The other day when I was running, I made a huge mistake in the middle of a busy intersection. It was completely my fault. I was ending an exhausting run that was having a negative impact on my cognitive functioning: in short; I was totally out of it. I got to an intersection, all I saw was green, and I sprinted forward. Cars all honked, and from behind, I heard a man’s voice yell, “ASSHOLE!!!!!” He and all the honking cars were long gone by the time I realized that the green light was an arrow for those honking cars to turn left, and that I had sprinted right into their path. I understood why everyone was so mad, and had I been able to, I would have apologized and moved on.
As I ran on, I thought about that man who hollered “asshole.” He was understandably angry; I don’t blame him for feeling angry. He had no way of knowing that I made a mistake and that I was sorry. He’s probably had a collection of unpleasant car versus runner experiences. Maybe he has a boss who treats him poorly, and he felt more comfortable taking his pent up rage out on an anonymous person. Things were moving fast, he reacted. He would have had another expletive for me if he’d realized I was a woman. Calling me an “asshole” might have released a bit of his frustration, but I doubt that it gave him any long-term relief from his feelings of anger. Here’s why:
Name-calling is a bypass for the ownership and real-time experiencing of feelings like anger, rage, frustration, and helplessness. It’s like the game of hot potato: one person’s actions trigger feelings of anger in another. Rather than hold and experience that anger, that person hurls the potato in the form of words like “bitch,” “stupid,” “asshole,” and so on. The recipient of the name-calling reacts angrily to being called those names and throws the hot potato right back but with some extra fire added to it. It doesn’t take long before the entire interaction is no longer about the original offense, and everyone is enraged. The person who was angry in the first place has guaranteed that they will never get any sort of apology from the person who offended them in the first place. In fact, they might feel justified because this person, instead of apologizing reacted in a way that a “bitch” or “asshole” would. Now, two people are angry instead of one, no one has owned up to or apologized for the original offense, and no action has been taken to enact any sort of change.
If you feel the urge to call someone a name, whether directly or in a Facebook conversation about, say, a politician, take a moment to own and feel your anger. Notice any desire you have to throw that anger at someone else, notice just how uncomfortable you are with the feeling of anger. Get to know what it feels like in your body. Instead of hurling the word “stupid,” “bitch” or “asshole,” acknowledge the fact that you are angry. Allow yourself to be angry. Tell yourself, “I feel angry.” And then, instead of hurling an insult at whoever has offended you, say to them, “I feel angry.” Tell that person why you are angry. It can sound like this: “When you cut me off just now, I felt angry,” or “I am angry at this politician that you like because I feel like he/she is not taking my values into consideration,” or “I am angry because you didn’t show up when you said you would.” This might be awkward at first, but the odds of a reasonable conversation and even an apology are greatly increased when you resist name-calling.
If you are on the receiving end of name-calling, you do not have to take the bait and engage in the kind of fight that you’ve been invited to engage in. Let’s say someone calls you a bitch or an asshole. You can acknowledge that person’s anger and invite them to have a civil conversation. It might sound like this: “I can see that you are feeling angry with me, and I can accept that, but I am not okay with you calling me names. If you would like to continue to have this conversation, please do so without the name-calling, or I will have to end this.” Be willing to walk away if the person cannot respect this request.
There is nothing wrong with anger, and there is nothing wrong with feeling anger. Anger has a job: it moves you to action so that you can change a painful situation. Throwing it at people by name-calling, whether anonymously in a passing car or comment thread, or in person, only increases the anger exponentially while keeping you stuck in the same situation. When you resist the urge to name-call, you make space for anger to do its powerful job.