It seems to me that many of our online associations start out positively, and then we encounter the usual human bumps in the road– minor disagreements, sometimes bigger disagreements. Ideally, we handle such things with equanimity. But clearly, often, not so much.
When people turn mean and cruel, becoming defensive and cold when you say or do something they don’t like, or breaking their word to you on the basis of malicious gossip, unfriending you or otherwise pulling away because they judge you, or coming down on you without getting your side of any given story or other such things, my hackles get raised big-time and, as is perfectly obvious, to my deep regret, I launch a counter-offensive. Counter-offensives, naturally, don’t work any better interpersonally than they have in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The internet affords us the opportunity to practice being kind and fair. It also makes it possible for us to hurt each other and tell ourselves that these are momentary relationships in the course of events and that people mean little or nothing to us.
Where do we draw the line if we are unwilling to suffer in silence, especially if we are deeply wounded, just as if we’d been kicked in the stomach? What is an appropriate response to feeling and/or being cut to the quick? What can we teach our children when they feel bullied?
I read a really interesting piece yesterday by a very brainy psychologist– and now I can’t find it again. But he said that while irritation is normal in the course of events, anger and rage are about revenge, retaliation.
He makes the point that while it may feel justified or necessary to lash out against a hurt in the moment, we end up operating on the level of whoever it was that hurt us and whatever they did. If our reaction runs away with itself, people can then turn around and point the finger, ignoring their part and say: “Look at what that bitch did!”
Dr. What’s His Name proposes that we move from hurt/irritation to anger so that we don’t have to feel our pain, vulnerability and powerlessness. We are driven to get even and the sympathetic nervous system kicks in so that we are in survival mode. In survival mode, we have the urge to retaliate and ask questions later.
He has some fascinating ideas about how to change this: to first let oneself feel the pain, the hurt, the emotional tidal wave of reaction that breaks over the psyche. He says then, that as the wave subsides, having survived the pain, we need to consider the person doing the wounding, and say to ourselves, “This person who needs to wound me must be suffering. How sad that he feels he needs to lash out/fire me/sleep with my wife/run over my dog…” I’m kidding, but you get the picture.
I think about a Golden Retriever I placed with a family out of my breeding program some years ago. The dog was tortured by the many children in the family and returned to me.
When I approached him, he would lunge at me with his teeth bared. His sympathetic nervous system was on full alert. Those who suffer with childhood abuse trauma are wounded animals, like our dog. We literally suffer with wounded animal syndrome, and our emotional skin has been flayed off.
So this small technique, of increasing our “distress tolerance” so that we self-intervene before we retaliate in kind when old pain is triggered, is not so small.
Today I discovered that someone stopped following my blog and commenting on my work– a painful and retaliatory thing I speculate to be based in a reaction to something I posted, not directed toward her, but to individuals I felt betrayed by. So in addition to the original betrayal, there is a new wound of rejection.
I had a choice then: now that I have something new to try, I can let myself feel the pain and then take appropriate action, or I can resort to the behaviors that keep me safe by pushing people away for good.
So, I let myself feel the hurt. For a few minutes it was intense. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, along my arms; a lump came into my throat. It was familiar pain– of rejection, abandonment, that I don’t matter enough to hang in with.
But then it passed. It passed! The sun came out! Ten minutes later I’m listening to the glorious Dona Nobis Pacem, Bach Mass in B minor. I now see the other person’s own dysfunction in her retaliatory behavior. I see that my survival does not depend on this particular relationship, and the pain has dissipated.
I sent an e-mail to the person in question, expressing my hurt. That was enough. I have nothing to apologize for and I didn’t make it possible for everyone else in the scenario to gang up on me, point the finger and scapegoat me yet again. For if my sins seem huge to you, you don’t have to look at your part, yes?
Maybe there’s hope for even the most damaged among us. Learning to tolerate distress and cultivate empathy are skills, like dyeing Easter eggs, only a bigger deal.