Ask Dr. Alan: Unintentional meanness?

Ask Dr. Alan: Unintentional meanness?

A long term friend has lately become mean-spirited. Many of his friends agree and some have even told him he’s being mean. We all think the lockdown has affected him. He is very social and is probably feeling the distancing more than others. How do we deal with him? Do we write him off or confront him?


I feel strongly that these matters should always be addressed directly. If he’s a good friend he needs to know that he’s pushing his friends away. The address should be gentle but assertive. Also empathic. Unless there is evidence of him having a malevolent or insensitive disposition, it’s very likely that something’s going on within that causes him to be angry and lash out. Try to understand. Ask him what’s going on in his life. Show interest in how he’s feeling and what he’s doing. Then acknowledge his feelings and point out that it is normal for someone who is not cognizant of their emotions and doesn’t know what to do to correct the situation, become irritable and unintentionally show meanness to others.


This self-isolation certainly is taking its toll on people. The results often are irritability, depression, and anger, which often are expressed as meanness to others. Many people do not know what to do with the negative feelings that bubble up inside them and dumping these emotions on others, including close friends, serves to release the anger building up, despite the adverse impact this behavior has. And, of course, his emotions may have little to do with the pandemic. Is his family okay? Does he have a significant other and is there trouble brewing with that? Is he in financial trouble? Is he drinking too much? Does he live alone? If you have a close kinship, a relationship of mutual trust and respect, then you are his support system and you need to impress upon him that you’re there for him, no matter what is going on.


If he is reluctant to talk about what’s happening, don’t push. Have patience. Let him know that you’re not going away even if he doesn’t want to talk right now. Unresolved issues in one’s life can build up over time and suddenly spill over in the form of intense negativity.


What we’re talking about here is an otherwise kind, compassionate, polite person who suddenly—or over a relatively short period of time—shows opposite traits, ones that can push friends away. We’re not talking about inherently mean people, those with few friends to begin with, because they are bullies, motivated by cruelty or intending to be hurtful. These are individuals with deep and long-lasting problems, who are deeply insecure with a poor understanding of human behavior. 


There are many out there who could use some of our counsel, support, understanding and companionship. This is a topic that we can revisit in the future.

Alan Leavens PhD, is a California licensed Clinical Psychologist, living and working in SMA. For questions or concerns that you wish him to address, please email: