A Practical Perspective: How To Deal With Offensive People
Reclaim your power when your day is interrupted, and find compassion for those who suffer.
When I was a boy, I was teased relentlessly by some of my schoolmates. It seemed like every year, there was some new thing they found to tease me about. It seemed such a mystery to me as to why they would even bother with me. My Dad’s solution was to fight them. Mom’s solution, well, I didn’t listen to my mom then, so I don’t remember her guidance. And the school principal's solution was for me to act like a refrigerator, which I didn’t understand. I had no working solutions.
Throughout my life, I’ve encountered offensive people. People who insult me. People who cut me off in traffic. People who disagree with me on social media and then insult me. People who call me names. People who cajole me into doing what they want me to do. I’ve found an entire spectrum of people who offend me.
Some years ago, after many years of therapy, 12-step meetings, pages of writing, marriage, and a couple of kids, I just began to change my perspective on offensive people. I heard what they said and noticed that if they said something offensive, then they had to think it first. They had to formulate a sentence with an idea that is offensive and then gin up the nerve to say it. I realized then that if someone says something offensive to me, they had to think it, and before they can think it, they had to learn it from. Some. One.
Most people, in the heat of the moment, are acting on habit, usually something they learned in their distant past. They heard what they’re saying to me, from someone else, usually, a parent or caregiver. Those offensive words have been in their heads for a long, long time before they say it to me, bouncing around in their heads like a tin can in the back of a truck. Unconscious, unaware, and unwilling to submit to introspection, people say careless things in the faint hope that what they say will be perceived as punishment by the unfortunate recipient. They believe that with enough punishment, I will change my behavior or change the way I think more to their liking.
As a more mature, aware adult, when someone says something offensive to me, I now have the power to acknowledge that the offender lives in that head with those words, not me. Anything they say to me, they’ve said to themselves a thousand times before our encounter. If an offensive person feels justified in offending me, I can be fairly sure he’s flailed himself many times before he set eyes on me, or on my words on Facebook or Twitter. At that point, I can be fairly grateful that I’m not living in that brain that says those offensive words, just to offend me.
I don’t even have to say anything back to the other person. I could just acknowledge what they’re saying with “OK”. I don’t have to dispute what they said, for they have already made up their minds. I don’t have to point out their error because that’s not my job. I don’t have to escalate because offensive people thrive on escalation. They’re ready to escalate because they like the hit of endorphins they get with escalation. And I’ve never, ever seen escalation end well with anyone intent on being offensive. I know what I know and I don’t need their validation for my reality.
Here’s the kicker. I get to decide if I am offended or not. No matter what anyone says to me, I get to choose to feel offended or not. Now I may feel a rise, a shot of adrenaline or anger, but knowing what I know now, I can let that feeling pass and wait. I can remind myself of everything above. I know that if an offensive person tries to punish me for some disagreement between us, I can rest assured that he punishes himself. I can have compassion for the offensive people in my life because I know that they don’t know any better. I know that if they could do better they would.
We can split that hair a million times, it still comes down to ignorance, and I don’t mean that as an insult to offensive people. I state that as a fact. Offensive people don’t know any other way to live, yet, or maybe they never will. That’s not my business. I’m only here to set the example, I’m not here to compel other people to change. If there is anyone I need to change in the presence of offensive people it’s me. I must be the change I want to see.
When I encounter a vitriolic response to something I’ve said on Facebook or Twitter, or in some other forum, I assume it’s not about me. If someone responds to me with insults, I automatically assume that’s on him, not me. I wasn’t always this way, but I made a choice long ago to think differently. I tried the other way and found it tiring. Engaging in an escalating battle of words is tiring in any forum online or off.
I don’t even look at insults as insulting anymore. Yes, I might still have a twinge of a feeling here and there, but I wait to allow logic to prevail upon me. I let the feeling pass so that I can return to thinking again, so that my response, if any, is measured. I review my response before I press the Enter button, and I ask myself if my response would require anyone to change. If the answer to that question is yes, I edit my response until there is no requirement for anyone else to change. This way, I can keep my expectations low, very low. I tend to find happiness with low expectations.
All of this requires training and practice. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can read a screed laden with insults and say to myself, that is not about me, that’s about them and every projection that they have made in their own minds about me, for they don’t know me. If I feel a flash of anger in me, I quell that anger. I think about the offenders, their state of mind and remind myself that they have to live in that brain, and I find gratitude that I don’t have to live in that brain. I find compassion for the offender and let them be. I may offer a suggestion for them to change, but already, my expectations are low, and I know what is my business and care not what is theirs.
I have practiced this way of thinking for many years now, and so far, it has not failed to yield peace in my mind. Wash, rinse, repeat a hundred times. A thousand times. I cultivated this set of skills from self-conscious practice to a refined habit of second nature. I have found a way to deal with offensive people. I share this way of thinking with you in the hopes that we might, at last, have peace in this world.