We all feel slighted when we're not given the respect we feel we deserve. Think about how you feel when someone forgets your birthday, or doesn't return your phone calls; or when you're not invited to a party which other people you know are going to, or aren't included in an important meeting at work. We often like to think of ourselves as altruistic, willing to offer help freely, but think about how slighted you feel when you give someone or lift or cook them a meal and they leave without saying thank you.
Watch yourself closely, and you'll probably find that you feel slighted in one of these ways almost every day - possibly even several times a day. Maybe a person didn't give you any eye contact when you spoke to them, or pushed in front of you in a queue. Perhaps you experienced rejection of some form, when your report was sent back for some more work, or a friend turned down an invitation.
Psychologists call slights ‘narcissistic injuries' - they bruise our egos, make us feel belittled. Ultimately, all types of slights boil down to the same basic feeling: of being devalued or disrespected.
Slights may seem trivial, but they can have dangerous consequences. They can play on our minds for days, opening up psychic wounds which are difficult to heal. We replay the situation over and over again, until the hurt and humiliation eat away at us inside. This usually leads to an impulse to fight back, to avenge the damage to our self-esteem. This could mean slighting the person back: ‘She didn't invite me to her party, so I'm not sending her a birthday card;' ‘He didn't thank me, so I'm going to ignore him from now on.' A grudge may develop: you end up looking the other way when you pass the person on the street, or making bitchy comments behind their back. And if the person reacts to your resentment, it could end up in a full scale feud. A good friendship could dissolve into acrimony, a close family could needlessly fall apart.
Even more dangerously - especially with young men - slights can trigger a violent reaction. Criminologists have noted that many acts of violence stem from a sense of slight. The psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson estimated that two-thirds of all murders were the result of men feeling that they had been disrespected and acting to save face. In recent years, in the US there has been a disturbing rise in the number of ‘flashpoint killings' - casual murders triggered by trivial confrontations. Typically, the flashpoint killer is a young man who becomes furious after feeling that he's been slighted in front of friends.
Our vulnerability to slights seems to point to fundamental insecurity inside us. The ego - our sense of self - is often fragile and easy to damage. Many of us feel a basic sense of separateness and incompleteness, which means that we're prone to feelings of insignificance. As a result, the ego needs to be continually boosted by affirmation. We need to be shown that we're important. A slight can be a terrible blow because it uncovers that latent sense of insignificance.
The French psychologist Jacques Lacan put forward a similar explanation of aggression. He pointed out that most acts of aggression are the result of a threat to identity. As children, we're a collection of different desires and different biological processes that we don't have any control over, but as we become adults we have to bring all these processes into a unity, to develop a coherent identity. When people offend or insult us, it makes us feel fragmented again, and we react by striking out, as a way of re-asserting our power and identity.
So what can we do to make ourselves less vulnerable to slights?
Personal development coach Ken Keis points out that the first step is simply to accept that we feel hurt: ‘That sounds easy, but it's much easier for the mind to start obsessing about how evil the person who offended us is. Acknowledging the hurt stops us ruminating, which is the worst thing you can do. It just allows the slight to grow out of all proportion.'
Keis emphasises the importance of what he terms ‘calling space.' ‘Before you react to a slight, think about the consequences. Remember that nothing good ever comes from being easily offended. If you are, you'll lose your credibility. People won't want to work with you, or even spend time with you. The likelihood is that you feel slighted because you're expecting a certain type of behaviour and not getting it. So perhaps it's your expectations which need to change.'
Similarly, the counselor and psychologist Dr. Elliot Cohen points out that often slights stem from a mis-reading of a situation. ‘If someone ignores you and you feel offended, it could just be that you're "personalizing" the situation. It helps to take the perspective of the person who you think slighted you. Perhaps they were just in a rush, or didn't even see you. Maybe they were just being a little thoughtless or forgetful. And even if someone is genuinely rude or disrespectful to you, there could be reasons for that: perhaps they're jealous of you, or feel threatened.'
Although it may not seem to be closely related, the practice of meditation can help too. Regular meditation can make us less affected by negative thoughts, and create a more grounded and stable sense of self, so that we're less dependent on respect and affirmation from other people. If you feel contented within yourself, why should it matter so much if other people sometimes disrespect you?
When we feel slighted, it may seem that the offence comes from the outside, but ultimately, we are the ones who allow ourselves to feel slighted. In the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
Steve Taylor is a psychology lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University and the author of several books on spirituality and psychology, including Out of the Darkness. Eckhart Tolle has described his work as 'an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness.' www.stevenmtaylor.com