Hostility is not “FINE!” but it's real.
Hostility is not “FINE!”
by Cathryn Bond Doyle
How many times have we said,” FINE!” (with or without a smile) to end a conversation, when we actually felt things were far from OK? How many times have we snapped at an innocent person, child or pet just because we felt angry even though we know they did nothing to deserve our wrath? How many of us have had waiters or sales people be “short-tempered” with us in the process of trying to handle their duties only to find ourselves being “short” right back at them? These are acts of emotional hostility. We’ve all felt hostility and we’ve all been affected by the hurtful impact of hostility directed at us.
Hostility is a form of anger that intends to hurt others. This anger is generated from painful feelings that are denied and then turned into angry feelings. It can feel too scary to be in pain. Many of us feel safer and even more powerful being angry. When we weave our pain into anger we create a supply of hateful energy. This hostility gets stored up in our emotional storage tank. We each have the ability to hold varying amounts of this toxic form of anger and unless we consciously process the feelings of pain and anger we will leak or spew hostility in our daily interactions with others. The purpose of this article is to give you information so you can recognize, unravel and help yourself when hostility surfaces in you AND to give you the insights and skills to help you break the domino effect of hostility whenever it comes at you from others.
One day, in 1994, shortly after I first learned about the dynamics of hostility, I had an experience that showed me how I “do” hostility and made me see how hurtful I could be to those I loved. It was a jolt to “own” my behavior but then again awareness is the first step for change.
Here's what happened: I was running late for the airport and I realized, as my three cats looked up at me, that I had promised them I would brush them before I left. (You non-cat lovers will just have to bear with me.) Well, they looked at me the way cats do and I said, “Ok guys but just for a few minutes.” I got the brush, knelt down and after a few fast and furious strokes; Claire (my cat) pulled away from me and looked up at me like, ”Hey! That hurts!” I realized that while I was brushing her, I was feeling impatient and annoyed that I HAD to do this and that my brush strokes were anything but gentle and loving. She just wanted my attention. In that one moment I got it!
In that one moment I realized that my hostility was leaking out onto her and that although I was going through the motions of brushing her, I was actually hurting her. It was a moment of acute awareness and as a result, I promised myself that I would pay attention to acts of hostility so I could stop it in myself and do my best to stop the chain of hostility as it came at me from others.
What does hostility look like for you?
Hostility has many forms. Here are just a few examples:
1. Saying “FINE!” when things are not fine.
2. Using a harsh tone of voice, being impatient or being rude.
3. Giving obvious or covert dirty looks making angry feelings known without using words.
4. Using the silent treatment to convey unhappiness.
5. Being sarcastic or facetiously happy when not really happy.
6. Passive aggressive behavior. (Examples: not doing or forgetting something and then acting innocent about it.)
7. Being picky, critical or complaining about little things but refusing to tell someone what is really upsetting you.
8. Drudging up events from the past to justify crankiness in the present.
9 Keeping a ledger of someone’s past offenses to use it against them as needed.(See article about ledger-keeping for more about this common survival tactic.)
10. Responding to the “What’s wrong?” question by saying, ”Nothing!” when it’s clearly something.
11. Withholding affection and/or approval from friends and loved ones.
In this article, I am speaking of everyday verbal and non-verbal behaviors. However hostility can escalate to the level of emotional, verbal and physical abuse. If you are being abused or are abusing those you love, please seek counseling. There is NO excuse, EVER for domestic violence.
Why do we do it?
There are generally two key reasons we are hostile to each other. We are either leaking hostility from our storage tanks or we are producing it by numbing the pain and anger that we are feeling about something else going on in our lives. The good news is that as we pay attention to how we are feeling when we are angry, we can become aware of hostility and stop it right in it’s track. It’s clearly a choice. Do we want to have negative impact or not? Do we give in to the urge to lash out OR do we recognize this feeling and pause long enough to figure out what we’re really feeling? The decision to untangle our angry feelings, process our pain and release them in healthy ways is a growth choice that can change our life in very positive ways.
Hostility hurts relationships
Why do we want to put the effort into freeing ourselves from hostility? And what about when people are hostile to us? Whether we are the giver or receiver of hostile acts, this toxic energy has a negative impact on our relationships and our own sense of well-being. Recognizing the big and small ways hostility hurts us will hopefully motivate you to learn a new approach. Remember, people change for two reasons: to seek pleasure and/or to avoid pain. In this case we have both motivations leading us to make a change in our behavior.
Hostility can have the following impact on relationships:
1. Hurts people’s feelings.
2. Shuts down communications between people. People close their hearts.
Pushes people away. (This distancing strategy is how some people create emotional safety. It’s sad but very common.)
3. Attempts to manipulate people and threaten future punishment. It can be a form of emotional terrorism.
4. Creates more confusion, less understanding and reduces intimacy between people.
5. Leaves people feeling wounded, damages trust and future closeness.
6. Gives the impression that we are mean, thoughtless, impatient and/or uncaring people. (Which is of course not true, but speaks to the depth of pain we must be feeling to behave this way.)
