Many children are raised with a set of rules such as: “Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t hurt people’s feelings. Don’t upset anyone. Don’t be disagreeable. Don’t argue. Be polite. Be nice. Follow the Golden Rule. Make everyone like you.” But those are not effective rules for adults in the real-world. Of course, we know why we teach children those values. Who wants to raise hostile, nasty, argumentative, vicious, abusive bullies?
I’m not encouraging bullies to be nastier. I’m talking with nice, decent adults who are being harassed, tormented, controlled, abused and bullied, and yet who hesitate to speak up or to protect and defend themselves effectively because they don’t want to break those childhood rules.
Mary is a typical example. She held her tongue in public when her toxic mother abused her. She held her tongue when relatives criticized, mocked and demeaned her. She held her tongue when friends told her what she should do to be the good friend they wanted.
She held her tongue but she built up huge resentment that eventually exploded.
With friends and a few relatives, either she’d get in a fight so she could be righteously angry, blame them and never talk to them again or she’d nurse a cold fury until she felt justified in simply cutting them off completely without explanation.
With her parents, she’d explode and tell them off. Then she’d feel guilty for being so mean and she’d come back groveling and apologizing. Nevertheless, she still felt she was the one who’d been wronged and she resented the price her toxic parents made her pay for forgiving her outburst.
With strangers, she sat quietly and never shared what she thought or what she was interested in. She didn’t want to make them uncomfortable and she was afraid of hurting their feelings or raising a subject that would be contentious. Most people thought she wasn’t very bright.
Mary was also a master of self-bullying. She’d flagellate herself with self-doubt and self-questioning. She’d obsess on every slight taken or given and always end up blaming herself. And she’d judge herself as guilty, no matter what they’d done to her. She was never perfect. Her anxiety, stress and negative self-talk led to sleeplessness, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and to depression.
Mary had two underlying and interlocking problems:
- The set of rules that made “not upsetting people” her most important value, no matter what.
- Having only all-or-none responses of holding back totally or exploding. In a sense, she could remain at zero mph or she could go 100 mph, but she didn’t know how to go 30-60 mph.
The solution to the first problem required that Mary examine, as an adult, the rules she’d accepted all-or-none when she was a child. Children do think in black-or-white but adults have more experience and wisdom. Mary could see the kernel of value in her old rules, even though her parents had used them to control her all her life.
But as an adult, she could see where those rules were insufficient and what changes were necessary:
- She felt the pain of all the times she’d made those rules the most important ones instead of protecting herself. She could now see situations in which speaking up or pushing back verbally in order to defend herself were more important values.
- She could see the difference between people sharing their tastes and opinions, versus having an angry exchange with someone trying to convert her to their “absolutely right” way of seeing things.
- She could also see which subjects she simply didn’t want to discuss with which people.
- One of the most compelling moments was when she saw which people she did want to disagree with, whether or not they were uncomfortable or had hurt feelings, because to be “nice” to them would have violated her most important values. In fact, she reached a point where making a few people, like her toxic mother, uncomfortable or angry was a sign that Mary was on the right track.
She changed her old, out-dated and ineffective beliefs to new, effective ones, encapsulated in the phrase, “Not hurting people’s feelings is a much lower priority than protecting myself or being myself. I’ll speak what I think and say what I want in the nicest, firmest way and if they don’t like it, it’s their problem. That way I’ll test whether I want to allow them to be on my Isle of Song.”
That simple change gave her a rush of peace, freedom and energy. She felt powerful enough to create the life she wanted, which was more important that not making anyone uncomfortable. She now had the will and determination to learn how to be skillful in protecting herself.
How she learned to respond clearly, simply, kindly and firmly from 30-60 mph will be the subject of another article.