March 2, 2016

How to Handle the Haters

Hey, Bonita…

I was a little bummed this week when I saw that I only got one question, but I must say, I love this question. It addresses something that pretty much all of us have dealt with at some point in our lives: plain, outward dislike from others.

People sure do like to talk shit nowadays. What's the best way to handle haters and people who trash us behind our backs?

The reason for haters is simple and sad: We live in a world that sets us against each other pretty much from birth, and we encourage each other towards success by banking on the failure of others. We celebrate when the quarterback of our team's biggest rival gets injured, just like we chuckle when some jerk in our lives loses a job or gets dumped.

It's tacky, but we all do it, though it takes on a more intense and dangerous tone when people go out of their way to single out others and make them feel bad. The amount of energy that some people put into hurting others’ feelings is remarkable—like my old college classmate who used to contact me on Facebook to brag about her bustling journalism career in Chicago back when all the work I could get was cashiering at IKEA.

Now that I'm in my thirties, I feel more empathetic for this woman than sorry for myself. She was a first-generation African American born to Nigerian parents who had worked hard to become very successful, which meant that they put a lot of pressure on her to succeed as well. I was firmly cemented in my position as managing editor of our college newspaper, a position she wanted but would never get unless I graduated before her, which I wasn't going to. How was she ever gonna be the best in our program if there was already a star student?

So, she hated me. Not rightfully, but she did. The tables turned after graduation, when I struggled while she succeeded, but she couldn't help but rub it in my face because it had once been the opposite. I had failed miserably and she knew it, and she delighted in reminding me of that. Obviously, it made her feel great.

It wasn’t as easy to hate her for that as you'd think. Unlike her, I have the privilege of knowing unconditional love from my family. No matter how I make my money, my parents will be proud of me. She had a “pass/fail” mentality about life, and regularly gave up on things she didn't excel at. She stormed out of writing workshops when her critiques weren't going well, and she'd never bring those pieces back for critique again. She was entirely too hard on herself, and she hated that I did so well while staying so calm.

Turns out the “online magazine” she'd been writing for was actually her own blog, so we don't talk about writing anymore, especially now that I have a regular paying gig. I keep her around because I understand now what drives her to hate me. She stopped mattering to me once I saw the insecurities underlying her behavior and realized she didn’t have the skills for self-reflection and true esteem-building. She bases her self-image on how good or bad others are doing. This is the problem of most poisonous haters. Simply put, they don't love themselves, and they can't stand seeing someone who does.

I think the trick to dealing with shit-talk, haters and the like is to find peace in the knowledge that these people are hurting in some very private way that they'll never share with you. You represent some grand insecurity or fear of theirs, and there's nothing you can really do about that.

I don't think you owe communication or sympathy to those who would purposely hurt you, however, so I don't encourage any dramatic heart-to-hearts or therapist referrals. Set firm boundaries with people who enjoy your pain, and keep them as far removed from your life as possible. Put yourself first, and do not tie your self-image to the successes or failures of people who don't matter in the long run.

Need advice? Email, or use our anonymous form.