How to Survive - and Change - Being Easily Offended
Taking Offense to Everything
In a society where cultural norms insist that we bend over backwards to try to not offend people, it's easily recognized that being offended is a real problem for many people. Is that offense warranted? Is it reasonable? Is there a right in American society to be protected from things that offend you? What are you offended by - and what can you do to stop it.
"No one has the right to not be offended. That right doesn't exist in any declaration I've ever read. If you're offended, it's your problem and frankly, lots of things offend lots of people" Salman Rushdie
While political correctness can keep extremist views from bubbling over into outright rudeness, there is a point where political correctness can go too far - and when individuals bear the responsibility for recognizing that if they're offended by something, they're choosing to be so. Ultimately, each individual has the power (and the responsibility) to evaluate why they're offended, determine whether or not taking offense to something is justified and to make the choice to either pursue the issue and try to work it out - or to simply let it go.
Are You Offended Too Easily?
While there is no concrete formula to determine how high your sensitivity levels may be, there are concrete ways to try to evaluate emotional reactions to something you see, read or experience. These simple questions can help you determine if you're over-sensitive to things and you may have a problem with being offended too easily.
- Do little things send you spiraling into anger?
- Have you been told that you require a lot of work to be around?
- Do you make big deals out of insignificant issues?
- Do people constantly have to be on their guard around you?
- Do you catch yourself taking things in ways that they were not originally meant?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you may be over-sensitive, and you may be taking offense to things that are unwarranted. Ultimately, the choice to be offended by something boils down to what it is - a choice. Unfortunately, however, the only person that you're hurting by being offended by things is you.
By consistently taking things the wrong way, taking offense to relatively insignificant statements, ideas or writings, you're isolating yourself from others and making life a lot more difficult than it needs to be. Recognizing the problem is the first step towards overcoming it, but that's where the hard work truly begins - and it all rests with you.
Before Getting Offended:
Ask yourself these simple questions:
1. Is the person criticizing me as a person, or criticizing an idea?
2. Is the person doing it to be offensive intentionally
3. Who is saying it? Is it a relative stranger, or is it someone I know and care about?
4. Why am I finding this offensive?
5. What do I hope to gain by being offended? At what cost?
Do you Think You are Easily Offended
It would be simple to just say that people need to stop taking things so personally and that they should "get over it". Unfortunately, things are rarely that simple - and retraining the way that you perceive and interact with others is a lot of hard work - hard work that many people simply are unwilling or unable to do. Great reward can come with lots of effort, but sometimes being offended by something is comfortable. It makes us feel like we're in the right, and everyone else is clearly less than us. It gives us a sense of superiority and puts us on a moral high ground where we can claim righteous indignation. Ultimately, however, this stance often backfires. People don't like to be around those that they feel they have to walk on eggshells around. No one wants to have to constantly think about what they're saying or how they say it to avoid angering the one person in their circle that seems to get angry at everything - even when making a joke. People who are too easily offended are often seen as "high maintenance" and they make socialization difficult for those around them. Often, this results in being excluded from things that they would otherwise enjoy. Being too easily offended drains not only the person, but everyone around them - and it's simply not an enjoyable way to live life. These steps can help you recognize why you feel offended, and what can be done to correct the way you perceive and process differing ideas that you may have been offended at before.
1. Decide Not to Be Offended:
Realistically speaking, this is much easier said than done, but sometimes it really is that easy. Try asking yourself why you're making such a big deal out of something that may be relatively insignificant. What do you hope to gain from being offended by it? How important is it in the long run to feel offended about it now? Did the person you're speaking to intentionally try to hurt or get a rise out of you? If that's unlikely, then why are you taking what they said so personally?
The bottom line is that everyone is just as entitled to an opinion as you are - even (often especially) when you disagree with them. This does not make them wrong or right automatically, but the same is true in reverse. If you feel comfortable sharing your opinions, even when controversial, shouldn't everyone have the same rights as you do?
Sometimes even minutely shifting our perspective can open our eyes to a world of possibilities, while shutting down and becoming offended by something minor can slam the door shut on mutual understanding and dialogue.
2. Assume the Best - Not the Worst:
It's difficult to gauge another person's intention. This is especially true when you don't know the person well, or the only chance you get to engage with them is relatively anonymously online. Until sufficiently proven, don't automatically assume the worst about someone just because they disagree with you or you butt heads on a particular topic. Choose to assume the best about them instead. Often things can come out in ways that we don't mean, and if someone is constantly jumping down our throats, it's difficult to open up in the future. A misspoken or misinterpreted message doesn't mean that the person is out to get you or hurt you - and you should never assume otherwise, unless irrefutable proof (not simply your opinion or assumption) has been provided. When reading something that someone has written, be willing to look past the actual words that were used to express the idea - and look at the idea itself. If it challenges an idea that you hold, so much the better. Beliefs cannot be offended - only people can.
3. Detach Yourself from the Situation while Remaining Present:
When people are unable to separate who they are from certain ideas that they hold, it's easy to see why people seem to jump to the worst-case scenario, assume the worst and become offended easily. Disagreeing with an idea or a belief does not mean that someone is intentionally rejecting you as a person. No idea or belief is above criticism or skepticism - especially when the other person does not have the same beliefs or ideas that you have. Your beliefs, however, do not define who you are as a person, and there is no need to feel personally insulted, rejected or ridiculed because your beliefs or thoughts are challenged. It's only through challenges to our cherished thoughts and ideas that growth and understanding can form, and if our beliefs are above being questioned or challenged, we risk stagnation. Separating the essence of who we are from what we believe about everything else is an essential part of surviving in an over-offended society and becoming a person that other people WANT to discuss things with.
This doesn't mean that we have to reject or dismiss our own ideas, beliefs and values. It means that we have to be willing to look at them the same way that the person we're conversing with does - even when they disagree. Being open to discussion makes us genuine people with a desire to understand others - and ourselves - better.
4. Be Humble:
It's easy to jump to a defensive position when something we hold dear is challenged - especially when we're already battling feeling offended by that challenge. The best way to deal with offense, however, is to be willing to examine our own words and actions. Is it possible that the person we're speaking to could have perceived something that we said as offensive? Is it possible that something we said WAS offensive, even if we didn't mean it that way? By willing to see the situation from the other person's point of view and acknowledge and admit our own faults, we practice humility and a willingness to accept responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. This demonstrates to others that we don't put ourselves on a pedestal, and that we're open to learning from our mistakes without lashing out at the person who may have pointed them out to us.
Additional Steps for Growth
While the initial steps may get us past the first hurdle, there is much more work to be done in the present - and in the future.
The first principle to understanding taking offense to innocuous statements and comments is to recognize that, while unpleasant, the world truly does not revolve around us. It is not, therefore, all about us. The world is made up of millions upon millions of people, and not everyone is going to agree with our positions, our beliefs or our statements - and that's okay. If we were all identical in everything, there would be nothing left to say to each other. It's our differences that not only make us unique, but also make us interesting. Recognizing that other people have points of view that are just as valid to them as ours are to us is a key step in learning to not take everything quite so personally - and to open our minds to other points of view.
It's often said in many cultures that to understand someone is to be willing to walk a mile in their shoes. Often the only necessary step to getting over something that initially offended us is to be willing to see things from a different perspective, and questioning whether or not our initial reaction was truly justified. If it was justified, then we can attempt to be open and honest about our feelings and express ourselves in a positive manner - not by lashing out and treating the other person just as badly as we feel they have treated us. If it wasn't justified, then it's time to do some introspective searching. Why did we react that way over something relatively minor? What can we do to keep that from happening going forward? Do we owe the other person an apology for the way we reacted to them? Is our reaction going to hinder positive conversation going forward?
It's often easy to lose sight of the fact that truth is ultimately more important than feeling that we were in the "right". It's not easy to recognize when we've treated someone poorly or misunderstood them to the point of lashing out at them. It's not easy to admit that we may have been wrong, either. However unpleasant, both of these steps are necessary for growing as a person, and becoming a person that other people enjoy interacting with - whether we agree on everything or not.
Most importantly, however, we need to recognize that we're not perfect - and no one else is either. We simply can't hold the rest of the world up to standards that we cannot maintain ourselves. Not only is attempting to do so unfair to the people that we encounter and interact with on a daily basis, but it's unfair to ourselves as well. We can't stack the deck, excuse our shortcomings while lambasting others for failing to live up to our expectations - especially when there's no possible way that they know of our expectations before-hand.
No matter what we say or do, someone is likely to be offended by it. The trick to living in an easily offended culture is to recognize that our self-worth is not measured by the opinions of others - especially strangers - and to be true to the person that we desire to be, imperfections at all. It's simply not possible to avoid offending everyone all the time. But we can certainly do our best to not be one of "those" people who seems to take offense no matter what is said or done, and despite how people do their best to avoid offending us. While each of us as individuals cannot hope to change the world, we can change our small part of it, refusing to be part of the problem and becoming a part of the solution, instead.
© 2014 Julie McFarland