Martin Lyden, Ph.D.
People who work with challenging persons are often the targets of verbal abuse. If staff take verbal assault too personally their job performance and peace of mind will be impaired. Thin-skinned people often care more about avoiding disapproval than getting approval. It is instructive to learn from thick-skinned models. To be thick-skinned requires a cognitive-emotional habit pattern that enables one to deal effectively with verbal abuse. Five strategies for dealing with verbal abuse are presented in detail, processing emotions, simple witnessing of sensations, Tonglen, reframing, and using dissociation.
People who work with challenging persons are sometimes the targets of verbal and physical abuse while at work. The abuse may come from a variety of sources, such as persons being served, families of persons being served, or co-workers. Examples of workers who sometimes become the targets of abuse include persons who work with individuals who have disabilities, human services staff, teachers, hospital staff, police, corrections officers, complaint department staff, and people who deal with the public. If the abuse results in overly upset staff emotions, then the quality of staff job performance may lessen. Additionally the happiness, peace of mind, and job satisfaction of thin-skinned staff are unstable and tenuous.
It is preferable for staff, as well as for those they work with or on behalf of, that the abuse directed at them result in minimal emotional damage. Sometimes staff cannot avoid being the targets of abuse. In such circumstances it is clearly preferable to be emotionally thick-skinned. (For arbitrary convenience the male gender will be used where a reference is singular rather than plural. The female gender could have been used with equal validity.)
Why some people are too thin-skinned:
Some reasons people take verbal nastiness so seriously include: (1) the comments are considered valid and are ruminated about excessively, with accompanying self-defeating self-criticism; (2) the comments reactivate emotionally painful memories of past stressful experiences; (3) a childhood association of harsh criticism with punishment; (4) the all-too-common relationship between anger and ruined relationships; and (5) a tendency to be uncomfortable with conflict.
Over concern with disapproval and under concern with approval:
Thin-skinned people often care more about avoiding disapproval than with getting approval. The touchiness, irritability, and defensiveness of people who are thin-skinned often result in silent disapproval by others. Sometimes the disapproval is not silent. Thin-skinned people can become very upset and preoccupied with internal focusing on slights from others. This interferes with their ability to experience the approval and support of significant others.
A thin-skinned person may have a very self-centered view. Regardless of what is happening to others, he may regard what happens to him as being of the highest importance. Much of his time is spent dwelling on his problems rather than those of others. Though a friend may be dying or a colleague's home has burned down, the abuse he received is the primary crisis that requires most of his attention. The thin-skinned person may ruminate excessively on abuse he received-attributing nasty motives to the abuser, reaching invalid conclusions about the abuser--thereby becoming very unhappy.
After being the target of abuse, a thin-skinned person may reject any suggestions or sensible interpretations that are inconsistent with his self-defeating and inaccurate view of the situation. He may not think clearly about the situation, and may remain closed to alternate perspectives, for a refractory period that may last from minutes to years. Some thin-skinned people stockpile hurts, resentments, and bitterness for years. Unless his dysfunctional thinking is counteracted, he may grow old carrying his unhappy feelings and attitudes wherever he goes. A basic element of the dysfunctional thinking is that happiness and suffering are entirely the result of external events.
The story that follows can serve as a useful metaphor. A farmer's happiness was primarily dependent on two things, the fortunes of his horse and his son. One morning on awakening he discovered that the horse was gone. He then became inconsolably depressed. However when he rose on the next morning the horse was back, and the farmer became ecstatically happy. A day later his son rode the horse and fell off breaking a leg. Again the farmer was plunged into emotional misery. But on the following day the army came to the farmer's village and took away all able-bodied young men to fight in the war; and they left the farmer's son who had a broken leg. Consequently the farmer was overjoyed. The farmer was on an emotional roller coaster. His peace of mind and happiness were determined by what happened to the horse or the son. The story never ends. The farmer can represent a thin-skinned staff member; and the experiences of the horse and son can symbolize approval or abuse from others.
Popular people usually enjoy approval. Often they may be only mildly bothered by disapproval and rejection. Some politicians illustrate this. Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other great people who acted for the benefit of others, learned to be internally at peace in the face of verbal and physical abuse. When the Dalai Lama was asked "After the massive destruction the Chinese communist government has wreaked on your country and people, why aren't you angry?" He replied, "If I got angry, then I wouldn't be able to sleep at night or eat my meals peacefully. I'd get ulcers, and my health would deteriorate. My anger couldn't change the past or improve the future, so what use would it be?" (T. Chödrön, 2001).
