My therapist is great. He gave me some useful, subtle advice for a persistent issue I’ve encountered with assholes my whole life.
The advice is:
- Don’t bother trying to explain to or argue with a mentally unhealthy person.
- Keep your emotions in check during any unavoidable or necessary encounters. (A frank friend once said it more succinctly: “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”)
- Walk up to the “I” line, but no further. (I’ll explain this in a second.)
It’s surprising how much difference these steps make. But let me tell you the background first.
The recent kerfuffle
I got into an online disagreement with an unhappy and aggressive Facebook group’s admin recently. Dealing with her relentless snipes reminded me so much of being in similar situations before, with narcs or other disordered people who have little or no empathy or kindness.
Instead of just stinging over this latest unfounded verbal abuse, I thought back and began making a list that stretches from ages 5 to 54. Within about 5 minutes, I had a list of 20+ similar incidents, both major and minor, where someone went OFF on me and wouldn’t stop or believe what I said in the aftermath. I’m sure dozens more such incidents will come back to me if I think on it for very long.
At the bottom of this post (I promise) I will come back around and explain the epiphany that I got from my therapist and my own thoughts on this. But it will make more sense if you read about this latest incident as an example. Here goes.
I belong to about 15-20 Facebook groups (it varies). In one that deals with people recovering from narc abuse, a member had a big public meltdown and did the abusive “fuck AAAAAAALLLL y’all” verbal throwdown as part of her dramatic grand exit.
It was mean enough that I figured it would trigger others; it did to me, a little, even though I knew it wasn’t personal. So I decided to reach out to the admins to alert them and ask if they would take down the post. (It’s important to know that I almost exclusively access my Facebook groups by reading my general Facebook feed, not the group pages, and I almost always use my phone, not my computer.)
Seeing nothing on the “info” tab for the group and no pinned post at the top of the group page that would clue me in as to who the admins are, I posted a public comment that said something like this: “ADMINS: Member XYZ made a big exit speech that was verbally abusive about 50 minutes ago. Clean up on aisle 2, so to speak.”
(I could have handled it better, such as by posting just, “Admin, can you PM me? Urgent.” But I didn’t think of that. Also could have taken out the snarky language I used toward Member XYZ in that post — “big exit speech” and “clean up on aisle 2”; I admit to wording it that way because I was irritated and didn’t hit the mental pause button before I posted. Mea culpa. But still, the group owner lost her shit over it.)
Within about 15 minutes, the group owner swooped in, apologized to all for Member XYZ’s remarks being posted temporarily, explained that she was cooking supper when the situation began, and in her public post asked me to contact them privately instead of publicly if such a thing happened again.
My response was close to this: “Of course. A private comment is always my first choice. But I belong to a lot of groups, and I didn’t know who was the admin for this group. And the info isn’t easily accessible, at least via the info tab or a pinned post. I thought this was triggering enough for all that I needed to get your attention. But I’ll own it. I’m sorry for any issues I caused.”
The admin/group owner took that as an opportunity to chase me around the block with a stick for a while (so to speak). Here’s my best paraphrased memory of the conversation:
Admin/group owner: “You know who runs this group.”
Me: “Sorry, I really didn’t. I looked and didn’t see that info posted on the group page’s info tab or in a pinned post.”
Admin/group owner: “I belong to a lot of groups too, and I know who runs each of them. You do too.”
Me (feeling irritated and defensive but suppressing the urge to say something snarky): “No, I don’t. I have taken down my post that called for an admin, because it obviously bothered you. I’m sorry for speaking up publicly about what I thought was a brewing situation, and I will not do so again. Is there anything else you want me to do to make amends? Because if I can, I will. Peace to you, sincerely.”
Admin/group owner: “I have peace! And all you had to do was look at the panel.” [Note: Presumably she meant the righthand menu that is visible for Facebook groups IF they are viewed on a computer, not a phone.]
