Vincent Valentine, a software developer of British Pakistani background, writes about his approach to protecting himself against being hurt in the workplace and managing confrontation and his emotions. The piece was first published on his site, VincentTheMuslim.
Often in the workplace (and in life), we come across people who try to belittle us, dismiss us, insult us. People do this for many reasons – because they feel insecure or anxious, because making others feel “small” makes them feel “big”, and sometimes because they have simply misunderstood who we are. Either way, dealing with such behaviour can be very difficult if you are a sensitive person such as myself. It is not only because I am a sensitive person that I am affected – I also suffer from social anxiety, which comes from my childhood baggage to do with being called “weird” or “mentally weak”. Thus, words that insinuate I’m stupid, weird, or incompetent, words that intend to shut me down or are unnecessarily hostile, can be very hard for me to handle, regressing me back to my childhood self.
As you can imagine, constantly regressing to a traumatic period of my life is extremely painful, and repeating this process everytime someone slights me has got to the point of exhaustion. Naturally, I have had to come up with steps which help me to navigate society without being triggered by every insult, to allow me to function better amongst insensitive people, and to protect myself against those who purposefully try to trigger me.
I attempt to do the following before every social interaction where hostile behaviour might occur. This includes when meeting with friends, work colleagues, or family. It includes work meetings, family outings, dinners, gaming sessions – anything really where someone might “attack”, ridicule, or insult me.
- Put up my emotional, mental, and spiritual “armour”
Before every relevant interaction, I consciously prepare myself for the prospect of someone being “mean” to me. I’ve learnt that if hostile behaviour comes when I am not ready for it, it catches me completely off guard and I often end up spiraling. This makes it difficult to compose myself or respond to the behaviour in a reasonable manner, as well as causes me a lot of unnecessary pain. Therefore, I try not to feel too comfortable or relaxed when going into relevant settings, as this makes me extra vulnerable to the effect of the “low blows”. I then spend a lot of energy attemping to calm myself and regress to pretending I was not affected by the words, which later makes me feel worse because I denied myself my emotions and did not confront the behaviour. By mentally preparing myself for the possibility of hostile behaviour, I am then ready for it and can manage and respond to it in a calm honest manner.
- I am normal, I am smart, I am strong
I reaffirm to myself that I am smart, that I am “normal”, that I am (mentally) strong. I remember that if people attempt to insult me, or dismiss me, it’s because of their own insecurities and fears. It is a way for them to feel “big”, because somehow I have made them feel “small”. It is not personal to me, or a reflection on me, it is a flaw in them to reflect on and fix, and not one I should internalise based off their projections. Remember people are often just “lashing out” and trying to deal with their own pain – remember hurt people, hurt people.
- Being rude, hostile, belittling, or demeaning is not okay
I reaffirm that it is not okay for someone to be hostile, and I should call out such behaviour. Often when someone behaves in a “hostile” manner, my first reaction is to want to pretend they were not rude, and then be hostile back in the same way. Reading this out loud now, it sounds petty, it sounds childish, it sounds silly, but it is a common response to hostility as it gives the illusion of “strength”. However, ths often creates an environment where the “worst” person in the group / team sets how low the bar is, and people feel uncomfortable coming forward when they are upset by the behaviour for fear of appearing “weak”. It is just better to call out the behaviour directly, so to avoid playing silly games and reinforcing unhealthy cultures, and to deal with the problem at its core.
- Having emotions is okay
I reaffirm that it is okay to have feeling, to be hurt by the hostile behaviour of others. As mentioned above, the “go to” reaction when someone slights me is to pretend there was no slight, as though that gives me some sort of “strength”. However, all it leaves me with is unresolved feelings, with feelings of disappointment at myself for not having been honest about my feelings and not having stood up for myself. I always feel better when I am honest about how the other person’s behaviour made me feel, it allows me to maintain composure and tackle the problem at its core, whilst not getting caught up in a cycle of passive aggressive baviour.
- If triggered, remain calm and don’t react with more hostility
I reaffirm to remain calm if I am triggered. Sometimes we cannot help but be “triggered” – we are after all only human. The best thing to do in such situations is to confront the behaviour itself, or do nothing. Even to say “that wasn’t a nice thing you just said” can be an appropriate and powerful response – and if you cannot regain enough composure to do that then it is better to do nothing. The immediate reaction can be to want to respond to the hostility with more hostility but this will only escalate the situation, and escalating the situation will only resort to the burning of bridges, and – specifically in a professional environment – can even result in job loss. You do not want permanent reprucussions for emotions which – no matter how strong they feel at the time – are going to be temporary. It is better to reflect on the emotions and if required express them to your friends and loved ones (my wife is a common victim of this), as this will help you better understand yourself and better protect yourself for the next “incident”. If you cannot regain composure, or the hostile behaviour does not improve, it is okay to walk away from the situation – “leaving people on read” can be an appropriate response even in real life.
So that’s it. I hope you have found the above helpful, and it helps you navigate future tricky social situations.
To read more by this writer, check his WordPress website, VincentTheMuslim.