On Not Being an Arsehole in the World

Last Friday evening I attended the launch of Ruby Wax’s new book, Sane New World. Ruby is a close friend of my neighbour, and I’ve spent a few evenings around a dinner table with her where her openness about her lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety impressed me. We human beings are not big on admitting when we’re in trouble. We’re so terrified of telling the people around us that we’re frightened and not coping that we soldier on until we find ourselves so far gone that the only option is medication. When celebs (who have a lot to lose) come out with their stuff, it really helps the rest of us be brave about our stuff, too.

Anyhow, one thing she said really stuck with me. Due to her own mental health issues, she took it upon herself to get a Masters degree in Mindfulness and Cognitive Psychology at Oxford University, and learn about the human brain and why we do the things we do. And one of the things she explained was that, when we face social rejection, the same area in our brain which responds to physical pain is activated. Which is why, when people are crap to us on social media, our hearts start pounding and our mouths go dry and we experience a surge of adrenalin. Our brains can’t distinguish between a troll on Twitter and a zombie wielding a chainsaw. The threat is perceived to be the same, so even when the snarky comment comes from a complete arb who has no meaning in your life, you practically poo in your pants.

And I was relieved to hear that I’m not alone. Because when I get a criticized on Facebook or my blog for something I’ve written (though it’s really only happened a very few times) it bothers me a lot. I mull over it for days, wondering if I was wrong or if I should have expressed myself differently. (I am actually far too thin-skinned to be this opinionated about stuff). When I see a new comment has come in, I hold my iPad at arm’s length and read it with one eye shut for fear it’s someone telling me I suck. It’s pathetic, but that’s how I am. I have a few friends whose comments I dread getting. Because, while they are nice enough people, they’re not that good at thinking through the things they say, and I regularly get stung by their words. And I guess this is why we still have wars – we have a hard time thinking beyond our own noses and appreciating that other people have different thoughts and different experiences from ours.

And this whole thing has been quite a challenge for me, because when you’re writing for magazines and newspapers, you know on some conceptual level that you have an audience, but barring the odd email you might get, your readers remain largely anonymous. When you’re blogging, on the other hand, your audience is right there, a click away. You get responses immediately, and you have to deal with them. Lots of responses from lots of people living lives and in circumstances that are different from yours. And while most are really, really nice a few can be less so, and the knee-jerk reaction is to defend your position, and even be a tiny bit not nice back. Because their comment has hurt your feelings. But then you start a war.

So, what I’ve been doing instead is only being nice. I put my thoughts out there, and they get interpreted in different ways, but I elect not to defend my position or explain what I actually meant or point out things they might have misunderstood. It is not my job to convince them that my view is right. They are, after all, as ‘right’ as I am, they’ve just had different experiences. And an interesting thing happens when you consciously operate from a place of tolerance and acceptance (and it’s not always bloody easy): the fight goes away. There is no fight, just human beings sharing their thoughts and feelings.

Yet somehow we’re raised to believe we need to make ourselves heard and stand our ground and fight for our place in the world. And I’m not saying there is no reason to push back, ever, but we’re very quick to draw our guns and go onto the defensive. I have a few people in my life whose entire ethos revolves around their egos and pushing their opinions and being the ‘rightest’ in the world, and they’re tiring and make me wonder who they’re trying to convince. And the thing is, if you can take a step back and not engage you do yourself the biggest favour. Because when people are shouting and being bullies and mean to those around them, more often than not it comes from a place of sadness and confusion. Individuals who feel loved and affirmed don’t need to sound off all the time.

And what I’m learning in the biggest, biggest way is that what you put out you get back. Give that injured inner child of yours a hug, and make a decision to err on the side of niceness. It’s easy making fires and shouting the house down, but contrary to what we’ve been taught, what takes the most strength and the most courage is being kind to the people who might not have been kind to you. And when you do that – are large and gracious – it’s astonishing, the bounty and grace you attract. And I can only imagine that the opposite holds true – be angry and aggressive, and that’s what’s you’re going to experience.

