The toughest emotional challenges I have faced over the last few years have had to do with angry people, people who feel they have a right to push their points of view on me, most specifically, their points of view as to how I should behave. I will spare you specific examples as being more that you want to know, not to mention being more than I care to disclose. It is the common ground among the specific challenges that is of interest to me.
Often their distress is triggered by something that they reckon I have done to them. In their views, I have disobeyed the rules and done something that triggers their righteous anger. They have a right to their viewpoint, of course, but my issue is this: how do I deal with their outrage? Everybody has had these situations come up, so I ask other people for guidance as to how they handle them.
Surprisingly, I get diametrically opposed ideas. One set of people says that you say as little as possible, behave politely, and refuse to engage with the angry person. Another, apparently equally socially adept, says you gotta let ‘em vent. Finally, I have heard a viewpoint that brings these two responses together. My friend M—well, okay, she’s my therapist, my rent-a-friend—says that it depends on the person. If the person is a bully, you don’t allow venting, because that fuels their incoherent rage. It makes everything worse.
Now this distinction makes sense to me. So for the people who can’t let something go, the people who are still angry over a perceived slight weeks after you complain, the people who want a public hearing so that they make trouble in your other relationships, you just say no, politely. But how do you pick the bully out of the lineup?
I have spent many years working hard to treat others with fairness and kindness, entering into each interaction in the most loving and direct way I can manage. I fall short of my own standards every day, but I keep trying. Now I am confronted by the idea that the most loving, kind and fair treatment of some people in my life may be different from the most loving, kind and fair treatment of others. And, of course, there is the further challenge that the most loving, kind and fair treatment of bullies may be not to engage them at all. Why does that seem like a cop-out?
In the Western, type-A world we live in, we are comfortable with the concept of always striving, always trying harder. We are less comfortable, many of us, with the concept that less is more, that we can win just by sitting down. But, truly, there is no authority, no set of rules by which we are required to engage with pistols at dawn with a bully. There is no rule that says I have to allow someone, anyone to scream at me. And there is the crux of the matter.
I am afraid of bullies, because I am physically afraid they will hurt me or kill me. With that fear chasing through my veins, it is very, very hard to sit down. All the reassurance in the world does not help me, because the reassurance is at an emotional and social level, while the fear is physical.
So what’s the usual prescription for fear of bullies? I remember all those stories of teaching the puny kid karate, sending him in to beat up the big galoot on the playground. Aren’t there even a few where the kid gets beaten up, but of course with no meaningful or lasting damage? Is this the real world? The usual prescription is to engage, but isn't that kinda stupid?
For people who have been lucky enough not to have violence in their lives, this will sound overly dramatic. But several professionals I consulted when I was unlucky enough to be on the fringes of a domestic violence situation several months ago were unanimous in their advice. Get out. Get away from it. And whatever you do, do not engage the abuser, the bully. I’ve now had that same feeling in a few professional settings. Spooky.
Maybe it is time to delve below the idea of treating everyone with fairness to a different standard of treating everybody with a loving approach that nevertheless takes note when the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. Maybe I keep getting blind-sided by these people specifically because I have tried to be open-minded. Maybe it is time to be a little more discriminating and practice a little more loving self-care. I'm working on it.