Sensitive clients often tell me that lovers, friends, family members, co-workers and/or bosses hurt their feelings by saying mean things to them. Yet when we process what was said and the context in which it was said, other possibilities can emerge.
It is important to acknowledge that no one likes to be criticized or put down. The old saying really isn’t true: Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but Names will never hurt me. People who get into physical fights usually heal their bodily wounds a lot faster than individuals who feel the sting of a verbal attack.
So often, a person may hear dozens of compliments, but it is the one negative statement that sticks in their minds. A colleague recently remarked that she gave a lecture at a conference and got a standing ovation at the end and lots of positive feedback. Yet, she is still upset that one woman came up to her at the end and whispered: Next time, don’t wear that color dress. It’s very unflattering!
My colleague was able to laugh about the absurdity of the situation. I got dozens of compliments that day, but I only remember the one negative comment!
Here are some suggestions on how to avoid getting offended by other people’s words.
Learn to accept that nothing is personal.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Try to remember that every statement, action and reaction of another person is the result of their total life experience. If we realize that most people say and do things based on their own fears, defenses and attempts to survive, it becomes easier to see that most of what is aimed directly at us, has nothing to do with us at all.
Recognize when another person is triggered.
Through no fault of your own, you may look, act, or sound like someone who hurt them when they were very young. Usually, it has much more to do with all the other times that this person experienced a similar situation, sometimes as far back as childhood.
We may simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One client described a very painful experience with a close friend. “We had an early morning meeting and she started insulting me right away for no reason.” My client was so shocked and hurt that she was sure that the friendship was over. When we met the following week, my client said, “Mary called me a few days later and she was nice to me.” My client realized that Mary was in a bad mood that day and didn’t even remember saying anything unkind.
Is the other person hurting?
When I work with couples, I often encourage each individual to go to a separate room to cool down before discussing a problem. Otherwise, if one or both people are hurting, they may say very nasty things to one another. One couple realized that when the husband arrives home frazzled from work, he might come in the door and insult his wife. And if the wife had a stressful day with the kids, she might verbally attack her husband when he came home. They began to warn each other ahead of time by text: Hard day at the office. I’m going to come home and rest for 10 minutes before I say ‘hello!’
Learn to detach with kindness.
If we consider the other 4 possibilities, we might be able to deflect mean comments without taking them personally. Ask yourself: Is this really personal? Could it be that the other person is triggered? Are you interacting with a person at a bad time? Is the person experiencing a lot of emotional pain?
It isn’t easy to do, but if we can extend kindness to someone who is suffering instead of being offended by their words, we have the rare opportunity to heal ourselves and them. If we can remember that all anger, all acting out, all harshness, and all criticism is really a form of suffering, harsh words don’t have to stick to us.
We don’t have to respond at all. In fact, it is usually better not to say a thing. People who are suffering on the inside, but not showing it on the outside, usually don’t want someone pointing it out to them. Very often, the best course of action is to understand the situation and move on. Then we tend to experience a lot less suffering.
This is not about allowing ourselves to be hurt, neglected or taken advantage of. True compassion does not allow harm towards ourselves either. But when we know that nothing is personal, the so-called abusers in our lives start to leave us alone. Once we are conscious, abuse can only happen if we believe what the other person is saying.
We don’t feel abused because we know that what the other is saying is not about us. When we know nothing is personal, we also do not end up feeling abused. We can say, Thank you for sharing, and move on. We are not hooked by what another person does or says, since we know it is not about us. When we know that our inherent worth is not determined by what another says, does or believes, we can take the world a little less seriously. And if necessary, we can just walk away without creating more misery for ourselves or having to convince the other person that we are good and worthy people.
The great challenge is to live a life of contentment regardless of what other people do, say, think or believe. It is a great art and skill to learn not to be offended by harsh words coming towards us. It may take a lifetime to master not taking anything personally, but it is truly one of the best ways of living a happy life.