A thick-skinned person spends little time dwelling on disapproval. Instead he focuses more on the issues that bring him satisfaction. Examples of such issues include helping others, projects he has a strong interest in, the love and appreciation of intimates, spirituality, and plans for pursuit of important goals. The thick-skinned person's internal protection from external negativity allows him to focus on what he considers important, and what he can be happy and grateful about. Being calm when faced with abuse provides a thick-skinned person with an opportunity to think clearly and decide wisely before responding.
A thick-skinned person often views disapproval and criticism as information about another person's perceptions. The critic's perceptions are considered distinct from the thick-skinned person's self-perception. The validity of the criticisms can be examined. The thick-skinned person can visualize himself being, or behaving, the observable way that was criticized; and he can calmly evaluate the criticism, note what may be useful in it, and choose how to act in response (Andreas & Andreas, 1989). A thick-skinned person may not assume that abuse is a valid indicator of a wrong that needs to be righted. Abuse may have been motivated by the abuser not getting what he wanted, rather than because the abuser's rights were violated.
A cognitive-emotional habit is needed:
The adage "sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me" is often not true for thin-skinned people. The hurt-filled memories related to name-calling may remain painful for decades. People who are thin-skinned and feel emotionally devastated by verbal nastiness interpret the nastiness in non-resourceful ways.
To be thick-skinned requires conditioning of the unconscious part of the mind. That part operates without conscious deliberation concerning the appropriate response. Functioning in a thick-skinned manner is a cognitive-emotional habit that operates somewhat automatically, and without a lot of rational deliberation each time it is utilized. The thick-skinned person can forgive the abuser and he can let go of anger toward the abuser. Holding onto hurt and anger would prolong suffering and provide no benefit. Forgiveness takes strength, and does not indicate weakness. To forgive does not mean to condone the abusive behavior, to allow unnecessary exposure to further abuse, or to forget. Forgiveness involves understanding the abuser's motivation. It also helps to realize that, like everybody else, the abuser wants to be happy and avoid suffering. It also includes an appreciation of the abuser's confusion and unawareness of the correct way to be happy and free of suffering.
Habits are formed by repetition. Once formed, they operate with minimal conscious awareness. The analogy of developing the habit of driving a car can be instructive. When a novice is first learning to drive, much of the driving behavior is conscious and not executed smoothly. After sufficient experience driving can become a habit, which is performed easily and without much conscious deliberation.
Behavioral, cognitive, or emotional patterns that are practiced repeatedly become habits. Once a pattern has become a habit it is easy to continue it. Habits are learned, and they can be unlearned. A habit that brings happiness and peace of mind is preferable to one that produces misery.
Some people have a strong habit of being thin-skinned, or of being overly sensitive. Such a cognitive-emotional habit causes much suffering. A thin-skinned person finds it difficult to empathize. He may have difficulty in perceiving the subtleties in social interactions. In contrast, some people have a habit of being thick-skinned; and they have more happiness and less suffering.
An illustration of limiting beliefs can be seen in the results of the training process used on an elephant born in captivity in India. The baby elephant's leg is chained to an immovable object. Through unsuccessful struggles to break free the elephant learns that it cannot break the chain and move outside the limits allowed by the chain. Eventually a sturdy rope replaces the chain and the elephant behaves as if it was still bound by the chain. Later still the sturdy rope, or even a less sturdy one, is tied to a pole or tree; and the elephant continues to remain within the limits of the anchored rope. When the elephant reaches full adult strength and stature it can be still be held by a leg rope tied to a pole or thin tree. Although the adult elephant has the strength to break the rope or knock down the pole it does not try to do so. The elephant trainer could help the adult elephant to learn to break the rope or knock down the pole, but that would be counterproductive from the trainer's perspective.
Some of the limiting beliefs that render a person vulnerable to being thin-skinned are identified throughout this manuscript (e.g., happiness and suffering are entirely the result of external events, nasty personal comments should be taken personally). It is a mistake to take it personally regardless of what another does or says. What another does or says is about his beliefs and feelings, and not about the one who is the target of his actions or words. Each person operates from his own perspective (Ruiz, 1997). His perspective is the result of his genetic endowment, his education, and his experiences. These same three factors are also implicated in the development of thin-skin.
People learn to take things personally in part due to the enculturation and educational processes experienced during their youth. Like the domesticated elephant in India, a thin-skinned person has learned limiting beliefs. Fortunately a person can unlearn what is not useful, and replace it with what is useful.
