Sometimes in life, somebody says or does something that is so ridiculous and factually untrue that it is hard not to dissolve into hysterical laughter, stretch your arms out in a manner that says nothing but a slow and pronounced “WTF?” or become so frenzied and angry that you want to swipe them upside the head and pelt them with your heaviest belongings.
Whilst one or two of those options may occasionally be appropriate, none of them seems like a real answer to me. It is really hard to keep cool and collected enough to deal with the issue when it occurs because, usually, that particular comment or action has triggered something in us that, like a screaming toddler, now wide awake, doesn’t want to go back to sleep.
I am having an issue at work right now that is triggering similar responses in me. I won’t go into the details–we’ve all had experiences like this, in all areas of life–but when you feel personally attacked, it can be really hard to find your footing.
You go through the same questions and feelings again and again.
Hurt and defensive: “But how can she say this about me? I’m kind and I wouldn’t treat anyone that way!”
Insecure and doubting: “But people don’t think of me that way, do they? Is she right? Am I horrible at my job?”
Just plain mad: “How dare she! I’m ready to give her a piece of my mind!”
These are all natural responses but what happens often is that we display these at the time to said person and end up doing all three in quick succession, sometimes handing more power to the person who has offended us. We scramble with our emotions in front of them, embarrassed, red hot with anger and doubt, and we achieve nothing. Then, afterwards, we feel more shame and embarrassment because we didn’t attain our ideal of cool, collected and assertive.
So what do we do when we are dumbfounded? Blindsided by a barbed comment or taken aback by an opinion that we are not familiar with?
Well, if you can, it is wise to not react immediately. Of course, this is not always possible, in a meeting or a situation where you cannot just leave the comment to sit as you breathe and calm your mind. But, even then, you can take a breath. A pause. Just a few seconds to put some space between the offending comment and your response.
If you are in a situation where an immediate response is not required, for example if you have read the comment via email, rather than using the anger to fuel your reply, it may be better to close the email and just feel what you are feeling, in your body. The physical sensations that the comment has stirred in you. If you are able to create that space and that distance for yourself, you will have succeeded in not becoming ‘hooked’–a slave to the emotion you are feeling in that particular second.
Sure, you may remain boiling mad for a while, and you may have a right to be. But giving yourself time to let the initial shock and fury pass will mean that you are able, later, to create a response that better serves you and allows you to convey what you really want to say.
If a response is required at all.
This is important because it is about your judgement and your ability to, on occasion, let things pass you by because, though they may appear to, they really have no relevance to you at all. Of course, sometimes a response is required, as is standing up for yourself. But, sometimes, remaining silent is the most powerful thing you can do. I know from teaching that the phrase ‘pick your battles’ is absolutely true. I believe it is the same with all human interactions.
Sometimes it’s just not worth your time, nor that little bit of your soul that you give when you engage in an argument or a feud with someone.
And, whilst listening to feedback, particularly in the workplace, is a good thing and can be a great way to improve our practice, constructive criticism is vastly different to a passive-aggressive comment that shakes you up. The latter is usually more reflective of the other person than it is of you. Jealousy, insecurity, stress and a myriad other things can cause a person to make a statement that they may or may not mean. If you know you are playing your part, acting with integrity and treating others with kindness and respect, you can be fairly sure that the comment echoes the speaker’s issues, not yours.
People hold strong beliefs that are based on powerful emotions, often connected with the past. And it is almost impossible to convince them otherwise. In those situations, dusting yourself off and rising above it is the best thing you can do.
Lastly, although we may not like to admit it, sometimes an innocuous comment can trigger us in a way that would seem irrational and over-the-top to others. I can definitely recognise this in myself, when I let the anger subside for a moment and really reflect. Often, a comment has made me so angry and upset because it touches on a truth–or at least a fear, a long-held belief that I identify with and want to change. These situations, though painful, are always an opportunity for self-reflection and growth.
That’s not to say that the person who made the comment is right–they may have been completely out of order–but it is important to try to notice not only the emotions it stirred up in us, but also the catelyst for these strong emotions. We all have a complex about something, and when someone presses that button, it can prompt a reaction we don’t expect.
We may not even realise it’s there until it is triggered.
In truth, all we can ever really do is deal with our own feelings.
As Pema Chodron so beautifully suggests, “If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at them. It would be better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart…”