“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
For generations, American children were taught this simple rhyme…but what about when words do hurt? We can all remember times when another person’s words stung us terribly.
We wish we could prevent other people from saying upsetting things, but the First Amendment, for a number of reasons, protects offensive speech and will continue to do so. There are certain speakers you might like to silence, but the courts aren’t going to back you up on that. There are some types of upsetting, insensitive expressions and even unwelcome ideas that you are going to have to accept as part of living in a free society.
You don’t control what other people do; you only control what you do. So, how do you handle and overcome rude, offensive, abhorrent, ignorant, insulting, and even hateful comments, without letting it derail you emotionally?
To answer this question, let’s turn to the science of psychology and review some helpful strategies for dealing with life’s inevitable challenges—including speech you’d rather not hear but can’t avoid.
Your goal is to build what’s called emotional resilience—the ability to cope with and bounce back strongly and quickly from life’s challenges. So, when faced with upsetting or inflammatory speech, you are not helpless. There are skills we can teach children and learn ourselves to master the challenges and discomforts that are part of life. Personal growth, after all, happens largely in the discomfort zone, when we have to stretch ourselves to build mental and emotional strength. You have several sound psychological precepts and adjustment strategies available to you:
CONSIDER THE COGNITIVE THEORIES
According to cognitive psychologist Albert Ellis, it is not life that upsets us. Rather, we upset ourselves by the view we take of things. This insight may sound obvious when it’s written down, but it’s not the way many of us think. Ellis’ ABC Model teaches us that we can exercise choice over our thoughts, and by choosing empowering ones, we can gain control over our emotions and be better equipped to overcome difficult moments in life.
Ellis’ ABC Model
The ABC model specifies that it is not what happens to us that determines our outcomes in life; rather, it is what we think about what happens to us that makes the crucial difference in how things turn out. Consider two children raised in the dysfunctional home of an alcoholic parent. One uses this unfortunate background as excuse to be a failure; the other as a reason to succeed. If you asked them why they turned out the way they did, each would say: “How could I turn out differently? Look at my Dad!”
The “A” in the ABC Model stands for Activating Event; in the case of adversity, this is something unpleasant that happens to you. The “C” stands for Consequences—how things turn out, for better or for worse. The crucial mediating factor between these two things is “B,” which stands for your beliefs. Activating Event → Beliefs → Consequences.
If you believe that setbacks are temporary and that you have the emotional resources to cope with and overcome them, then the consequence of the activating event will likely be positive. You will deal with the challenge in an adaptive way and either overcome it or adjust to it. Each time you manage and master a difficulty in life, your self-confidence and self-esteem grows.
If, however, you believe that any setback is a devastating event and that you can not possibly handle it or recover from it, the resulting consequence of the adversity is likely to be very negative, and the effects can be long-lasting and extremely damaging.
Simply put, the ABC Model (and cognitive therapy)teaches us that there are helpful thoughts and unhelpful thoughts. Since our thoughts determine our feelings, and since we have the power to choose our own thoughts, it makes sense to choose thoughts that empowering and helpful rather than debilitating. Psychology also teaches us that we can only hold one thought in our heads at a time. If so, why not select thoughts that are associated with positive and empowering outcomes?
Conversely, viewing life events through a pessimistic and personalizing lens tends to lead to negative outcomes. This is why such thinking patterns are not recommended under the ABC model. A person with such patterns would interpret most any adverse situation in life as being personal (about themselves), permanent (it can’t be changed), and pervasive (it ruins everything.) A repetitive mental habit of such an individual would be to think, whenever something unpleasant happens, “everything bad always happens to me!”
Seligman’s Learned Optimism
Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman has developed a system called Learned Optimism to challenge these types of automatic, pessimistic thoughts (often called cognitive distortions) and encourage more empowering mental habits. When something unfortunate happens to you, you resist the impulse to interpret it personally, permanently, and pervasively. Instead, you come up with a mental response that is impersonal, impermanent, and specific. For example, a person who is insulted by someone else can interpret the incident extremely pessimistically: I’m unlikeable, I’ll always be unlikeable, and this ruins everything! Or they might think: The world is unfair to me, it always will be, and there are no places to escape from this all-encompassing unfairness. Each of these conclusions could be challenged, refuted, and corrected using learned optimism.