The way in which certain monkeys, called rice monkeys, are captured shows the importance of letting go of limiting beliefs. A rice monkey loves rice. People use the monkey's attachment to rice to capture it. A hole, just large enough for the monkey's open hand to slide through, is made in a coconut; and the coconut's center is hollowed out and filled with rice. The rice-filled cocoanut is then placed in a clearing. When a rice monkey comes along it discovers the rice, inserts its hand into the coconut, and grabs rice by closing its fist. Since the closed fist is larger than the hole, and the monkey will not open it to let go of the rice, the monkey is stuck and it looses its freedom. If the monkey had let go of the rice it could have withdrawn its fist from the coconut and escaped capture.
Strategies for dealing with verbal nastiness
Some of the strategies that follow may be usable in some circumstances and not in others. The procedures can be particularly useful if there is an antagonist who has repeatedly behaved, and is likely to continue behaving, in offensive ways.
The targeted person can feel better through processing his upset feelings. Talking to a compassionate and wise listener-a friend or colleague-can help in this regard. The goal in this situation is to recognize and accept the disturbing emotions, in order to feel better. The recognition, acceptance, and communication of unpleasant feelings (e.g., anger) help to dissipate the unpleasant feelings. This in turn can minimize the development of a reservoir of resentment, which would promote unhappiness and suffering. A helpful five-question format for the compassionate listener to use is captured in the mnemonic "bathe" - background ("What happened?"), affect ("How are you feeling about it?"), trouble ("What troubles you most?"), handling ("How are you handling it?"), and empathy ("That must have been very unpleasant.") (Stuart & Lieberman, 1986).
It can be helpful to put the verbal abuse into temporal perspective. That could involve putting the abuse on a time line, which contains past pleasant as well as unpleasant events. The time line can extend into the future when various goals will be reached (Dolan, 1991).
A focus on problem solving by the targeted person can be helpful. This can involve issues such as desirable and effective ways to handle the unpleasant feelings, respond to the abuse, work on what is most important, de-catastrophize interpretations of the abuse, minimize future abuse, etc.. This future-oriented approach helps the person to look beyond the current unpleasantness and view it from an empowering perspective.
Simple Witnessing of Physical Sensations
It can be useful to think of an emotion as having a cognitive component and a physical component. For example, if someone discovers that his property has been stolen he may feel anger. This could involve cognitions such as "this was wrong", "the thief should be punished", "I don't deserve this", etc.. In addition to the cognitions there usually is some sympathetic nervous system activity such as increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, faster respiration, more adrenalin in the blood, etc.. Without a physical component there is no emotion.
When an unpleasant emotion is present it can be processed and dissipated more quickly and easily if the person focuses primarily on the physical component. In focusing on the physical component the person accurately recognizes and becomes exquisitely aware of the physical sensations associated with the emotion (e.g., tight chest muscles, coolness in the hands and feet, warmth in the torso). At the same time there is an effort to avoid using emotionally laden or evaluative self-talk descriptions, which can further arouse the sympathetic nervous system (Chopra, T., p. 187). Examples of evaluative self-talk descriptions, or judgmental labels, to avoid include: awful, terrible, scary, horrendous, excruciating, intolerable, unbearable, overpowering, etc.. When a person simply witnesses his sensations of physical discomfort without a judgmental label, the "physical discomfort drops away" (Metcalf, 1999, p. 33). "The next time you're suffering from heat or cold or wind or headache, whatever the feeling, just feel it without evaluation" (Metcalf, p. 33).
Master Hsing Yun illustrates this idea in regard to anger: "Anger is a form of energy. The most basic way to cure anger is to see it that way. Remove all labels from it and disentangle it from all stories or excuses about why it is there. Seen purely as energy, anger is more easily put in perspective and controlled" (Yun, 1998, p. 35).
Just as a map is not the territory, an evaluative label is not a physical experience. In this situation, focus on the territory (physical sensation) and avoid using a map (evaluative label).
Tonglen, or Taking and Sending, is a Tibetan Buddhist meditative technique. It does not involve anything that is likely to be considered objectionable or contrary to religious teachings of other religions, or to the beliefs of non-religious people or atheists. It has been used by some members of various other religious groups (e.g., Jews, Catholics, Episcopalians).
