Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Pleaser's Guide to Pissing People Off


It happened. You went and pissed someone off.

He may or may not think that you're a selfish, egotistical jerk. She may or may not think that you're a rude, thoughtless dolt. Oh, this person may or may not be thinking it, all right.

Despite this, I am reasonably certain that I can assure you all or most of the following: you will not be stabbed in the shower; squirrels and children alike will not heckle you as soon as you step outdoors; your heart will not rot from within because of your irredeemable vileness; the sun will not shrivel and dissolve into a sticky, boiling sludge because of all the international venom directed at you; there is no life-sized voodoo doll of your person with giant pins stuck all over it; your entire town will probably not turn their backs upon you in one collective, community-wide snub. If you are someone who likes to please, and those of us homo sapiens who are not sociopathic narcissists have this survival instinct to a greater or lesser extent, it can feel pretty cataclysmic sometimes when you know you've pissed someone off. Depending on the sort of home you grew up in, you might think that you can control the outcome of situations if only you avoid stepping on any toes. Don't talk to Mom before she's has her first cup of coffee; don't mumble around Dad. The problem is that you can't control most outcomes and in life, toes will be trod upon, intentionally and inadvertently. Sometimes the right thing to do is apologize. Sometimes, though, you will be expected to even if you didn't do anything wrong. Or you did do something "wrong" but it wasn't really wrong because it was was well-intentioned, honest or unavoidable. This guide is for those times.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assert that it's kind of good that you want to please. Kindness and sensitivity are good qualities. At the very least, society would be pretty unpleasant to live in if we all just lived by our own whims. You may have noticed something about those who don't care about pleasing others: they can be very unlikeable. This is the sort of person who lacks empathy and compassion, who, if you were to say, "Hmm, you know, it rather hurts me when you try to run me over with your car," would say, "Really? Too bad because I enjoyed that and so I'm going to continue," as he gleefully puts the car in reverse to plow you over from a different direction. Not literally but figuratively. You are not this kind of person, despite the fact that someone might currently be pissed at you. The person who is pissed at you might make you feel like you tried to run him over with your car because, frankly, it might feel that way to him. You didn't. (Right? If you did, go loiter somewhere else.) What's an emotionally thin-skinned person to do when your natural instinct is to throw yourself on the ground and beg for forgiveness?

Give yourself a time-out

Take a moment. Let the feeling wash over you. The fear in the pit of your stomach, the jitteriness. You're scared of it? I understand. Still, sit with it without judgment. Give it a name: scared, nervous, rejected. The feeling gets worse if you try to ignore it or push it away. Feel it and release it. The reality of the situation is that it's not so awful, right? No rhinoceros is chasing you with steam coming out of his flared nostrils. You're likely feeling fear; the problem pleasers have is that of proportion. We take pissing people off to be much more monumental than it probably needs to be. So take a time-out before you respond.

Keep things in perspective

Was what you did really that bad? Was it intentionally hurtful? If it was, did it need to be said or done? Is it the end of the world? Remember that rhinoceros from above? I read something from a Buddhist monk once where he said that the height of suffering and pain is self-absorption. This is to say that when you lack perspective and connection, everything is life or death. We're uncentered. The fact of the matter is that the world keeps spinning. The sun rises and sets every day, even if your friend Nancy has been distant and the librarian gave you a dirty look for some inexplicable reason. Life goes on. Your monkey mind will chatter all kinds of nonsense into your ears if you let it. Instead, breathe in, breathe out...

Act as-if


Think of the most carefree person you know, the one who seems to skip everywhere she goes, is quick to laugh, lives with an infectious joie de vivre. Let's call her Didi. Imitate her. When you have pissed someone off and it's not really your fault but your stomach still hurts and your throat is all dry, imitate Didi. What does it feel like inside to be Didi? Kind of awesome, right? Even if it is all an illusion, even if Didi is hopped up on happy pills and punches her pillows at night, imitate the illusion.

Talk it out


Call a neutral friend, one who is supportive of you but also honest. Ask if you could have a little bit of her time while you talk through an issue with her. If she's a real friend, she'll be honored that you care about her opinion. Try to present the situation with fairness and as much honesty as you can muster. Chances are, you'll feel at least 63 times better after talking to a friend. You'll have perspective; your burden will be lighter.

Be gentle with yourself

The pleaser's natural impulse often is to add to the pile-on. "He's right! I am a no good, self-centered loudmouth. He forgot to add that I am also impatient and worthless. Let me add that to the list." Somehow we have the notion that beating ourselves up is necessary, even purifying. It's not. It's just adding an extra coat of pain that you don't need. Why not turn that desire to please inward a little? Be gentle and kind to yourself. Don't accept meanness, least of all from yourself. Give yourself an extra iced tea, take a walk after dinner, go to the beach. A little gentleness goes a long way.

Write it out

Writing out your feelings can be very cathartic. Allow yourself to write without editing, without your inner-critic. Just write it out, warts and all, and tear it up or burn it. Imagine your worries dissolving as the paper disappears.

Do not apologize!


If you have clarity that you did nothing wrong, please don't apologize. Even if you're just apologizing to get someone off your back, it causes harm to your self-esteem (and gives a bully a sense of victory) if you apologize for something you didn't do wrong. It sucks to say, "I'm sorry you feel that way," but sometimes that's the best you can do. Apologizing when you didn't do anything wrong is like apologizing for existing. Be kind, be compassionate, but don't do it!

Ask questions and learn

Is there something to take away from the experience? Are you gravitating toward people who demand apologies a lot? Are you someone who miscommunicates a lot and creates misunderstandings? What could you have done different? What could you do different in the future? Calm your mind and see what emerges.

To sum up: if you did something wrong, apologize, If you didn't, don't. In any case, the world will keep spinning, gravity will still be in effect, and no angry mob is likely going to chase you out of town with flaming sticks.

It's time to move on.

5 comments:

Vanilla Rose said...

Thank you.

Laloofah said...

Marla, I hope it will please you to know that I enjoyed this very much! :-)

I especially liked the insight of the Buddhist monk you shared in the "keep things in perspective" paragraph. I agree that we would all benefit by being more mindful about doing what we can to make each day more pleasant for our fellow beings ~ without letting it become a neurotic and ineffectual need to please.

Thank you for another thought-provoking post that's also a lovely reminder. :-)

Jessica said...

Thank you for this. It's been a rough week, and easier than usual to let things spin out of proportion for me. Between reading this, lots of deep breathing and tonight's therapy session, I hope to enter the long holiday weekend with a lot more perspective and oodles of cathartic writing.

Again, thank you.

Marla said...

You're welcome, Vanilla Rose.

Thanks, Laloo. Well said. When I think about the people I know who are the most unhappy, they are the same people who spend too much time dwelling on their personal tribulations and blowing them out of proportion. I've been there myself, certainly. Stepping outside of yourself and gaining perspective is a breath of fresh air.

Thank you, Jessica. I wrote it because I was struggling with having pissed someone (well, some people) off for having opinions that offended them. Doing inner-work, I could see that my position was justifiable and I wasn't personally attacking (unlike them). It is uncomfortable to anger others but sometimes it's necessary. I'm learning to have a thicker skin. It's a process...Here's to productive cathartic work!

Rhea Parsons Riker said...

Wow, I really needed to read that right now. Thank you for this.