Many people harbor faulty beliefs about life that do not withstand logical, critical examination. These beliefs might be unconscious but still exert considerable influence over how a person thinks, behaves, and feels. You may hold unconscious but irrational beliefs or demands about life, such as “everyone should be nice to me all the time.” When you learn to challenge these beliefs, you discover that you have a full range of options available to you in the face of rudeness or verbal adversity: you can laugh, scoff, dismiss, ignore, avoid, or respond. Looking at creative ways to respond increases your cognitive flexibility: can you think of any others? It is completely up to you how much weight, if any, you are going to give to another person’s utterances or opinions.
Here are some other disempowering messages that people sometimes allow to run (or ruin) their lives:
The world is a scary place and I am too weak to cope with it.
I have to pay attention to the things other people say.
If someone says something negative about me, I must feel badly about it.
Other people’s opinions determine my worth.
When you make yourself conscious of your own self-defeating thought patterns, you might find that some of them are not objectively true and are even outright silly. (Do you really have to pay attention to what people say about you, no matter how irrational or vicious the person?) Sometimes you are your own the worst enemy, and you might be giving away a lot of power over your emotions to other people rather than claiming it appropriately for yourself.
Beware: Dichotomous Thinking
One particularly unhelpful type of cognitive distortion is known as “dichotomous” thinking. This is also known as Either-Or, Black-White, All-or-Nothing thinking, Polarized thinking, and Splitting. This mode of thought paints encounters with a broad brush and lacks subtlety, nuance, and precision.
If one aspect of a situation or an individual is not entirely perfect, everything feels ruined and must be entirely rejected. Rather than being perfectly black and white, however, most of life’s situations and people exist somewhere in the gray zone. People are not divided simplistically into heroes and villains, pure unadulterated good or irredeemably evil. Most of us are somewhere in between; a very human mixture of both, in constant opposition. It is a very helpful and healthy adaptive response to increase your comfort with the ambiguity that is a natural, expected part of life.
Likewise, most intellectual debates exist in a state of constant dialectical tension, poised between two opposing rationales with competing, rational claims. Contending otherwise (one side is entirely right and the other side “evil”) is an oversimplification and requires overlooking much relevant info. To truly understand and settle our own positions requires honest wrestling with the best arguments of the other side. As John Stuart Mill wisely put it: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
Self-Efficacy, a term coined by Albert Bandura, refers to your own belief in your ability to take action and cope with challenges. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to take effective action in the face of adversity than those with low self-efficacy. It’s similar to Dorothy’s realization at the end of the Wizard of Oz that she’d always had the power she needed within herself through all her trials. Think of all the times you have overcome challenges before and the strength you have already shown in your life! You wouldn’t be here today if that weren’t the case. Then remind yourself that you always have the power to choose empowering, uplifting thoughts rather than disabling ones.
Talk therapy is an excellent way of giving meaning to our life experiences and placing them in their proper perspective. Through conversations with a trusted friend or skilled therapist, you process various encounters, find meaning in them, and grow from them. You can reframe an upsetting speech encounter as a learning opportunity for yourself—an applied lesson in how to deal with difficult people.
Explanatory Style and Attribution Style
Explanatory style refers to how people explain to themselves whether a particular experience is positive or negative. A pessimistic explanatory style would interpret events as being personal, permanent, and pervasive. Unfortunately, a pessimistic explanatory style is associated with negative outcomes, including rumination, depression, and failure to take positive, proactive actions. Martin Seligman, in Learned Optimism, details ways in which people can cultivate a more helpful explanatory style that views events in impersonal, impermanent, specific terms. This is the outlook most likely to lead to positive outcomes and proactive choices, and it can be taught to students and other young people.
Similarly, Richard Lazarus is well known for the concept of Attribution Style in terms of coping with unwanted stressors. There are three basic attribution styles: problem-focused, appraisal-focused, and emotion-focused. A problem-focused style seeks to reduce or eliminate the stressor. This is advisable in cases where the stressor can be altered, but in the case of protected speech, the listener does not have the ability to prevent the speaker from exercising his First Amendment right. Accessible means of problem-focused coping would, however, include walking away, not attending an upsetting event, or exercising one’s own speech rights in return. Absent the ability to alter another speaker’s words, a listener could cope by reappraising the situation and developing strategies for managing personal emotional reactions.