The first step in Tonglen is developing a sense of texture through imagery. This is done by visually imagining there is thick, heavy, dark, and hot smoke or tar that you inhale with each breath. The texture of pain, poison, and neurosis is associated with breathing in. With each exhalation one imagines breathing out clear, light, bright, fresh, and cool air. The exhalation is associated with relief, openness, and spaciousness.
Tonglen can be called upon at any time during or after situations that elicit anger, frustration, sadness, or another unpleasant emotion.
The Dalai Lama described part of his use of Tonglen as follows: "I single out Chinese leaders and those officials who must make decisions on the spot to torture or kill particular Tibetans. I visualize them, and draw their ignorance, prejudice, hatred, and pride into myself. I feel that, because of my own training, even if in reality I could absorb some portion of their negative attitudes, it could not influence my behavior and turn me into a negative person. Therefore, ingesting their negativities is not that much of a problem for me, but it lessens their problems. I do this with such strong feeling that if later in the day in my office I hear of their atrocities, although one part of my mind is a little irritated and angry, the main part is still under the influence of the morning practice; the intensity of the hatred is reduced to the point where it is groundless. Whether this meditation really helps those officials or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective; the benefit is immense (Dalai Lama, 2002, pp. 38-39).
Tonglen can be done for a moment or for several minutes at a time. Regular practice of Tonglen can help develop thick-skin. Tonglen can be done spontaneously, or on the spot, when something unpleasant occurs. For example if a person behaves in a nasty manner, then the target of the nastiness would imagine breathing in the unpleasant thoughts and feelings of that nasty person, and then imagine breathing out relief and peace to that person. The procedure is to mentally put one's self in the position of an abusive person (i.e., empathizing) on the in breath and to generate compassion for the abusive person on the out breath (P. Chödrön, 2001). Paradoxically this lessens the hurt and tendency toward self-defeating rumination that might have occurred without Tonglen.
A person may worry that taking in the suffering of others will harm himself. Through Tonglen one imagines taking in the suffering of others. The reality is that one does not actually experience the suffering. The main harm of Tonglen is towards one's self-defeating ego-clinging and self-absorption. Tonglen has been used for close to a thousand years without harming its practitioners.
People have also used Tonglen to cope with such difficulties as the pain caused by cancer, rage at being the target of racial prejudice, resentment due to the breakup of a relationship, and grief over the loss of a loved one. Acceptance of pain is the goal of this application of Tonglen. When a person notices that he is experiencing something unpleasant (e.g., feeling anger at another who hurt him physically or emotionally), he wishes that others could be free of such unpleasant feelings; and he imagines sending to others what would bring them relief (P. Chödrön, 2001). Breathing in the difficulty for self and others, and breathing out relief to others, can make the difficulty less overwhelming.
A person can also do self-focused Tonglen. One begins by imagining himself as having two parts. One part is compassionate, loving, and generous. The other part is hurt, frustrated, misunderstood, or experiencing unpleasant emotions (e.g., anxiety, anger). While inhaling one imagines that the compassionate part warmly and compassionately embraces all of the negativity and suffering of the hurt part. During the exhalation the compassionate part sends healing love and comfort to the hurt part.
Anyone who wants instruction in, or more information about, Tonglen can contact a Tibetan Buddhist Center. Such Centers exist in many major cities. Internet access to information about Tonglen is available by doing a search (e.g., via Google) on "Tonglen."
In reframing one looks at what happened from a new and more resourceful perspective in order to feel better, and to be able to think more clearly. It involves changing one's perspective about some situation, not the situation itself. It is realistic to expect that difficulties are part of work and life; and usually difficulties are temporary. Switching to a wide-angle lens can give one perspective (e.g., "There are many good things in my life. Look at how many others are in more difficult circumstances than I am.").
Reframing a difficult situation can put oil on troubled emotional waters. It can help a person who is stuck in a belief system, which immobilizes or blocks him (e.g., "I can't stand Jim's rudeness."). Sometimes when conscious analysis does not help a person get out of self-defeating thinking, an effective reframe can act as an impetus to bring about a desired attitude and self- empowering thinking (e.g., "Jim's rudeness shows irritability that is a symptom of his painful depression.").
A person can feel better about circumstances that he has little or no control over via an appropriate reframe. Finding a situation outrageously funny may be preferable to getting very angry or sad about it. Humor often involves reframing. Recognizing incongruity in a situation can be humorous. For example, one might laugh about a mental health care professional acting angry because a person with an intellectual disability has a mental health problem.