So, forgive me for sounding like the Dalai fucking Lama, but this has been a major a-ha moment for me. There are a lot of people in a lot of pain, and this makes them do (and say) really weird things. And, like Ruby says, if we could learn to be mindful about this stuff instead of going into battle at the drop of a hat, we’d all suffer less in our lives. And that’s what we human beings have in common, really, isn’t it? The quest to be happy and to avoid pain. And I’ll get it wrong and probably be annoyed before I’m done posting this blog, but it’s a step in the right direction. If we all made a decision right now that, for the rest of the day, we’ll be nice to every single person who crosses our paths – even when we feel they’re buffoons from hell – our worlds would become easier to navigate. Because, really, every one of us is crazy and a bit lost and fighting some or other kind of battle. So let’s try and remember that before we throw our word grenades.

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37 thoughts on “On Not Being an Arsehole in the World

  1. Mmmhhh…its funny because I also went through this process and came to the same conclusion you did -that if you take it as a difference of opinion rather than an attack ( one has to sift through all the crap to get this) then your life becomes much more chilled and you can then focus on the other really important issues….good a-ha Oprah moment!

  2. They say life is too short to stop for every dog that barks. Still I find those who most often accuse others of opinionated barking are the ones who don’t like their happy, and usually self serving, edits of reality spoiled by anything that contradicts . As for social rejection’s physical effects one could also look at MirrorNeurons which show just how connected we really are . As for hurting the others’ feelings I normally reserve sensitive subjects and criticism for the privacy of an in-box . But that doesn’t seem to work either :)

  3. So very true! One should never ever say anything on line which you wouldn’t be happy saying directly to the person face-to-face – I find so many people hide behind emails these days and really? Its just cowardly.

    Sometimes we just have to be the bigger person – treat others as you would like to be treated in return – I do believe it will all come back to you in abundance – and you know what? Even if it doesn’t, our behaviour will certainly help make this world a better place :)

    You rock!

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more. I feel the same way. I suffer from that ‘people pleasing disease’ so I really don’t like to receive negative or rude comments.
    But we have to remember, we can’t please everybody all of the time. Some people will love what we say and some won’t. That’s just how it is.
    Great post!
    Laura :D

  5. Really beautifully written. Thanks for sharing these thoughts so articulately. I relate to these tendencies you talk about, so especially appreciate it :).

  6. Hi, great read!
    I am South African living in the San Francisco Bay area. Have a training school for coaches CRR Global (Center for Right Relationship). Looking at the name of our business you guessed right, hugely inspired by my life in South Africa, subsequent discovery of eastern religious wisdom and my commitment to being in right relationship with self, other and the larger whole. So thanks and wanted to let you know i posted your blog on our FB page.
    Marita Dridjhon

  7. I have been trying to teach this very concept to my ten year old child who is a little too quirky to be easily accepted by her peers.Often she has to deal with emotional bullies getting stuck into her for this. It’s not easy for her to do because like me she is very reactive but often she aces it. It’s mostly the kids who carry a big pain body that will lash out. It all starts on the playground and hopefully that is where she will learn to deal with it best.

    1. I also have a reactive 10 year old and would so like to have a one on one mum chat with you – you sound so wise! How would we get in touch if you were willing to share experiences?

  8. Both your articles – the one about SA expats and this one – have such huge resonance for me right now, it’s as if the angels sent them especially to me. I can scarcely believe the serendipity. Wish I could talk to you about a horrible thing that has happened, relating to both articles, with irreparable damage done to my relationship with a close family member whom I used to love and respect. But in the absence of that, from my heart, I thank you for your wisdom and compassion. Eish. Amazing.