For instance, in terms of reappraisal, while it is undeniable that the saying: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is not entirely true in the emotional sense (being called names can certainly hurt feelings) perhaps it would be helpful to consider this more empowering adaptation of that timeworn saying:“sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never break my bones and my emotions are under my control.”
RECONSIDER YOUR BEHAVIOR
Behaviorism teaches us we have learned to respond to events the way that we do, and that, if we choose,we can use the same learning principles to acquire different, more helpful responses.
Selye’s General Adaptation Model
For example, Dr. Hans Selye’s general adaptation model posits a 3-step response of the human body to stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Our goal is to return to homeostasis (calm) with as little disruption as possible, and there are strategies we can adopt and practice to facilitate this. Dr. Herbert Benson’s relaxation response is one way to accomplish this: Benson advises us to use a simple, secular form of transcendental meditation to cultivate and restore emotional peace.
Adlerian therapy uses the “Push Button” technique to help clients develop a reliable means for restoring inner calm in the face of external “threat.” Another similar technique is to learn to “change the channel” so that you can reset your inner experience. There are visioning strategies and resources such as aromatherapy, relaxing music, massage therapy, structured breathing exercises, stretching, yoga, and other self-soothing techniques to help us release pent-up tension. Biofeedback is another way to monitor your personal reactivity and learn to modulate your responses.
Many of us have developed some bad mental habits; oftentimes, we are not even aware of them. Injustice-collecting is one of them. This is when a person remembers everything bad or upsetting that ever happened to them or was said to them, often so that they can confirm an existing negative worldview.
Oftentimes, this happens subconsciously. If you believe that the world is a bad, dangerous place, then it can ironically feel good to receive information that supports that belief, since it confirms that you are “right.” Some people like to revisit their injustice collection and carefully re-examine all the negative experiences, (while ignoring positive experiences), in order to justify whatever hurt feelings they have. This might be referred to as having a “pity party.” Some people visit their garden of grievances regularly to pore over it and even seem to be watering it so it will grow. This can feel satisfying in the short-term, but over the long-term it is not a healthy psychological habit as it can reinforce and intensify negative feelings. Remember the saying that: “Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds. You can plant flowers or you can plant weeds.”
Rumination is another example of an unhealthy, unhelpful mental habit with poor outcomes. This is where we repeatedly re-play an upsetting situation or encounter in our heads, over and over, until we make ourselves really unhappy and can’t seem to escape it. Unchecked rumination is associated with anxiety and depression, which is why it is important to learn ways to stop repetitively and reflexively doing it. There are useful behavioral techniques for dealing with this bad habit. Thought-stopping (interruption)and thought-substitution (like the “push-button” technique) are two ways of reversing this common negative tendency.
Skill-building is a great way to benefit from a variety of therapeutic strategies. If you are easily or overly upset by other people’s thoughts and comments, you might want to work on your own coping, stress management, and confrontation skills—all great ways to build resilience.
You can learn to anticipate upsetting situations and pre-consider them. This enables you to engage in rehearsal and to consider various ways of responding. You could even role-play your responses to likely encounters which should give you increased feelings of control and help restore your sense of calmness and power.
ADJUST YOUR PHILOSOPHICAL ORIENTATION
If you routinely let the outside world routinely upset your inner calm, you might benefit from developing a more philosophical approach to life. As you go through life, you will face many different events of varying intensity and you will need to adapt and adjust to them.
Stoicism, existentialism, and Buddhism teach us to expect a certain amount of discomfort in life, but not to be too concerned or reactive to these situations. By practicing and cultivating a certain amount of detachment from external events, we can move past them quickly with a minimum of upset.
Taoism teaches us that everything that happens to us is a mixture of good and bad, so don’t be too quick to judge a situation and assign a meaning to it. The famous story of “Maybe it is, Maybe it isn’t” teaches us that what appears at first glance to be a curse may turn out to be a blessing in the end.