A good reframe can be a springboard to effective problem solving. Consider a job situation in which a new boss has been reorganizing and instituting changes that many staff find upsetting. A disgruntled subordinate may be able to discuss this issue with the boss in a non-adversarial and civil manner after thinking: "The boss wants to make things better. He may have a broader and more valid perspective than staff. However, he may be unaware of how staff are feeling."
There are three assumptions that reframing is based on. First, all behavior, in the broadest sense of the term, is communication (e.g., "Yelling may be Joe's way of saying that he is hungry"). The second assumption is that all behavior is, or was, adaptive in the context in which it was learned; and it is intended to help the person in some way (e.g., Grabbing and stuffing food into the mouth was an effective way of getting adequate nutrition in an institution). Lastly the third assumption is that there is more than one valid way to view any situation. No particular view is absolutely the only correct one.
There are two types of reframes, content and context (Yapko, Barretta, & Barretta, 1998). Content reframing assigns a new and more desirable meaning to the behavior (e.g., "When Jim is rude it is probably a manifestation of the irritability associated with his severe depression."). A context reframe is done by identifying a situation or place in which the unpleasant behavior would be appropriate or useful (e.g., "Barbara's screaming may protect her from getting abused.").
When a staff member is upset by the behavior of another person, an effective content reframe is often available by looking at the situation from the perspective of the other person. For example, consider the case of a staff member who serves an individual with a borderline personality disorder. Suppose the individual with the personality disorder often makes insulting and abusive comments to the staff member. The staff member may be able depersonalize the verbal abuse by thinking that the individual has chronically behaved in this abusive manner to many (if not most) staff due to the disorder and not due to deficiencies in the staff. Also, he could realize that such difficult people help to provide justification for his job; and to some extent he owes his job to this person.
Using dissociation to create distance from the nastiness
The first step is to visualize one's self sitting in a movie theatre and separated (i.e., dissociated self) from one's body (associated self), which is located in the projection booth. Also imagine a bulletproof glass window in the projection booth through which one can look down and see one's dissociated self sitting in the theatre. Next imagine that the dissociated self is sitting comfortably and watching a movie, which contains scenes of one's self being targeted by verbal abuse. This is a double dissociation, i.e., one is watching one's self watching one's self. The singly dissociated self sitting in the theatre should look and feel resourceful; and he should direct the doubly dissociated self on the movie screen to deal with the abuse in a wise and effective manner. It is important that the nasty behavior of the verbally abusive person on the movie screen should match the behavior he has actually engaged in repeatedly.
The first goal for the doubly dissociated self on the movie screen is to make sense out of the verbal abuse. This may involve seeking more information about the thoughts and feelings of the person who is dishing out the abuse. In some situations it may be immediately clear what is on the abusive person's mind. At other times questions may have to be asked of the abusive person in order to obtain the needed information. The questions could take the form of calmly and politely asking the abusive person for a detailed clarification and explanation of his concerns.
When the dissociated self, i.e., the one sitting in the theatre, has adequate information about the abusive person's thoughts and feelings, an effective response can then be formulated. With the information, the dissociated person can evaluate the accuracy and validity of the abusive person's thoughts. Additionally the emotional state of the abusive person, and the type of response most suited to that emotional state, can be taken into account. The response to be selected should be respectful of the abusive person as well as the doubly dissociated self. Examples of responses that could be considered include: quietly walk away without any discussion, express appreciation for the transmission of important information, acknowledge what you did and apologize, provide relevant new information to the abusive person, ask the abusive person what would make things better, tell the abusive person that you plan to comply with their wish in the future, and state how you plan to act in the future (e.g., in the same manner in similar circumstances) (Andreas & Andreas, 1989).
The next step is to incorporate the response selected into the movie showing on the screen. Through the bulletproof glass window in the projection booth the associated self should watch the movie on the screen of the doubly dissociated self responding in the selected resourceful manner to the abusive person. The movie should run forward from beginning to end in black and white. Then the movie should be run backwards rapidly and in color, from the end to the beginning. After this the associated self is to float down into the dissociated self, which has been sitting in the movie theatre; and from that vantage point watch the movie as before, i.e., forwards in black and white and backwards in color. The final step is for the associated self to float up into the movie screen to be in the movie as an actor rather than an observer. Again the movie is to run forwards in black and white and backwards in color.
Through this process a person watches a part of himself learn a resourceful way of responding to verbal abuse. The learning needs to be fully assimilated so that it becomes an automatic way of responding.
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