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If you think back to a psychology class in college, or maybe you just enjoy reading widely, you may remember coming across experiments where monkeys were treated unfairly. In a typical experiment, two monkeys would perform identical tasks and then be rewarded. However, the reward would differ. One would get a slice of cucumber. The other would get a grape. Capuchin monkeys, in this particular experiment, are especially fond of grapes and don’t have much use for cucumbers.
What do you think the result of the experiment was? The “grape monkey” was happy as could be. The “cucumber monkey?” Not so much. In fact, the cucumber monkey was soon throwing the slices of cucumbers back at the experimenter.
The point of this example is that we, like our primate relatives, seem to be hard-wired with a sense of fairness. Oddly enough, this has direct bearing on our own behavior in a seemingly unrelated situation — the times when you (or someone you know) are quick to take offense at something that is pretty meaningless.
Writing for Psychology Today, Leon F. Seltzer, PhD. Says “Similar to anger, the reaction of taking offense to what another has said or done is a decidedly moralistic emotion. In essence, it’s all about your feeling treated unfairly. If there’s a single common denominator in taking umbrage with another, it’s that, however implicitly, you perceive yourself as having been evaluated or dealt with unjustly. Another individual has been inconsiderate of you — rude, aggressive, bullying, condescending, or downright shaming. And to you, that’s undeserved — or ‘just not right!’ ”
As the example we opened with shows, your reaction stems from a couple of million years of evolution. That’s something you don’t counteract without some conscious awareness and effort. The issue is made even more complicated because your reaction may very well be based on unresolved issues from childhood. Seltzer offers a key insight, saying “As often as not, when you react strongly to what others might regard as a relatively minor affront, it’s because it’s unconsciously reminding you of a yet-unresolved disturbing, or even traumatic event you experienced when you were much younger. So, as disproportionate as others may regard your reaction, surprised or alarmed at how short your fuse is, it won’t at all feel that way to you. For your (presumed) exaggerated reaction tapped into what from your past remains charged for you. After all, that’s what ‘magnified’ your response.”
If you find yourself reacting — or over-reacting — to a comment, then you may want to mull over Seltzer’s 10 suggestions for overcoming your hypersensitivity.
- Suspend judgment about the other person’s malignant intent.
- Before getting (irrationally) carried away with derogatory conclusions, ask yourself whether your immediate reaction is possibly inflated.
- Unless the other person has clearly insulted, discriminated against, or wronged you in the past—or, for that matter, talked negatively about you to others—give them the benefit of the doubt.
- If another definitely criticized you, ask yourself whether their negative assessment can best be seen as constructive.
- Consider that your reactivity may be closely tied to your self-absorption.
- Take a deep breath, relax, and emotionally detach from the felt provocation.
- Learn to meditate—or cultivate a deep calming technique such as abdominal breathing, visualization, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, body scan and progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, and so on.
- Ask yourself whether you may have been the first offender.
- Catch yourself looking for things that could offend you.
- Lower your expectations of others—and yourself, too.
These suggestions are complex and nuanced. Read Seltzer’s full discussion of the subject here.