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Stop Being So Offended

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

If there is one thing that has become blatantly obvious in recent days/weeks/months/years it's that the threshold for offending people has dropped lower and lower and suddenly, we cannot call homeless people homeless anymore (they are now, "people experiencing homelessness"). We are asked to place our preferred pronouns in professional email signatures and terms like "master bedroom" have been slashed from the lexicon. We draw a line at sexism, but sometimes we push that line too far, claiming that such minor actions as opening a door might be construed as sexist. Same with an ism, it seems. And I'm not being radical, I'm just trying to be reasonable.

In an age of relative comfort and ease, we find subtle things to complain about and take offense over. In doing so, we disempower ourselves. We teach each other that the words of others have the power to seriously hurt us. Sometimes they do. Most of the time, they don't.

It was recently announced that Australian schools are looking to ban students from raising their hands in class under the assumption that banning the raising of hands will increase engagement from students who don't normally raise their hands. As a person who didn't love contributing in class, I'm not sure that's true. Not everyone wants to talk, whether or not a hand raise is required. Then again, not everyone has something relevant or cogent to contribute to the conversation. Those who speak will be heard. Instead of focusing on the gesture that denotes the right to speak, maybe we should let kids figure out when and how to contribute when they see fit. Giving them less autonomy or making them all contribute equally is not a very thoughtful solution.

If we teach our children that everyone is equally smart and deserving of success, the world might be a more lovely and inclusive and tolerant place. Or, we might all expect to be smart without studying and successful without trying hard. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur or an engineer, a good writer, or a good athlete. We all have our own strengths, and instead of trying to level the playing field, so to speak, we should be celebrating each other's strengths and successes. We can give everyone equal opportunity without expecting equal outcomes. But we can't expect equality of outcome. That simply won't exist. There is a certain narcissism and entitlement that is tied to the over-abundance of offended individuals but I can't quite suss out when and where it all started.

I was in college when "trigger warnings" started popping up. The argument for them is that it is simple to give a warning and might save someone from reliving trauma or experiencing emotional/physical discomfort. But, a "trigger warning" is not grounded in reality. Life does not hand one anything, much less a tidily wrapped trigger warning to save one's feelings. I fear being labeled a right-wing monster for this opinion. But I'm about as socially liberal as they come. Do what you want, just don't hurt other people. Don't expect to never be hurt, though. Life hurts sometimes. The grey space lies in intention and it seems simpler to assume that people are not intending to hurt you than it is to assume the opposite.

Words matter, but the demonization of words matters, too. We cannot infer negative, harmful, or hateful intention always. How exhausting. What an unnecessary burden. When we do feel legitimately harmed by the words and actions of others, we have every right to stand up for ourselves. Walk away. Reveal to the person who harmed us that what they did or said was hurtful. Or, reveal it to a broader audience if you must, but realize that you've likely unwittingly offended someone, too. If we unknowingly harm someone, it seems simple to acknowledge our shortcomings. Apologize. Try to change, and understand that change does not happen overnight. Have empathy for those who are hurting, especially if that someone is yourself. But, and this is a big, neon-green, glaring but, there is absolutely no reason to capitalize on victim-hood. It's gross. It's egotistical. And it does nothing but harm everyone involved, especially oneself.

Dr. Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. writes, "In a sense, you (and virtually everyone else) are “primed” to take things personally. As a child, you could only understand things outside yourself by relating them (however arbitrarily) back to yourself. As an adult, you definitely know better, but the impulsive child that continues to resonate inside you may prevent you from more objectively evaluating the current circumstance." He is sort of saying that taking offense to everything is an immature, childish reaction that's also deeply embedded into your psyche. So, don't get mad at those who find offense in minor things, because you've probably been there too.

When we feel offended, we feel threatened, insulted, or abused in some way, dredging up historic feelings of hurt inflicted by others. We commonly feel threatened when we feel demeaned, degraded, patronized, humiliated, pitied or looked down up, criticized, blamed, discriminated against, ignored, objectified, victimized, incompetent, selfish, or stupid. But, to not feel offended, we can all do a few things:

1. Suspend judgment about the other person’s intent. If you harbor a negative self-bias, you’re likely to project that onto how others perceive you, too. Often, we unconsciously jump to conclusions to (almost masochistically) confirm our own self-doubts.

2. Consider re-thinking your immediate reaction: Sometimes our immediate reactions are intense, so ask yourself what you’re really reacting to, and if it has more to do with you than with the other person.

3. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Unless that other person has intentionally harmed you in the past, ascribing vicious motives to others typically isn’t fair or accurate. Remind yourself that most people aren’t driven to make others feel bad about themselves. Additionally, assume that most people aren't entirely adept at expressing themselves well so their words are not likely intended as an affront.

4. Consider that sometimes, criticism is constructive. Do you find yourself becoming defensive always? Learning to embrace criticism will enable you to transcend limitations and weaknesses. Think about the negative feedback you're receiving: does it point out a real and vital flaw or weakness or is it simply mean-spirited? There is an important difference.

5. Stop looking for things that could offend you. One of the grossest ways to prop up an unstable ego and feel superior to others is to catch them saying or doing something that could warrant disapproval. Constantly looking for others to mess up is a way to validate ones own ego and calm self-doubt. But, it also requires a lot of time and emotional investment. Focus on your own thoughts and actions rather than the thoughts/actions of others and you'll be much happier.

6. Lower your expectations. Other people may not be as empathetic, sensitive, or responsive as you’d prefer. They may not care about the same things you care about, so don't expect them to. We all have shortcomings, but you can only change your own.

P.S. Watch a Rubin Report interview with Gad Saad, an evolutionary psychologist at the John Molson School of Business, about everyone being offended by everything here.


Sarah Rose

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