Me: “You misunderstand me. My wishing you peace was a conciliatory gesture, not a dismissive or judgmental one. And the righthand menu is not visible when viewing my Facebook wall on my phone. I almost never look at the group’s page anyway. But I did this time to find an admin, and the righthand panel is not even visible on my phone.”
Admin/group owner: “It’s visible on my phone.” [Note: I bet not.] She then made multiple references to someone “reporting” her group. I ignored it at first. But she continued.
Admin/group owner: “And now you have brought shame to my group because you chose to report it, you and your handsome friend.”
Me (in my final response before deleting my membership to that group and blocking that admin as a Facebook contact): “I have NEVER reported a Facebook group or a Facebook member, nor have I tried to harm you or this group. And you and I may differ, but I don’t think that acknowledging one member has had a flaming breakdown brings any shame to the group. But since you are clearly bent on goading me until I blow up or quit, I will simply withdraw my membership from this group. And I don’t know who my ‘handsome friend’ is that you refer to, because my handsome hubby isn’t even on Facebook and I don’t cavort around on social media with any other males in a familiar way. You’re mistaking me for someone else, and I don’t behave as crazy as you do (thank god).”
I’m really, really surprised I didn’t just utter a dismissive “Oh, fuck you. Bye.” But I hate to do that.
What I learned from this
Here’s my hot wash. (As a former employer used to tell my work group after a challenging project. I believe she was making an allusion to washing your dirty hands off and walking away clean again.) Normally this means to talk about what went right, what went wrong, and what we could have done differently. But I’m actually tired of typing and I see now that I’ve written another long-ass post. So I’ll focus just on what I could have done differently.
1. I could have ignored the exiting group member or called publicly for an admin without saying why, and then later expressed my concerns privately. I’ll own that one. I have a tiny bit of a savior complex, as many current or recovering co-dependents do, in which I want to right wrongs and to “help” when I see a problem. I find it difficult sometimes to judge whether I’m doing the right thing or whether I’m jumping into someone else’s business. I grew up in a verbally abusive alcoholic/histrionic-co-dependent home as an only child, and I often had to be the grownup who took action. I always think, “Silence implies consent. And I don’t fucking consent.”
You know the metaphor of the elephant in the room that no one talks about? Honey, I’ve lived it.
When there’s a dead and rotting elephant in the room that everyone is smelling but stepping around and ignoring, I’m the one who will say, “Why are we putting up with this? Let’s acknowledge that this problem exists and deal with it,” and I’ll roll up my sleeves and start shoveling. But I need to develop more discretion in this, while also not allowing abuse to be perpetuated.
2. Once I saw that the admin/group owner was irrationally angry at me, even after I apologized for the public nature of the comment that she found shaming, I could have stopped responding and/or left the group at that point. I incorrectly believed — as I often do — that providing factual information may clarify the situation, that owning my mistakes may mitigate some of the other person’s ire, and that making it clear what I will do differently in the future (and then doing it) will be my best attempt to remedy the real or perceived damages.
I wish the world were different and irritable people were not irrational, but that’s the way it is. I’ll own that too. Lesson learned. Again. (This is a hard one for me.)
When I mentioned this incident to my therapist, he had a slight smile on his face as he asked me, “How soon into this did you wish you hadn’t even engaged?” Me, laughing ruefully: “IMMEDIATELY!”
3. If I got a do-over, I wouldn’t cross the “I” line again. This was my therapist’s most genius and subtle advice. I’ll explain that below.
Here’s where my great therapist comes in
My therapist at first made a few comments and dismissed this incident as an unimportant encounter with a mentally unhealthy person (which it was). But I persisted. I said that what bothers me is not just the irritating incident. It’s the way that I keep finding myself in so many similar incidents where I have good intentions, try to communicate honestly and fairly, and I end up getting a crazy amount of anger back at me — particularly if I show my human flaws and don’t perfectly handle the situation with no irritation or sarcasm. (Sometimes it even happens then.)
I listed out several such incidents I’d discussed in the past with my therapist, along with a few I hadn’t told him before. And I asked if he had any suggestions. He responded with, “This is not criticism. But you may find if you tweak your wording a little, you are less likely to encounter this.”