Cultivating a strong sense of humor is another smart approach to dealing with life’s inevitable ups and downs. In fact, humor is one of Freud’s positive and adaptive ego-defense mechanisms! Humor releases pent-up aggression and frustration and can be extremely cathartic and helpful to everyone involved in a difficult situation.
Alfred Adler’s self-serving bias is another way of protecting your fragile sense of self worth from overwhelming feelings of inferiority, when confronted with negative input. Why not put the most positive spin possible on everyday events and interpret external matters in ways that place yourself in a flattering light? Remember that when other people behave badly, it certainly makes you look good by comparison!
Reconsider the reflexive urge to judge other people. It can be an enlightened decision simply to let things be and to move on, without needing to internalize any anger from an incident. Simply observe them, like a scientist. Benjamin Franklin, who was very well known for his people skills and persuasive ability, wisely advises us: “He who would live in peace and ease, must not speak all he knows or judge all he sees.” Forgiveness is a healthy way of handling other people’s bad behavior. Can you love your enemies or at least have some compassion for them? Can you let karma deal with them? It’s possible that people who say angry, upsetting things have a lot of pain inside of them.
Remember that other people’s words do not define you and that you do not need to take anything personally. Ugly words say more about the person uttering them than they do about you. Remember the old children’s saying about this? “I’m rubber, you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!” When you consider the concept of Freudian projection, you realize that there is much wisdom in this juvenile saying.
Educating yourself is helpful in terms of understanding why other people do the things that they do. Once you understand the psychological reasons why people may do annoying and unpleasant things, you will likely find yourself less bothered. You may even start to find yourself being intrigued and amused by “curious” behavior.
Remember that the interpretation of others’ words can be largely subjective. What makes you upset might not bother someone else, and what makes you happy might upset someone else. Your individual reactions can even vary according to your own mood. As memoirist Anais Nin put it, “We do not see the world as it is; we see it as we are.” By the same token, have you ever heard that offense is taken, not given? If you refuse to take offense, then hostile words lose their power over you.
Yes, words do have the power to make us upset or even miserable, sometimes. They also have the power to make us deliriously happy, to help us reminisce, and to give us windows into other people’s lives and different lifetimes in other ages.
You have the power to determine the meaning you will give to another person’s utterances — if any at all. Speaking of power, remind yourself that you control your thoughts and no one else. You can choose to be happy even in the face of very angry and offensive language by taking charge of your own internal environment.
Rotter and Internal Locus of Control
The psychologist Julian Rotter refers to the concept of having an “internal locus of control.” This means that you believe that you are the source of most of the things that happen to you. You are not merely at the mercy of outside, external events. Having a strong internal locus of control contributes to Bandurian“self-efficacy”—belief in your own power to make things happen.
People with strong self-efficacy and an internal locus of control are less likely to be overly affected by other people’s behavior (including their bad verbal choices.) Can you cultivate these healthy psychological attributes, to make yourself more independent of other people in terms of controlling your own mood? It’s important to accept that you can’t control what other people do; you only control what you do.
Another smart technique is to keep busy. When you have a lot of interesting things happening in your own life, you won’t have much time or energy to devote to people who are spreading negativity. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it: “You’ll never get where you’re going if you stop to throw stones at every dog that barks.” In other words, you have more important things to do than worry about what other people are saying or doing.
Practice saying to yourself: “Oh, well” when life throws you a curveball. Do you have to get upset by everything going on around you? No, not really. You actually don’t. It’s up to you.
Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Effectiveness Training teaches us that we have 3 choices when dealing with a problem situation. You can either:
- Change yourself
- Change the environment, or
- Attempt to change the other person.
Most people immediately prefer option 3—changing the other person—since we tend to assume that the other person is clearly the problem in most situations. Unfortunately, this is the hardest one to do, since you don’t have direct control over another individual. The only person you can really ever control is yourself (and even this can be tough! As Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks about changing the world, but no one thinks about changing himself.”) The way in which you would change yourself would be to alter your internal processing, as we discussed above. Can you accept that sometimes people say offensive things and not let it bother you?
