Straddling the Fence

I just recently told someone that dating him wasn’t going to work out, and that he wasn’t able to give me what I needed.  Why?  Because he was incapable of conversing and answering questions in a clear, non-passive-aggressive way.  When I informed him of what he was doing, he told me that yes, he does have those problems… “But it’s possible that lots of people do that.  Well, maybe I don’t really have those problems even though I already said I did, and well, ok, MAYBE I do that, but maybe I don’t.  Maybe only sometimes.  I’ll try harder to do better, but you need to monitor how I’m speaking to you and tell me when I’m doing things wrong — even though I might maybe possibly perhaps sometimes deny that I’m doing anything.  And then it’s possible that I will change my mind again and admit to things just to get you to be quiet.” *throws self into the lashing sea* So, in light of this inspiration, I would like to talk about non-answers.  Akin to “non-apologies,” non-answers often are composed of an impressive amount of words, all of which are not really related to the situation or question at hand, or which give no actual information and often make no sense in context.  It’s like gibberish that still adheres to the rules of grammar and syntax.  It’s a method of purposeful, although likely subconscious obfuscation, so that the passive aggressor can “respond,” without actually giving an answer.  If you ask them to explain their answer, they can’t, and will continue to ride their delusional carousel around and around, whooping in faux delight, driving you closer and closer to a prescription for diazepam.  They’re presented in a number of different fashions, but my personal bane is the “middle of the road” response, which aims to cover any and all sides of an argument in one fell swoop.

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Why This Sucks:

Because you’re manipulating the other person.  You’re not trusting the other person to respond in a way that’s comfortable for you.  You might be worried that they will be offended or upset by your real opinion of something, or it might be a topic that you feel very strongly about, so you’re not prepared to handle any strong opposition to your stance.  Therefore, you’re trying to control their emotions and response by only giving perfectly neutral answers.  If you don’t give a definitive answer, they can’t take the opposing side.  Additionally, they can’t be angry with you, because you didn’t actually say anything.  This is a direct attempt to control the entire conversation, including anything the other person might want to say. “Do you think that there should be stricter regulation on unicorn hunting?” “Maybe.  I mean, we should try to preserve the unicorns, but they’re also a really important magical commodity.” …AND?  You just stated two sides of the argument.  You did not take one, nor did you explain any alternate opinion you might have.  You did not answer the question — you squeezed through the sliver of space in the middle to avoid confrontation. 

Because you are lying.  There’s a reason that lying by omission is considered a crime.  Not that you’ll be arrested for being passive aggressive, but that should give you a hint that it really is an issue, and it really is, in fact, lying, contrary to many defenses.  By not giving an answer, you’re not giving truthful information.  Yes, yes, I know: you’re not giving untruthful information either, but I can’t even describe to you how weak of an argument that is. You are hiding the truth behind a musty, heavy velvet curtain of insecurity and distrust, while expecting the other person to be completely honest about everything they say.  If you’re not secure enough in the situation to talk about your own thoughts and handle the situation well if someone disagrees…then what’s the point?  What are you even trying to do?  Are you just trying to gather information about that person, while concealing everything about yourself from them?  What a terrible way to build a solid relationship.

