Do you have soft skin? How not to take offence

I have a daughter who breaks out in welts whenever she’s bitten by a mosquito: not good in our climate! But I know more people who have soft skin of a different kind; they break out in offence at the slightest occasion. My question for us today: Is your skin so soft you spend your life suffering unnecessary pain because you’re easily offended?

Not taking offence easily is somewhat of an art. I’d claim it’s also part of being an adult and having emotional resilience. Abraham Lincoln said,

We should be too big to take offence and too noble to give it.”

I’m with him. But how do we toughen up the outside whilst nurturing a kind heart? Perhaps it’d pay to consider some of the issues around being offended:

What does offence look like?

You’re probably telling yourself this isn’t such an issue for you. Before you check out, ask yourself if you’ve ever exploded over little things such as being cut off in traffic, stewed over what someone’s said about you, or suddenly discovered you’ve taken things the wrong way. Do people ever have to tiptoe round you, or are you always telling stories about someone who’s wronged you? Do you run a catalogue of ways others have failed you in inside your head? These are all examples of sensitivity to offence. Sure, you may not scream at someone til you’re blue in the face, but an amber light should be flashing in your brain all the same.

Why do we get offended?

In a world obsessed with an individual’s worth, too many people focus entirely on themselves: what they want, what they’re feeling, what’s going on in their world. Just like a young child, if they want something they yell loudly and hope a benevolent ‘other’ will turn up and make them feel better. That’d be fine, only everyone desires exactly the same thing. We’d ALL like people to forget about their own wants and needs and focus on meeting ours.

It’s not healthy. We’re supposed to move from helpless baby (when crying’s ok cos we have no other skills!) to functional adult, learning the skills of coping and contributing along the way. Part of maturity’s getting to a point we realise this truth and acknowledge the world’s not going to rotate around us – even though we wish it would. We won’t always get everything we’d like, we sometimes won’t come first, and if we want attention we’re going to have to give it out regularly too.

Offence is often taken when we forget that truth. With millions of adults bumping shoulders across our country (let’s forget about the kids for a moment), we should expect to be offended! Yes, you read that right! The only way to stand against that is to teach yourself to apply these truths:

It’s not personal!

I can’t count the number of times people have assumed that the boss taking credit, the fellow employee telling a little white lie, the (former) friend breaking a promise… was a personal attack against them. “He was trying to make me look bad; she was getting me back!!” No no no! In the overwhelming majority of circumstances, it’s simply not true. The other wasn’t plotting evil – it likely wasn’t even deliberate. They were simply operating within their personal little world of self-importance and you were unwittingly caught up in their efforts! The humor in this is that we can’t see from their shoes because we’re too busy operating from our own self-centered viewpoint.

People do all kinds of things to us, or fail to, because they’re caught up in their own life. Maybe they’re tired, maybe someone else made them cross, perhaps they simply have too many things on their plate. So they don’t show up, they bend the truth, they take an easy but less honest option. Before you argue that they shouldn’t, remind yourself that you do this too. You’re both the victim (in your story) and the perpetrator in the other’s! Welcome to the world of less than perfect humans.

It’s not reactionary!

The second idea to wrap our heads round is we shouldn’t be only reactionary.

When something you’re not expecting happens, you react. You jump, you scream, you run. There’s nothing you can do about this: it’s hardwired in. Our bodies are designed to send strong signals to our brains to help us cope and stay alive. The problem’s that, in a hurry to get information to you, the initial message’s oversimplified. Counterbalancing details are dropped in favour of keeping you safe.

This does not, unfortunately, mean you get to abdicate responsibility for your behaviour. That first reaction’s over in less than a second. You should then be able to add critical thinking to your processing pretty quickly. What extra factors do you need to take into consideration before you permanently decide you’ve been harmed and take offence?

What tends to happen’s that we stay with the initial strong, bad feelings. We refuse to learn to look for alternative evidence or move on, and keep drumming up that initial story and those negative emotions over and over (and over again!). By implication we lock out ways of feeling better and hold onto the offence instead. Great if you like feeling angry and miserable, not so helpful otherwise.

Learning to live off a response – something you’ve thought through and made a decision to move on from – rather than a reaction, is the way to mental health as well as maturity. Yes, it’s a higher order ability – but don’t you want to be smart?

How do we get beyond offence?

Toughening our skin up is a matter of incorporating the above two truths into our lives. Try saying, “It wasn’t personal” three times in a row as soon as you realise you’re feeling offended. (Or, “It probably wasn’t personal” if you can’t bring yourself to speak the first wording.) You could then offer yourself a ‘get out of jail free from pain’ card by choosing to never think about what happened again, should you choose.

If you can’t just let the offence go, the next thing to practice is taking control of the thoughts in your brain. Have a few deep breaths and consider what potential other interpretations could be given about what exactly happened. My kids are good at doing this for me when we’re driving, as I’m a little more impatient than they like in that context! Perhaps you could ask someone close for help? Note, you don’t have to believe all these possible other ways of explaining the situation – simply naming some seems to tone the response down. Then, remind yourself that both you and they are human and therefore imperfect.

Finally, stop telling yourself the story over and over. Choose to show grace and leave the thing behind. You’ve got better things to do than feel miserable or be grumpy! If (when!) you find yourself brooding about the incident again, rinse and repeat the above steps. Make a point to stop inflicting your tale on others, too! The more you repeat something the more it sticks in your brain, and you’re surely not making a positive impression on your hearers anyway. Just let it be.

If you practice these three actions, you’ll find that not only is your skin in better condition, but so is life! Of course, there is a line where offence turns into injustice, and we need to stand up against that. But checking our personal perspective against the likely one of the offender would stop a lot of hurt and harm, and leave us all in a better space.