He suggested that I remain with “I” language and not with “you” language. This also includes not recommending what the other person, in my opinion, needs to do. The strategy is simply to say, “I find it upsetting when XYZ happens.” Or just, “I noticed that XYZ happened.” And leave it at that. If the other person asks for more, it may avoid trouble if I simply say, “Just mentioning as an FYI.” And then it’s in the other person’s lap what to do (or not do) with it.
When I offer well-meaning suggestions to solve a problem simply and quickly, it can be misread as speaking down to or criticizing the other person. It’s also crossing a boundary line. It’s ME crossing a boundary line between expressing my views (healthy) vs. my making even mild excursions into their business (such as explaining my interpretations of what happened, spelling out how it bothered me, and suggesting or demanding some action from the other person). I instead can simply share information. Then I go on and live my separate life and do what I need for myself.
Now, that “do what I need for myself” may include ignoring the other person, accepting the person as is, or cutting the person out of my life in some or all circumstances. But this approach keeps me firmly in my lane vs. crossing over into theirs.
To be clear, I don’t blame myself for lane jumping a bit. Some people are just nuts or crabby or whatever. But I can be more choosy.
I think this is going to be very helpful for me. I know — because I know myself — there will still be times I will get in someone else’s business if I see the person harming someone else, particularly someone less powerful and more vulnerable. But I am going to dial down a LOT of my unsolicited “helpful feedback.” ;o) And I’m going to talk less and do more.
I see this actually being useful with my husband, and so does my therapist. There are some topics we’ve differed on for years. Such as the way he insists on being the person who gets the mail, and he scatters it ALL OVER THE HOUSE — on the kitchen counter, on the dining table, on the small table near the front door, on his nightstand, in his briefcase and sometimes (which really irritates me) tucking mail he intends to “get to” soon under the driver’s side visor on the car we share. And I always seem to flop down the visor to block the sun and find bills tumbling into my lap.
There’s also the problem of having huge drifts of letters and magazines and flyers piling up everywhere. And often he doesn’t pass along things I’m waiting on, or he lets bills go to the last minute (or beyond). It all drives me nuts, and I’ve often asked him to please put the mail in ONE place. He does it for a day or two, then goes back to his usual ways. I don’t know if it’s a control thing or a bit of petty revenge for some habit of mine that annoys him or if it’s just one of his bad habits, and I no longer care which.
I have tried bitching and nagging. I have tried calmly explaining why I would like our mail to be handled differently. I have tried ignoring it and just doing frequent sweeps through the house to pick up mail in various spots. Frustration city.
What I should have done is mention the problem calmly, wait to see if he changed, and (when he didn’t) just resolve it myself.
Well, I’ve done the talking; it’s time for resolving. I can’t stop him from hitting the mailbox in our current circumstances, because he gets home before I do. But I have other options. I could buy a locking mailbox and keep the key, or I could direct all our mail to a PO Box that only I have a key to; later at night, I could bring out the mail and we could look at it and DEAL with it together. Or I could every night ask him for the mail so we can go through it together. I’m sure there are other options. The point is that I don’t have to argue, I don’t have to suggest solutions. I have said my piece on the topic and I’m done with it. All I have to be concerned about is taking care of myself and removing this daily irritation. And I intend to.
This also applies to his affair, really.
It’s really freeing, now that I think about it. All I’m responsible for is telling the other person my views and/or needs. And then I decide (internally, without having to communicate it in most cases) what I’m going to do — whether they respond helpfully, negatively, or not at all. And I act on that. Simple. I keep all my own power, and they keep all theirs. I don’t have to accept their abuse, and they don’t have to change if they don’t want to.
Simple. Healthy. Brilliant.
That’s why I gave myself this new mantra: “Come up to the ‘I’ line, but no farther.”
I will probably have to keep learning this lesson and correcting myself, but I intend to incorporate this into my life. And it will be a challenge to find the right balance between intellectualizing vs. acknowledging my emotions and expressing them. I think I can.
For me, this is huge.