I am keenly aware in both myself and my patients the role of “slights” …..those uncomfortable moments when our feelings get hurt. Analysts call it narcissistic injuries, but a rose by any other name…..it still hurts. How does one handle slights? They are part of all meaningful relationships. How else can it be. When I talk to how can I know, for sure, how the other person will experience my words at that moment (along with tone of voice and facial/body expressions)? Everyone brings their own meanings to everything. That doesn’t even take people’s moods into account. We all know that our mood at any given moment will shape how we respond to others. That is a long winded way of pointing out the many variables involved in communication, that can potentially effect if we hurt another’s feelings or not.
I digress from what to do when we do feel slighted. In my experience, most people get angry or sullen If the slight touches a core vulnerability or “sensitive spot” some people get enraged. According to H. Kohut rage is the by-product of feeling hurt or humiliated. He was referring to narcissistic personality disorders (NPD) but to some degree I believe it is more accurate then not, for people who are not NPD.
What is to follow is not an all purpose way to handle slights but one way among others. It helps to first identify that you are feeling injured or hurt. That sounds easier than not. It is much easier to focus on what the other person did or said with the accompanying demonizing of that offending other. It feels so “right” to build a case in one’s head about how evil or dumb or stupid or any other negative characterizations the other is. One can even feel self-righteous when bashing the “other’ in one’s mind or out loud. The bad news is it doesn’t work.
All you do is fill yourself with negative emotions and feelings not to mention the stress hormones surging through your body. So what choices do you have other then indulging yourself and feeling entitled to attack the “other” in your mind or reality. Of course one obvious choice is telling the other how you feel. You can blast the other, or attack the other in some way with differing levels of intensity. Some would argue that in order to “right the wrong” this is “the” thing to do and to not to give the other a “piece of your mind” you are a wimp, a coward or just plain dumb.
Again the problem is it doesn’t work because anger begets defensiveness or more anger. Also for those who have the misguided belief that they can change or educate the other, in my opinion, never works. People don’t see the light that way. Heck people come to therapy pay good money and spend valuable time to change and we all know how hard that is.
Here’s one approach that might work. After identifying that you feel slighted or whatever word you use, mull over what your goal would be in planning your reaction. Many times it is important to just clear the air and let the other know that they hurt your feelings. Many times the other will try to make things better. Often times that is all you need to do, but IF you decide that the other could actually hear and respond then by all means tell the other in a way they can hear, what your grievance is.
One thing to not do is to ruminate on the slight. By rumination I mean turning it over and over again in your head. We we all tend to do when we do that is turbo charge the negative experience. I refer to this as “building a case” against the other. Some people are wired to ruminate. To them I suggest to switch channels so to speak. We can’t control what thoughts of feeling we experience but we do have control over what we focus on or pay attention to. The analogy that comes to mind is giving oxygen to a fire makes it grow. Rumination is giving oxygen to feeling hurt, wronged, or to filling yourself with anger.
What also works is trying to look at the situation from the other’s point of view. Whatever the technique the goal is to cool hot thoughts. Angry thoughts won’t make you feel better or change the situation, but will make you feel worse.
What is most unfortunate is when a person feels devastated by a slight. Then looking inward is the most efficatious way of proceeding. This happens when one has the belief that they should never be wrong or else. The “or else” varies but usually has dire internal reverberations attached to it. This also happens where one believes that they must pleas the other as if their life depended on it. The emotional pain someone feels should not be taken lightly. This is when violence against oneself or others is most likely to occur. In my experience this always has historical significance.
A quick aside that will help explain my point is, one can broadly look at emotions along 2 axis. One axis is weather the emotion is positive (pleasurable in some way) or negative. The second axis is intensity. An emotion can be mild or intense (levels of arousal). I think that most of my patients get the fact that the “slighter” was expressing something negative but often misread what the negative really is but interprets the negative to coincide with what the slighted person fears or expects. The other way in which people feel way too much pain is when the slighted persons reaction, due to touching a vulnerable area, completely overreacts. Something said at a level 2, feels it as if it is a level 10.
Of course there are times when one under reacts to real verbal assaults. That is a different problem.
If you are lucky enough to be in therapy exploring slights helps in understanding what is going on internally which usually leads to new insights which allow for different thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Effective therapy gives people choices.