The Intent to Hurt
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2015
When threatened, the energy flowing through our system demands action. Often we retaliate with bitterness, spewing venom, ruining the things we cherish.
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 cutting her remarks didn't feel pleasant, hate-mail—the mean unjustified attacks—although slightly vexing, 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 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 projects against danger, we puff our chest, expose our strength and hide our weakness. Most mean Facebook messages, even one decorated with colorful threats, is simply the relieving of tension and no true danger exists. Emotions, though, aren’t so smart. They receive the threat and pull the alarm, calling for action.
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. 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 over long relationships, leaves deep scars, and builds barriers to trust and plants seeds of hope of an eventual escape for someone better. 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.
Healthy relationships are a basic ingredient for well-being; they provide security. 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.
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 acknowledged, we can slow down, regain composure and invite creative 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. Do you see these nasties early or do you justify or regret them later?
We must protect our relationships from these destructive behaviors, 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. Our 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.