt, anger or disappointment is to write it down. This way I can vent my feelings and release some of the negative thoughts. I reread it a few days later and find that either I have worked it out of my system, or find the cause too negligible to have got so worked up about. Then I delete it.
    Best wishes.

    1. I love your wisdom to stay silent — and yes, to write things down. That’s brilliant! It reminds me to have my kids draw what they feel in the tougher moments.

      And then delete it — you are a great example of kindness, Chaya!

      1. My little cousin who’s 5 asked me why I was vegan recently. I didn’t want to go into it due to her age and wasn’t sure what her parents would want her to know so I asked her why she thought and she told me “you don’t want to be normal” – got to laugh haha

  7. There is so much in here that I know I’m not digesting it all. I’ve decided to just “save” your post so I can refer back to it. Also, I don’t know how you’re able to put out such great content so regularly, but I’m sure appreciative! Thank you for this!

  8. Nice article Wynne. One of my favorite acronyms I’ve learned in my work in schools is HALT (hungry/angry/lonely/tired). Sometimes, I post it on my dry erase board in my office and in gets a lot of attention as a point of self reflection. Like Lao Tzu said, “nature is the best physician.”

    1. HALT – that’s a great acronym! The Lao Tzu quote is wonderful too. I find nature to a great physician – and therapist!! Thanks for a wonderful comment, Ari!

  9. I love all three pieces of advice….all three impose balance and peace. This is so important as being kind is as good for ourselves as it is good for people around us ….😊

  10. As always,Wynne, I enjoyed the anecdote about how you are raising your children. Coloring is a very age-appropriate activity for calming emotions, especially sharing the activity with Mom!

    I have found that time tends to cool anger and put things in perspective. If you can refrain from saying anything you will regret and talk about it later, you may well be able to come to an agreement. You might say something like, “I need a little time to think about this. Let’s talk about it again when we get home.” or “Let’s do a little more research before we make a decision on this.”

  11. I was briefly stumped by your question. Kindness as a practice? Do I have such a thing?

    After a little contemplation, I realized I do: I try to practice clarity, a la Brown. When I want to wishy-washy my way out of an uncomfortable answer, I instead try to simply speak the truth. It was hard to begin taking this tack, and is still sometimes hard, but it feels so much better. It does feel kind– it nice, maybe, but kind.

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