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Because you’re already blaming and judging the other person in your head — and we know it.  You’re fully prepared for someone to unleash a torrent of brimstone and rage at you for your opinion, when there’s likely no evidence that they’re going to do so.  By defending yourself from something that hasn’t happened yet, you’re indirectly, but by default, blaming the other person for what you think they might do.  People are not stupid, and can pick up on these cues very well.  You’re confused about why your partner is so upset when you’re “just having a conversation?”  It’s likely because you’re deploying an unspoken line of defense which stands ready to attack at any flinch or wiggle in the other person’s story.  You’re ready to be attacked and have drawn your sword, and in doing so, the other person feels they must follow suit, although they have no idea why they’re being threatened. Even if you have good reason to believe that the other person will attack you for your opinion or belief, it does not excuse being a passive aggressive coward.  You need to either speak up and tell them how you’re feeling, or leave.  If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation of this confusing defense-against-the-offense-that-doesn’t-exist business, you can read about a related issue here. If you’re not going to give people the courtesy of honest conversation, then you’re probably not ready to date.  If you’ve been hurt in the past by someone who belittled you, or if you’ve had a relationship which left you feeling smaller than you should, it’s understandable to take some time to build yourself back up.  What is not understandable or acceptable, is allowing yourself to stay small, and pretending as though other people are going to kick you for it.  It’s also important to note that passive aggression is considered to be emotional abuse — it’s not something to take lightly, as it can have crippling effects.  Learn to communicate respectfully, and honestly.  It’s not that hard.

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Earwigs and You: Personal Discovery through Metaphorical Dermaptera

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.

Don’t Want Yo’ Shit

Stop buying me stuff.  I don’t want your concert tickets, or some “stylish” piece of knitted cloth, or some piece of shiny metal with shinier rocks attached to it, or the latest tech gadgets that will be irrelevant in 6 months, or any other material object that does nothing for my SOUL.  Each time you offer me something or ask me what I want for Christmas, my heart breaks.  There is no value in these shallow offerings of tangible crap, and if you think I’ve been ignorant to your game, you are gravely mistaken.  The sad likelihood is that you don’t even notice or understand your own game, and will continue hunting for love and acceptance through something that lives in a bank account or was made in Taiwan.

You ask me what I want–the answer will always be, again and again, your time.  Don’t you dare get me something that fits in a box of specific dimension; I want your attention.  Your conversation, your eye contact, your engagement, and temporary, exclusive access to your Wernicke’s.

I realize that your “gifts” make it easy and painless to connect with another human being.  With a gift, the cognitive stress of listening and responding is eliminated.  With a gift, your most-important life remains basically unaltered, with the exception of the 9 minutes you wasted shopping online.  Gifts are a perfect, socially acceptable response to nearly every situation, so you can never be blamed for being inattentive.  They’re an ideal replacement for any messy apology, as well–you can mop up any indiscretion with the lick of an envelope or a click of the “Place Order” button on FTD.com.  If you’re feeling inadequate, a gift can easily express your message when words are too difficult to find.  Need a good distraction? A gift can easily divert from those silly little secrets in life that are best left unnoticed.

When it comes down to it, gifts are a lovely way to degrade and ignore someone.  When someone isn’t worth your time, effort, love or honesty: send a gift.  Send a teddy bear, or a card, or a check.  They come in all forms: everything from Tiffany’s boxes to “favors.”

But there’s another perk to gift-giving, isn’t there?  That heady element of control and obligation, the scot-free condescension, the unbridled power over those who are less wealthy.

I paid for dinner (you owe me).

Here, let me help you out of a bind (you owe me).

Surprise! I bought you that {item} you had your eye on (you owe me).

I support you financially (you owe me).

You somehow believe that gifts don’t always have to be free for the recipient, although you’ll never state the terms.  Maybe you’ll expect a direct payback, or perhaps you’ll just hold onto your emotional collateral for the future.  This method not only allows you an investment with high expected ROI whenever you wish it, but also allows for the immediate dismissal of the previously mentioned ignorance and degradation.  “How ungrateful! After everything I’ve done for you.”

Minimal effort to maintain relationships, the illusion of authority and a limitless Get Out Of Jail Free card? No wonder you’re so generous!

Call me an ingrate, call me ignorant, call me poor.  Call me benighted, call me ridiculous, call me rude.  Call me whatever you wish but know that without the depth and humanity of a real relationship, you will not continue to own the title of friend, companion, father, mother.  Your gifts do not excuse you from honest interaction.  Your gifts do not garner you automatic respect.  You gifts do not replace your presence in my life, and are unacceptable as such.