7. Teaches people to “brace themselves” or shutdown to protect themselves in fear of more hostility.
We are all susceptible to feeling hostility when we are tired, impatient, in physical pain, feeling overwhelmed, not asking for help when we need it and/or when, for whatever reason, we are NOT telling people what is really upsetting us. If we find ourselves feeling negative and judging others and ourselves as bad or wrong, hostility is pretty tempting as a way to release the emotional tension that we have stored up or are actively producing. If we want to end these feelings, we need to be vigilant about being aware of, and expressing, our feelings. As I say so often to my clients, it’s the unspoken feelings that cause so much stress in our relationships.
What can we do to NOT be hostile?
The next time you find yourself feeling that angry urge to lash out, stop everything and ask yourself these three questions:
1. ”What am I REALLY angry about?”
2. “What’s happened that’s hurt my feelings or caused me pain?”
3. “What do I need to do to take care of myself, right now?”
When we stop to ask these questions, our caring nature will usually return immediately. Sometimes that’s all it takes to snap us out of this annoyed state of mind. If the issue is bigger, hopefully we’ll be compassionate and patient as we tell ourselves the truth about our feelings. It’s amazing what will come up when we look at our feelings with this intention.
Sometimes we’re just exhausted or are in physical pain and need to get some rest and/or stop pushing ourselves. Sometimes we realize that someone did something that hurt our feelings (intentionally or accidentally) and we just need to tell them how we feel with the expectation that they will care enough about us to apologize and behave differently in the future. IF we are in a relationship where we can’t speak freely or can’t expect them to listen and apologize then we are even more likely to try to get even or Spew with hostile actions and energy towards that person. It's completely understandable but not very healing for the relationship. Sometimes we need to stop taking things personally and comfort ourselves, especially when the hostility comes from a stranger.
Sometimes we are carrying pain from the past and giving this pain voice can be very scary. As we allow this pain to surface, we will realize that being angry with others is not helping us heal the pain, it’s just distracting us, hardening our hearts and causing more pain for others. This is understandable so we don’t need to judge ourselves; we need to help ourselves.
Supporting ourselves can range from:
Getting a hug from someone we love.
Taking a nap.
Holding a major “pow wow” to clear up a disagreement.
Seeking grief counseling for a tragedy that we carry in our hearts.
Creating private time to unwind.
Whatever we need to do to take care of ourselves will become clearer once we untangle the feelings.
What about when someone is hostile to me?
Fortunately this is a much easier and quicker process. Just understanding that people are hostile because they have experienced some kind of physical or emotional pain was enough for me to stop taking their behavior personally. I’ve noticed it’s easier to be patient with someone knowing they are reacting out of pain. The next time someone leaks a little hostility on you, look him or her in the eye and say something that honors his or her struggle or pain.
Here are a couple of fast-acting suggestions:
1. If a stranger is short-tempered or rude to you, say in your most caring voice, “Boy, it looks like you’re having a tough day.” Watch them soften and instantly shift their behavior. They may begin telling you their story because they are so starved for an act of kindness.
2. If a loved one snaps at you say, “Ouch! What’s going on?” By using genuine humor, staying loving and not taking their actions personally-they’ll eventually get the point. That’s the moment you can offer to help them.
3. If someone you know begins picking at you and going for, what I call “the Negative Ned or Nellie” Award. Stop what you are doing, look at them with as much love as you can muster and say, “Hey, what’s going on?” This question is much more powerful than, “What’s wrong with you?” because being wrong is a very charged feeling for many people. If they are already in pain and angry, they aren’t likely to make themselves more vulnerable by answering you in terms of what’s wrong with them.
Please remember you are about to break some old patterns. It isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being conscious and responsible. If you find you’ve been hostile to someone, stop immediately (mid-sentence if you can) and say something like, “Hey, I’m sorry, you didn’t deserve that. I’m just feeling a bit…” you fill in the rest and be willing to have a more detailed conversation about how you’re feeling, if that’s appropriate. This is a very respectful way to be responsible for our impact on both children and adults.
Just making the decision to stop our hostility with others and end hostility ping-pong with strangers can bring us an immediate sense of joy. It’s the joy that comes from self-revelation and expanding personal wisdom. It comes down to a personal decision to be or not to be conscious of our feelings; to be or not to be responsible for our feelings and actions and of course ultimately to the choices we make about the kind of person we want to be. As we stop the hostility in our behavior and heal our pain, the anger will diminish and the emotional space to be even happier is created. It can be a bit uncomfortable at first to let go of our angers, heal our pain and feel so peaceful, patient and “nice.” Give it a try. Be willing for things to be different, learn from your experiences and enjoy the results.
Copyright 2002 Cathryn Bond Doyle, All rights Reserved.