Life is hard. This is no surprise. And guess what makes it harder? People. That’s right, those obnoxious, insensitive, rude people who just…..are annoying and insulting. Life would be so much better if we just didn’t have to deal with them. People are always there, saying things that hurt, doing things that hurt, getting in our faces, talking behind our backs. They are mysterious and frustrating. They are obnoxious and sometimes, we would rather gouge our own eyeballs out with spoons then have to spend one more second with them. Because guess what? They offend us. They hurt our feelings. We don’t understand them, they don’t understand us, and it’s just a minefield of hurt and injury.
Just ask my kids: Today I just got done dealing with the mess behind a fight of epic proportions where each child insisted that the other one had started it by saying mean things. My younger son ended up on his bed, weeping, because the older one taped a “Your bum stinks” sign on his door.” Older son insisted that was only after younger son told him he had fart breath. Ridiculous, right? Yes, it was. I had a hard time not laughing as I soothed rumpled feelings.
When we see this sort of thing in our children, it’s pretty easy to laugh at how absurd it all is. But here’s the thing: in the midst of our haughty and amused chuckles, we fail to realize that as grown adults, we aren’t much better.
Every day….EVERY DAY I hear of people taking offense at something someone else said or did. There are various reactions when people take offense: sometimes it is drawing inward and isolating oneself, nursing the hurt and anger. Sometimes there is lashing out, and then things escalate in a battle of pride and one-up-edness. I have had people talk to me about hurts they acquired years ago and they still fixate on them, circling around them like a moth to a light, bashing their heads and hearts against the pain until it becomes their entire existence.
We all have life situations that immerse us in potentially offense-giving situations every single day. And more than that, we live in a world that is constantly telling us that we should be offended-- all of the time, over every little thing. If you are living life, happily larking along without any frustration or angst, well, just wait. Somewhere, somehow, our culture will scream in your face about how you should be offended about something. Taking offense is the new righteous and worthy path to change, we are told.
So, how do we survive? How do we make it through without cowering in a heap of victimized angst and self-pity?
Growing up I was incredibly shy and insecure; as such, I spent much of my life analyzing each and every tiny detail of my interactions with others, and unfortunately, I took much of what people did or said to me very personally. I assumed that every word, comment, and look was a personal attack against me, mostly because I was so insecure that I just assumed people didn’t like me. Well, after spending most of my youth being miserable over perceived offenses, I got to a point where I grew so tired of it that I kinda had a moment of rebellion and said, “Enough.” Since then, through much trial and error, I’ve managed to figure out some things. I’m not perfect at this, but I can say that once I was able to keep these steps in mind, it has helped me to be a lot more happy and emotionally healthy.
1. Remember that the phrase “taking offense” means you have to reach out and grab it.
When someone offers offense, like a gleaming poisonous apple, it is up to us to decide whether to take that twisted gift. And the good news is that unlike the turtleneck covered in bows that your grandmother gave you in 7th grade or the fruitcake your neighbor gave you for Christmas--you are not obligated to take it. If you just refuse to reach out and grab onto the offense, it will drop away. Even though we offer other tips today, really, it’s as simple as that.
2. Always remember this mantra: “It’s them, not me.”
I had a particularly brutal meeting with an angry parent once at parent-teacher conferences who took what I thought was a very small issue and used it to lash out at me personally. I spoke to her daughter the next day who explained that her father had recently left them and that her mother had just lost her job. A light bulb went on in my head right then. No wonder the mother was so upset; I was just someone who happened to be there during a horrible time in her life.
When it comes to taking offense, we need to reverse the entire classic break-up line of “It’s me, not you,” and turn it on its head. People are amazingly complex human beings that have decades of personal upbringing and history in their lives that shape each word and action in their present. How they treat you is often just a product of them and their lives and has nothing to do with you. Keeping this in mind can really take the bite out of offensive comments or behavior. It’s the whole “if you could walk a mile in their shoes” scenario. Think outside of your own head for a bit, and cut the person some slack. You don’t know what is going on in their lives, how they were raised, how they feel about themselves, what trials they are dealing with, or how they cope with life issues. You don’t have to love them or be their best friend, but at least afford them the decency of admitting that you don’t know where they are coming from.
3. Suck it up.
Sometimes, it is you. Sometimes, people say things to us that are actually true, even if poorly executed. We’re not talking about glib comments from strangers; rather, sometimes those we love dearly and who are the closest to us can offer up some pretty tough love, because they know us, and feel you need correction. This hurts. It really does. When people say things to you that cut to the heart and have a bit of truth to them, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. It’s hard to not be offended and angry when this happens, when we sense truth in the remarks. But you have a choice here too: suck it up, put on your big boy pants and ponder their offered correction, or, be offended and create drama and burn the bridges of your relationships in your vengeance.
