Have you ever gone to therapy? I have. On three different occasions. I don’t remember every tool I learned there off the top of my head, but I do remember my counselor saying this: you cannot make anyone feel anything. I was feeling guilt, assuming I made people feel badly even though they probably weren’t feeling anything bad at all, and my counselor was trying to help me realize I shouldn’t hypothesize constantly the impact my words have on others. He said, “We all choose how we feel when people say things, whether we feel good or bad. We are responsible for our own emotions, not for everyone else’s. If we hurt someone’s feelings, they have a responsibility to tell us so.” But that got me thinking (probably way off of where the counselor was going with his point, but whatever! It’s still an interesting thing to consider…). Is that always the case? Am I never to blame for how others feel as a result of something I said or did? If I cheated on my husband and he felt hurt, angry, dejected, and insulted, does this mean I can release some of the blame for the way he would be feeling? I don’t think it works quite this way, and while I know I would never take advantage of this perspective, I am sure there are thousands of people out there who would.
Like this guy I knew once upon a time, who regularly said unnecessarily cruel and critical things to unsuspecting people, all-the-while using the disclaimer, “Hey, don’t get mad at me. I’m just being honest.” Yeah right. My theory is this guy got sadistic pleasure out of making people feel insecure or miserable. Messing with people’s heads was this dude’s personal enjoyment. I imagine he was doing it because he wanted others to be as miserable as he was; or maybe that was just his personality; or maybe he really did think that was how psychology students were supposed to behave, as he said on many occasions. But the truth is, what he said made people miserable and it gave him pleasure. Whether or not what he said was true was not nearly as important as what were his motives. And those were selfish and unkind in nature. Lucky for us, there aren’t too many of people like this guy wandering around. No,… I would say, mostly all of us do our fair share offending and being the offended.
People say and do things that hurt people’s feelings all the time. Often people hurt others without the self-awareness to realize why they behave as they do (like girls in junior high who rip on other girls because deep down they are insecure about themselves). They don’t fully understand why they are doing it, and don’t necessarily care to find it out. It’s just easier to keep doing what feels good.
And more commonly there are people who hurt others’ feelings without ever intending to do so, and without realizing what they said could be hurtful. Many times they are ignorant of what they are saying. Take the people who say, “That’s retarded,” or, “I jewed him down,” or, “I got gypped,” or, “That’s so gay.” Now, I’m not trying to be the language police. Matter of fact: I am a major user of swear words–it’s a vice I try to avoid but cannot eliminate, and often it’s one that I indulge pleasurably. In issues of language there are people on both sides of the fence (homosexuals who say, “That’s so gay,” and so on), but depending on your audience, those phrases can offend people. And this is something we should try to be aware of. My swearing offends people, and presents me in a less-than-flattering light, so I need to choose my audience carefully. And what the offended folks must remember is: some people don’t realize what they are saying is offensive. It might be a cultural thing, it might be badly phrased, it might be slang. So before reacting, try informing them first. We’re all guilty of this offense in some form at one time or another.
And finally, there are the people who say 100% innocent things that are only offensive to a particular person with a particular point of view or private history. Everyone has had experiences we cannot know ahead of time that shape their attitudes and perceptions, and often something we say innocently can offend others.
So how can we manage this fact in a world where people are (endlessly!) offended by any number of things?
First, have compassion if you have been offended. You’re no perfect plum yourself.
Second, I say operate on this principle of forgiveness: unknowing offenders should be forgiven immediately–and when worthwhile–the offender should be informed of your feelings (nicely!) to help them avoid repeat occurences. Try not to judge their character, when it could be a simple issue of misinformation or ignorance. But do take note of those who are continually offensive, mean, or corrosive to others’ self-esteems and identities. Those people are toxic and should probably be called out on their behavior, or avoided. In those cases, chalk it up to their personality, and don’t waste time or energy being hurt by their musings. State your position, be open for a good dialogue, and if all else fails, deny that bummer-of-a-being your totally awesome friendship! There are tons of people out there just waiting to offend you unintentionally! Better you spend your energy on them!