    1. Wow, thank, you Bronwen. What an amazing message. I’m so glad it resonated for you. I believe we’re all conduits of truth for one another. I’m honoured to have been yours this time :-) xxx

  9. Yup you have to ask yourself every day what road you want to follow for that day- and in so doing fertilize some new neural pathways
    Just discovered your writing Robyn and so enjoying it – nice to get a sense of the person behind the person who came to collect the Pringle keys!! When you feel like a hike up the Mtn give me a call and we can natter some more about this – neuroplasticity is fast becoming my favorite subject xx

  10. What sheer, utter, RUBBISH!

    ;-)

    Kidding! Did you poop yourself?

    This blog, and you, are a national treasure! Thanks so much, and keep doing what you do! You’re GREAT!

    1. Ha ha! I’m developing a thicker skin, Emma, but it’s still hard when people are vicious. And they ARE, some of them! No filter. I’m learning who the trolls are, and they just get trashed. THANK YOU, DARLING! Much appreciated words xxxxx

  11. Thank you for sharing. Inspiring, insightful and filled with wisdom. Is it not time to realise that medication is a “coping aid”? For those who are ready to accept responsibility for our life’s choices, thought forms and our beliefs that no longer serve us. Only then are we able to reverse the depressive tendencies and find meaning in life. Check out the work of Dr David Hawkins in his book Healing and Recovery. I am a self styled student of Hawkins’s work and have personally experienced healing from a depressive nature and witnessed my clients benefit. http://www.colinstarling.com

  12. Forgot to add, that you articulated something that I’ve been mulling around in my head for ages. Reminds me of an adage a friend once told me: “When someone is really angry and sounding off, picture them as an angry little insect and place a bell-jar over them, and watch with curiosity until they have calmed down.” I find this works with me when I’m faced with narcissists and histrionics. As Alanis Morrissette sings in “Thank U,” “The moment I jumped off of it / Was the moment I touched down”. Thanks for being so awesome.

    1. I am honored! I am an intermittent blogger though and yearn fo more time to write these… In process with a book at the moment and that more or less grabs all spare time!

  13. Hey all. South Africans , Ex -pats, who ever follows this amazing Blog. I found the Blog completely by accident, but spent my day reading it from begining to end. I’m not going to pass any comments, take any sides, or direct a reply to anyone who has posted. Whether i agree or disagree with any of them is, i think irelavent. I’ve lost lots of good mates to other parts of the world. They made a choice, and for good or bad, for them or myself, we agree to disagree. I love that i have found this site, and although I’m more of a listener than a person to give my opinion. I do believe at some point, I’ll have no option, be it due to a nerve bing tweeked, or a comment i just can’t restrain myself from sharing. In the meantime, I’m gonna sit back, and enjoy what i find to be a extremely relevant, and fascinating Blog. Thanks Tracy, i love what you doing.

  14. Die kak wat jy kan praat is ongelooflik……just because things did not work out for you abroad, no doubt has much to do with your “eventual” positivity towards South African citizenship…lol

  15. Hello susan

    just came across your blog about returning to rsa and then read this one. A few things, i think you are a balanced person.
    i was tied up at gunpoint with my girlfriend in my house one sunday, an inside job, they stole lots of stuff. we packed and went to the uk, had to come back because of my business.
    i was sorry to come back, yet, i know this is a great place. we have problems but in my travels i have seen loads of problems elsewhere.
    dalai fucking lama….love it. that made my day.

  16. I am really glad to have discovered your blog. Good job. This particular entry resonates with me because I know what you’re talking about. The hardest part about accepting that everyone has a right to their own opinion and the right to express it (even when it’s at odds with your own) is that quite often they think your reticence to engage is permission for them to convince you of how wrong you really are.

    The one thing we need to remember though is that we are human too and even though we may have learned this particular wisdom we have our bad days and fragile moments and get sucked into a response (or war) before we know it. The point then is to stop as soon as you can and move on but always being kind to yourself (just from one dalai fucking lama to another :P)

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