By Mark Borg, Jr., PhD, author of Don’t Be a Dick

The world needs a hug right now—a socially-distant, virtual, and heartfelt hug right now. We may instead be tempted, or even compelled, to give it a great big kick in the gut. And when I say “world,” what I mean is other people: our neighbors, partners, kids, and families. The very people who most need our care, affection, attention, and love are also the ones from whom we most need a hug. 

Therefore, the question of world crisis is: To be or not to be a dick?

And while many of us want to help others, it is also easy to excuse and rationalize our questionable behavior. Perhaps an aggressive shopper cut the line at Trader Joe’s, a harried person freaked out when we were not socially-distant enough, or a coworker brought up a sore subject on Zoom—all in one day!

Right now, we are all dealing with overwhelming emotions. Sometimes these emotions spill out unexpectedly (are displaced) into our relations with others. Even in normal times, many of us are unaware of how we invite others into conflict with us. We tend to invite this conflict because it is difficult—sometimes impossible—for us to accept, address, and deal with our own uncomfortable emotions. When we are overwhelmed by emotion, the mind tends to overprotect us by either

  • Shutting down (e.g., dissociation, where we don’t feel at all), or,
  • Acting out (meaning that uncomfortable emotion is transferred into our behavior and, in so doing, bypasses our awareness).

Either way, in an effort to defend ourselves, we lose crucial bits of information about what’s really going on. And so, rather than experiencing and building a tolerance for such emotions, we perceive that someone else is the cause of them. Our psychological defense system becomes a psychological attack system. Rather than simply defending us from discomfort (e.g., panic, anxiety), our mind can go on the offensive and preemptively protect us by hurting others before they can hurt us.

Although there are numerous ways to invite conflict into our lives, here are a few that are particularly pernicious, and we might want to pay close attention to right now:

  • Righteousness. We find that we must not only prove our point but also simultaneously prove ourselves superior.
  • Projection. Projection is the fine art of seeing what we cannot tolerate in ourselves—what we despise and hate—in other people. 
  • Weaponized victimhood.  If we block, disallow, or otherwise interfere with the attempts made by others to soothe our pain and suffering, we convey to them that what they are offering is ineffective or insufficient. In doing this, we not only interfere with their attempts to help us feel better, but we also punish them for being unable to do so. We convey to those around us that our misery is somehow their fault and use our sense of being victimized to punish others.
  • Turd hurling. This when we cannot stand seeing other people thriving or happy and feel like we need to ruin it in some way (think Debbie Downer). 
  • Patrolling. If we acutely observe the behavior of other people and chastise them when their behavior is “wrong” (this is a great temptation right now), we will definitely agitate others. This is closely aligned with righteousness.

Each of these behaviors invites conflict or avoidance and puts us in an adversarial relationship with the world. If we are unaware of what we are doing, we will mistake the counterattacks of others for unjustified and unprovoked attacks. We will then overprotect ourselves from being hurt, which in turn, makes us more susceptible to the counterattacks that we are trying to avoid. But there is good news: Our unkind behavior is a defense mechanism that we use to protect ourselves—it is not who we are. And this means that we can do something about it! 

Here’s what can we do when an incident arises that tempt us to engage in one of the behaviors listed above:

  • Respond—don’t react. In reaction, we act and then think; in response, we think and then we act. In practical terms, it means that the first act we’ll want to commit to when we feel threatened or overwhelmed is to hit pause. 
  • Don’t take the bait. Many of us have learned that when we attempt to confront or control another person’s bad behavior, we both end up acting like dicks. Other anxious and overwhelmed people might try to reel us into their bad behavior. When we take the bait, the focus is drawn to our reaction rather than what set it off and allows each party to sidestep any productive conversation about the real issue at hand.
  • Call a Time Out. There is simply no way to address bad behavior when either person is in emotional distress; so, a moratorium is often in order until the behavior can be discussed by both parties in a productive manner (this can be anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours). 
  • Really Listen.  We need to listen and respond as openly and generously as possible whenever we find ourselves at odds with others (especially now that we might be cooped up with some of them). Although it may be challenging, we need to really hear what is being said as a means of resisting retaliation and withdrawal. This allows us to create a safe space for understanding.
  • Empathize. Each one of us experienced vulnerable feelings, like the ones we’re feeling now when we were kids. And we likely acted in less-than-stellar ways to cover up these feelings of insecurity, fear, pain, and sadness. So, if we are willing to access these memories and feelings in ourselves, we just might be able to empathize with and reach each other in our vulnerable emotional states now. We might wind up feeling closer to each other for having taken the risk to relate to each other through compassion. 

But really, the best way to avoid the dicks is not to be one.

By pausing and taking a break, we can work through our unproductive reactions and stay connected to each other while we go through this world crisis together. If we thoughtfully consider and address the ways that we invite conflict into our lives, we can also open the door to a new way of relating to ourselves and those around us. 

Though it may be virtual and socially-distanced, I hope that by now you’ve been able to accept, take in, and feel comforted and warmed by whatever hugs are available in our world. With these insights on the forefront of your mind and a commitment to the steps I’ve suggested, you should be all set to walk through your day ready and willing to give the world that hug. And to get one, too.

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