Earwigs. Pinchies. Forficula auricularia. Grey Matter Manglers. We all hate them, right? Those nasty, skittery insects with mammoth butt-pincers who seem intent on chasing you, and burrowing through to their new home in your corpus callosum by way of your ear canal. They are nasty, terrifying, and will now likely haunt your peripheral vision for a few days.
OMG, what’s that on your neck?! Just kidding.
What if I told you that you might be keeping these guys as pets? Not only that, but you may be dropping them into your ear yourself. Ok, so not literally, but you may be metaphorically allowing your head-pudding to be violated by subconscious earwig-like mental items. Not only will you freak people out and eventually lose all your friends, but your mind will become more and more infested with pinchy mofo’s who control your actions and your words. What in Hell’s blazes am I talking about, you ask? I’m talking about “just.”
Such a seemingly simple word, but along with his older brother, “only,” they are capable of destroying your relationships and your self-esteem. When used in a certain context, “just” and “only” create a castle, indomitable and fierce, from which you will launch volleys of flaming arrows at the people around you, and where you will sit comfortably “safe” on your Throne of Passive Aggression, with the glittering Crown of Self-Victimization digging deep grooves into your forehead.
“I was just trying to help.”
“I’m only trying to be honest.”
These words are far more complex than most realize, and are simultaneously offensive and defensive, which puts your conversation partner in an uncomfortable position. These words automatically assume and suggest that you are under attack, and that you must defend your position. They also wrongfully assume and suggest that whoever is speaking to you is the attacker, and is therefore the, “bad guy.” So both you and your conversation partner are forced into a position of trying to protect yourselves from insult and hurt (you by assuming the other person intends to hurt you, and he by trying to defend against the intangible label of, “assailant”), and making sure that your point is understood…without hurting the other person…while still communicating effectively…but not insultingly…
How does this destroy relationships? In reality, you (the Earwig Charmer) have positioned yourself to be mostly in control of the situation in a couple of ways:
1. You have attempted, and likely succeeded at making the other person feel guilty. For what, exactly? Nothing. You have made that person feel guilty for disagreeing, or giving you constructive criticism, or having an idea that differs from yours. By manipulating their emotions, you have created an environment in which you have restricted the actions and words they are comfortable using. Example:
Boss: “Hey, Team Member. I see you stacked the boxes of things over to the NNW. I think they would be more out of the way if we stacked them farther to the SSE.”
Team Member: “Oh, well I was just trying to unpack them as quickly as possible.”
You see, rather than just accepting direction from The Boss, our Team Member friend has already taken offense to the alternate suggestion, and assumes that The Boss is belittling him for his choice of location for the boxes of things. It’s oh-so-freaking-subtle, but that’s what makes this mindset so dangerous; people who make impersonal requests or comments manifest as nightmare marionettes within the passive-aggressor’s mind. Over time, if you use this tactic with the same person many times, they will eventually become frightened to speak to you, because every time they do they will feel horrible and wrongfully accused and under attack, and there’s nothing they can do to defend themselves.
2. Why can’t they defend themselves? Because you’ve already made yourself the victim. It sounds a little bass-ackwards, but self-victimization is a defense mechanism. Someone can’t hurt you if you’re already hurt. They can’t power-play over you because you’re already the victim. By degrading yourself and lowering your own self-esteem (putting imaginary earwigs in your own ear), you have tried to avoid more emotional damage by emotionally damaging yourself first. You have made yourself seem weak in an effort to control how much someone is capable of hurting you. The most difficult part about this entire situation is that we develop these passive aggressive defense mechanisms because we have been hurt before – so we hurt other people in order to avoid being hurt. By other people.
3. Although the underlying fodder is still emotional defense, “just” and “only” can also be used in a more malicious method. It can be used to degrade and invalidate another’s opinion or feeling with swift and crushing force.
Person: “I feel very angry that you got hammered at my birthday party and threw up on my bed.”
Other Person: “I was just trying to have fun.”
This power-grab insinuates that Person’s feelings of anger are less important than Other Person’s desire for and goal of having fun. It’s a sneaky, hurtful way to avoid responsibility for one’s actions, and will likely cause Person’s self-esteem to take a nose dive. Because language is so volatile and creative, Other Person could even change his response to displace even stronger blame, perhaps with something like, “I was just trying to celebrate with you.” This implies that not only is Other Person innocent, but Person is an ungrateful hack who does not appreciate the effort put into an event that was all for him. This is obviously an extreme example, and it should be mentioned that the most hurtful method of employing this evasive tactic comes in small, gradual doses over a long period of time. Almost imperceptible to most people, insinuation is the ninja of defense mechanisms. It slithers in through the attic of your soul and quietly peppers your confidence and self-worth with shuriken. The consistent invalidation of someone’s feelings, particularly in extremely small doses that are difficult to detect, can wreck souls.
Passive aggressive behavior is meant to punish and hurt the other people who may have hurt you in the past, or who may hurt you in the future (read: EVERYONE). That is its purpose and function, and yes, that is what you are doing. You are hurting people. They may be authority figures, they may be your parents, they may be people that you love and adore, or they may be total strangers, but by “just trying to protect yourself,” you are causing similar emotional damage to what someone once caused you.
I most often see instances of “just” and “only” in situations where no one is making jabs at anyone. They are innocuous circumstances that quickly become hostile via one party’s insecurity and inability to deal with pre-existing emotional baggage. Whether or not you have actually been insulted does not matter, there is never an excuse or an appropriate time for passive aggressive behavior. If you feel hurt, betrayed, disrespected, condescended, made fun of, wrongfully criticized, whatever, it is your responsibility to acknowledge those feelings and deal with them in a respectful, clear manner.
Now that I have a nosebleed from trying to explain this very important topic, here’s the bottom line: Getting hurt or offended sucks. But hurting yourself because you’re afraid of other people hurting and offending you, which hurts and offends other people is just as creepy and disgusting as earwigs.