A follower at Flourishing Life Society, for unknown reasons, attacked my character, with severe, unsubstantiated judgments, drawing ridiculous conclusions from scanty evidence. Perhaps, they thought I was someone else. I expect a few hate-mails; it’s the nature of the social media beast. While her cutting remarks didn’t feel pleasant, although slightly vexing, they exposed more about the attacker than the receiver, in this case—me. What is it in our nature that inspires meanness? Why do we attack with viciousness with the intent to hurt, when history shows that such attacks seldom invite resolutions? Do we prefer to destroy rather than mend?
Personal attacks are typically met with a driving affect to retaliate. We want to protect with ferocity. Meanness driven by our intent to hurt, protects against danger, we puff our chest, expose our strength and hide our weakness. Most mean Facebook messages, even ones decorated with colorful threats, are simply relieving tension and pose no real danger. Our emotions, though, aren’t always adept at identifying real danger. They receive the threat and pull the alarm, calling for action.
Mindfulness and Intentions to Hurt
Mindfulness is a handy tool to invite to these moments. Once emotions settle, we can examine the incident from a more dispassionate position. An aggressive-attacking response can be studied in a general context rather than through the distorted lens of hurt.
The aggressive attack is an ugly approach to conflict, commonly used to intimidate; the brut may get his way but draws energy from the developing relationship; knocking down others, magnifying their insufficiency satisfies a driving need for power. By recognizing this harmful adaptation to need fulfillment, we can eliminate it from our communications and limit time with those prone to this madness.
“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.”~Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Powerful digs, striking at the character of others, does little to strengthen the attacker’s long-term security. The hurts continue to accumulate. Others self-protect while collecting an accumulating pile of resentments.
Painful attacks damage bonds. Repeatedly inflicting pain leaves deep scars, building barriers to trust and inviting thoughts and plans to escape the drama for an alternative other. If our goal is intimacy, painful attacks have no place. They hurt, they separate, and they destroy. These unhealthy barbs of manipulation frustrate intentions for emotional security. Mean spirited attacks exact a high cost on relationships; we must identify these behaviors, eliminate them, and learn to constructively express hurts.
The Need to Belong and Hurtful Behaviors
Healthy relationships are a basic ingredient for well-being; they provide security. Internal urges drive the need to belong. When attachment is threatened, we feel strong emotions. Disagreements, jealousies, or unloving acts scare us. We respond to protect—not connect.
When emotionally alert, we interpret experience through distorted and magnifying power of feeling. While afraid, we suspect ulterior motives; normal words take on sinister meanings. We respond with strength to match the power of our brightly colored interpretations. Whether emotions are stimulated by faulty perceptions or real threats, the fear demanding attention is the same.
We hate feeling pain. The hurt, whether physical or emotional, jolts the system to life, seeking an effective response. Even when experiencing subtle and unintended hurt, we respond. A punch, a gesture, or even a facial expression may trigger emotion—discomfort. A strong defense, retaliatory attack may be appropriate, protecting boundaries and chasing off unwarranted abuse; but many reactions drag us further from intended purposes, damaging important relationships, failing to resolve the source of the hurt.
“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”~Albert Schweitzer
Identifying our discomfort early during emotional exchanges offers the opportunity to intelligently intervene, rather than blindly act; once overwhelmed, we are incapable of redirecting hurtful responses, left to deal with the ashes of destruction the next morning.
Mindfully engaging the emotional flow of a conversation, we can observe the feelings in the soul, capture the protective drive to scream, punch, or devalue before the action materializes from intent to accomplished. Once we acknowledge the intent to hurt, we can slow down, regain composure and invite creative kinder resolutions.
In arousal, we strike back. John Gottman, a modern leader in relationship studies, identified four common destructive responses; he calls these responses the four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (2011). Do you see these nasties early or do you justify hurt caused and regret them later? Wrapped up in Gottman’s four horsemen is the unconscious intent to hurt.
We Must Stop Communications That have the Intent to Hurt
We must protect our relationships from the destructive intent to hurt, stop them early before goodness is trampled in their wake. Gottman’s four horsemen fail to achieve our purposes. They protect the ego while destroying the connection.
We must get our brain into the interaction, stepping back, calming the physiological symptoms with a top down approach. Once our system has settled, we can address issues using long-term goals as the guide. Fashioning relationships with the wisdom of John Gottman instead of the example of the likes of John Gotti.
Mindfulness will prevent much hurt, make discussions less stressful, and lead to greater intimacy. We still must contend with emotions, whether an obnoxious social media troll or a dearly loved partner. As we skillfully learn the art of connection, these moments will lose their power, we will feel first, but then examine the source, and respond with compassion, kindness or power as seen appropriate.
Gottman, John M. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.