The cure to being offend-able is to realize that you cannot control others, but you can control how you react and respond to what others say and do.”– Terri Cole
Over the last year I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment. My aunt let me borrow it and I have been slowly making my way through it’s simple, life changing pages. One of the most pressing parts of this book, a piece of truth I have been mulling over, is the practice of compassionate listening. It’s a way to receive the thoughts, words, and emotions of another person, no matter the intent, tone, or content. By doing this you help relieve the suffering of that person. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion.”
Reading this, I thought, that is impossible! which I know it’s not actually impossible, but at this point in my life, I feel so far away from being able to listen compassionately, according to that definition. This realization of being far from that practice but desiring to pursue it, led me to follow the clues to the cause. What is going on in my life, mind, and heart that is keeping me from feeling ready and like I am equipped to listen compassionately without getting offended? And that uncovering is mostly what this post is about…
Living under one roof with seven adults, three children, a German Shepherd, and a cat, my house can feel overwhelming, crowded, and in my face at times. I become overstimulated by sights, sounds, and crowds pretty easily; during meal times in the kitchen I tend to be on edge. This prevents me from opening up my heart fully and tuning into the present moment with my complete self. I go into self-protect mode and my mind makes a list of all the things I “need” in order to find peace of mind and stillness, or make it through the momentary period of chaos… “I need silence, I need solitude, I need cleanliness and organization, I need space, both mental and physical.. etc.” and then this transfers over into other parts of my life there, not just meal time in the kitchen.
So here I am, convinced that I know exactly what I need to be happy. However, this is just not true. And honestly it is exhausting. Over time, it has become difficult to see people, my roommates in this example, as they truly are — colorful, complex, and magical creatures. Instead I get offended, annoyed, and frustrated. Entitlement creeps in and I think they are infringing upon my space, which, you know, I “need” in order to be happy and at ease. My heart stays closed up, my words are short, and my thoughts are bitter. Perpetually irritated and unhappy. And what is even more irritating and exhausting ist that I am aware of all of this! But what else is happening that I am unaware of?
And then I am reminded, usually by my partner, and sometimes my therapist, or the speck of Light God inside me, or ancient holy texts of wisdom and truth that cut through the crap. I am reminded that there is no need to be offended and annoyed by everything. I am the one making myself unhappy.
Here is what I don’t mean and what I do mean by this…
What I don’t mean is that I need to get rid of my boundaries, stop all self-care, lower my expectations, and settle for something that isn’t serving me. What I do mean is that I need to participate in the dance. The dance of balance and equilibrium. Sometimes, I do need to lower my expectations… because I have unknowingly set very unrealistic and unattainable standards for myself and others. And sometimes I do need to settle for something that isn’t serving me… because I have become entitled and egotistical and somehow I picked up the idea that every single thing and person needs to be for my good, when really the Universe is working out all things for the good of everyone, not just me. Sometimes I do need to readjust some of my boundaries… because I am scared of what is beyond them and fear shouldn’t create boundaries, self-love and love for God and others should create boundaries. I need to push myself to my edge… Test, stretch, and re-evaluate my boundaries so I don’t become stagnant and fearful.
I hope this makes sense. There is a balance and I long to dance my way into it. I don’t want to be uptight, offended, and annoyed by every little thing some says or does. And I don’t want to make excuses for how I can’t overcome those “offenses” or annoyances. People will always annoy me as long as I let them. I will always be overwhelmed as long as I don’t change my outlook. And everything and everyone will offend me if I don’t do the innerwork to understand why and what I can do to make the situation different. In some internet research I came across Terri Cole, a blogger, psychotherapist, and transformational coach, and she says the following about being offended:
“Offense is the ego’s response to what someone else said. When you are offended, you are in an ego-driven state, which is, ultimately, disempowering and a victim mentality. To cope with the loss of empowerment, we fall into our High Ego—power hungry; self absorbed; focus on external image; needs validation from others; blames/condemns others in order to boost self, or our Low Ego—no power; codependency; lost/confused; plays martyr; never feels gets what deserves; over carrying and worrying; always doubting self and putting self down. Interestingly enough, the high and low egos are two sides of the same coin. Both mask their genuine self by looking outside for validation, are overly concerned with the image they are portraying, tend to blame others, and are never satisfied. The cure to being offend-able is to realize that you cannot control others, but you can control how you react and respond to what others say and do.”
I love how she says that both responses, both ways we cope with disempowerment, are masks and two sides of the same coin. Humans are very intelligent and we creatively find ways to stick to our habits and old ways of doing things. We end up tricking ourselves because the “new way” is disguised by a different mask. This need to survive and do what we know, what is familiar, even if it’s harmful and unhelpful, is embedded deep in our subconscious. We learn it our whole lives and it takes a lot of time and hard work to realize and unlearn our ingrained patterns.
Virginia Satir, author of Making Contact, another book I am slowly reading, writes about self-esteem and personal power in a way that fits these topics of offense and compassionate listening. She would most likely say that being easily offendable is the result of giving away our personal power… which is the result of not feeling strong, having low self-esteem, operating out of the rules we were taught as children, and communicating in a way that self-protects. This is similar to what Terri Cole says about how we “cope with the loss of empowerment”.
We give away our power to someone else, we become victim, and we cope with that decision we made… it’s no one’s fault but our own. While Terri Cole mentions Low Ego and High Ego, Virginia Satir talks about four coping strategies, or ways of communicating, for people who have low self-esteem or have given away their power to someone else. These four ways of communicating are:
Placating — “I must keep everyone happy”; guilt, pity, contempt
Blaming — “Nobody cares about me”; fearful, resentful, helpless
Being Super Reasonable — “I must let people know how smart I am”; inferior, stupid, bored
Being Irrelevant — “I will get attention no matter what extremes I have to go to”; distract, disrupt, off balance
Satir mentions that these ways of communicating and responding are efforts at creating self-esteem, it’s us using our power, albeit inappropriately. Thankfully, Making Contact doesn’t end there, but offers an appropriate and life-giving way to communicate. One that doesn’t operate from an ego-driven state, but that is in line with who we really are. She calls this congruent power and she writes the following about it:
“The power in congruence comes through the connectedness of your words matching your feelings, your body and facial expressions matching your words, and your actions fitting all. You come from a state of strength because all your parts have flow with other parts. You are not blocking anything off. You can be easily believed. Your energy goes to developing trust. You do not cause suspicion. You can be easily understood because you are clear. Other persons feel given to. You feel open and can therefore feel excitement instead of fear. You know that you can choose, that you have many choices you can make.”
Which brings us back to Terri Cole’s quote: “The cure to being offend-able is to realize that you cannot control others, but you can control how you react and respond to what others say and do.”
I would add, after reading Making Contact, that the cure to being offend-able is to realize that you cannot control others and others cannot control you, but you can control how you react and respond to what others say and do.
The only way I can begin to practice compassionate listening, listening openly and lovingly even if the other person says things that are full of wrong perceptions and bitterness, is if I stand firm and strong in my personal power and recognize that I can only control how I respond in any given situation, conversation, circumstance, and interaction. Virginia Satir says, “We can choose, and choose responsibly. Owning my power is the beginning of my becoming a choice maker for me and becoming a responsible human being.” We get to decide how we response and react. And I long to choose congruence and compassion.