Too often, I see bridges burning, all because someone can’t just own up to the fact that they aren’t perfect and that it has been pointed out to them. I’ve seen families and friendships torn apart because a loved one chose to speak up rather than remain silent about something, and the receiver took offense instead of sucking it up and taking it with humility. I’ve had best friends say goodbye forever.
When we receive criticism from people, it is crucial to ask ourselves if there is anything that can be learned from it. That is a tough process, because it requires letting down our pride and admitting fault. It requires humility, meekness, introspection, and a desire for progression and change. It’s no coincidence that those traits--humility and meekness--are the ones that are mentioned as desirable ones in scriptures and other philosophical thought. It’s because they are the hardest to adopt. The alternative, however, is a hard heart, acquaintance with sorrow, and destroyed relationships.
4. Imagine us all as small, tactless children.
We all have stories of the horribly offensive things our children said to strangers when they were young, like the the time my son pointed to a larger lady at the store and asked, “Why are you so fat?” or when he told another lady who was smoking in the parking lot that she was going to die.
So, what’s your grown-up equivalent to this? I know I’ve had plenty of moments where words came out of my mouth and I immediately wanted to grab them and stuff them back in, but oh, too late, too late! They were out there in the world and all I could do was stand there, helplessly aghast as they did their damage. How often have you said something stupid that offended someone? Hmmmmm? If you said never, then you are fooling yourself; you just haven’t been told about it. We all say stupid and tactless things. Sometimes we know it, sometimes we are oblivious until later, when we learn our careless words have offended someone. The horror fills us and keeps us up at night, making us vow to remain mute in public forevermore.
Yes, we’ve all been there. So. Every time you are tempted to be offended by someone, just remember the last time you wanted to die when your child said something stupid, or wanted to slap yourself across the face for something you said without thinking, and assume the person you’re talking to will feel same later. That will give you pause before choosing to be hurt.
5. Keep in mind that it is easier to not take offense in the first place than it is to forgive later.
Forgiveness is a hard thing to conquer. Not getting offended in the first place is like a preventative strategy: if you didn’t get offended, then you don’t have to worry about going through that soul-haranguing process of forgiveness. If you take offense, that offense sits there and marinates, and grows, and festers, and boils, and causes much more pain the longer it’s there; and, taking care of that wound is much more difficult than if you just avoided the wound in the first place. We all know how hard it is to clean out those wounds of offense, and then the long, hard, seemingly impossible task it is to forgive someone and rebuild those relationships. Think of it this way: a little not taking offense now saves a lot of pain later.
6. Taking offense gives someone else power over your lives.
I am involved in politics, and I teach teenagers. Combine the two and my life is a gold mine of potentially offensive material. I can’t even begin to count how many purposefully cruel things I’ve had tossed at me over the years because of my involvement in politics alone; and let’s face it, teenagers aren’t the most tactful creatures. And each and every time, I am faced with a choice: take the bait, get angry, get upset, get insulted and hurt...or don’t. If I were to get offended each time, can you imagine how miserable I would be? And think about this: other people, often people I do not even know very well, through a word or action, would be in control of my feelings and self-worth.
If we are constantly being offended, then we are, in essence, giving others the power to control our happiness. Call it a rebellious streak, but the thought of other people getting in my head and messing with my thoughts and emotions really bugs me. Unless you purposely invite people into your head, they don’t have to get in. We are in charge of our happiness, we are the captains of our own ships. Keeping our panties in a bunch all of the time is miiiiighty uncomfortable. And no one else has the power to give us that wedgie but ourselves.
7. This is the most important step: Develop self worth outside of others.
You need to feel good about yourself, regardless of anything or anyone else. When you do, you will find yourself being offended much less often. Self confidence will be found in different places for everyone, but finding a healthy and positive source of worth is crucial. Whether it is through your relationship with God, family, or friends; developing gifts and talents; engaging in hobbies; recreation activities; exercise; or your pursuit of greatness separate from the praise of the world--just do it. You need to be a pillar of strength that does not rely solely on others for strength. Of course, relying on others for strength and love is part of that equation, but it can’t be your sole source of worth. If you love yourself, warts and all, and your life is filled with positive people, fulfilling activities, and a sense of purpose and worth, how other people treat you will have less and less power over your happiness.
So, pending some sort of emotional apocalypse that will inoculate everyone against taking offense, or an amazing offense-repellent we can spritz on each morning before heading out into that big, bad world filled with potentially rude people, these steps might help. As is so much in life, how we feel about ourselves, about others, and about our lives is blessedly within our own control. Let’s take that control, and decide that taking offense is one misery we won’t subject ourselves to any longer.