You might have some ability to alter the environment you are in. For instance, if you know that an offensive speaker is coming to your school or campus, and that this will upset you, you can take steps to steer clear of this particular event and avoiding exposing yourself to situations that you find unpleasant.
If you’re finding online exchanges unpleasant or upsetting, then, by all means, take responsibility for your inner peace and change the environment by putting away your phone or shutting your computer off. Take a walk or listen to some calming, uplifting music, instead. Make the deliberate choice to do something pleasant rather than something that disrupts your tranquility. You don’t have to engage in voluntary interchanges that drain your energy and leave you unhappy. Do not seek out disagreeable or obnoxious people. Monitor how time spent online makes you feel and if it is more negative than positive, then take proactive measures to safeguard your personal emotional sanctity.
If you do decide to try to change the other person, you will want to employ effective communication skills. Typically, this involves sending accurate I-Messages communicating precisely how the other person’s behavior directly affects you. An I-Message would sound like: “when you say that, my feelings are hurt.” Don’t assign blame, interpret their motivations, or judge them. Simply describe the effect of the words on you—accurately, honestlyand without exaggeration (otherwise, you likely won’t be believed and/or will escalate things.) Then, the other party gets to choose their response and so do you. Most people do not want to hurt other people’s feelings, so if you communicated authentically and convincingly, then there is a reasonable likelihood that the other person will alter their behavior.
Not everyone is going to agree with you in life, but it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. At least, it is on your part. If the other party continues behaving in a way that remains unacceptable to you, wish them well and move on. You don’t have to continually subject yourself to unreasonable, unpleasant situations. You have limited energy and emotional resources and protecting your boundaries is part of strategic self-care.
While protected speech can not be outlawed or restricted, some things are avoidable: you don’t need to attend talks on upsetting topics. You should minimize the time you spend with upsetting, unpleasant people. Be smart and wise with your limited emotional resources; don’t expend them in fruitless ways. Walk away from unpleasant conversations and predictably frustrating encounters. Seek out people who fill your day with positivity. You have the right to exercise deliberate choices over your exposure to different types of situations.
You could also speak back to the offending person and engage in a confrontational dialogue, if necessary. Argumentation is a valued skill that you can develop along with your reasoning powers, and, with practice, you may even come to appreciate a worthy, challenging adversary!
And remember that there is a long literary tradition in the age-old art of exchanging verbal barbs. Offensive speech and offensive people have been around for ages, which is why Shakespeare mastered the fine art of crafting appropriately cutting insults. As Oscar Wilde once quipped: “a gentleman is a man who never gives offence unintentionally.”
Strong, effective speech is one way of defending yourself against an aggressive speaker, and surely you have heard the saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Sometimes, the right response to offensive speech is to really let the other person have it—in words, of course. We have to remain civilized people. Remember that Sigmund Freud famously said that, “the first human to hurl an insult instead of a stone founded civilization.” None of this is meant to imply that people should not simultaneously work to improve society, but it is useful to remember that developing strong, convincing rhetorical skills is one of the best ways to accomplish this.
The martial artist Bruce Lee said, “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” Motivational speaker Jim Rohn put it differently. He said: “Don’t ask for an easy life. Ask for it to be worth it.” It’s true that tolerating offensive speech is not easy or pleasant, but then life was never promised to you as a rose garden. Life is full of hardships to overcome, and the reward for overcoming them is the personal development you attain in the process. Sometimes, the annoying challenges you face in life are preparing you for more important tasks that lie ahead and therefore should be embraced as growth and learning opportunities.
You are not helpless in the face of unwanted or offensive speech. You have multiple strategies for coping and responding and the more you exercise your resiliency skills, the more capable and equipped you will become to handle life’s unavoidable vicissitudes. You are strong enough to recover from offensive speech and to confront it when necessary. Each challenge you overcome will build your internal capacity and prepare you to accomplish big things in life.
Remember that, while the First Amendment does protect offensive speech, it does not protect harassment. If you are repetitively being targeted, then there may be legal recourse available to you. And don’t forget that the First Amendment doesn’t only protect other people; it also protects YOU. So use your free speech rights to express yourself and to spread positive, empowering messages that will uplift yourself and others and make the world a better place!
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