You’ve just completed a project at work and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. You think you’ve done a good job and you hope your boss will like it. (Of course, he’ll never let you know—he’s just not the kind of person to give compliments.) You’re at your desk taking care of some busy work, getting ready for the next project to come your way.
Suddenly, you hear your boss raise his voice and you wonder who’s getting chewed out this time. Then you hear him call your name as he stomps toward your desk. Your heart sinks: You know this is going to be bad.
A torrent of blistering epithets spew from his mouth as he slaps at the report you’d handed him earlier this morning. Somewhere among the insults he points out an error in your calculations. You feel bad that you’d missed something that now seems so obvious. But on top of the embarrassment, your boss has just run your ego through the shredder. You feel like an idiot, a moron, an empty shell. The insults are beginning to stick.
As your boss runs out of steam, he tosses the report on your desk and gives you until the end of the day to fix it. Then he lumbers back to his office, muttering under his breath about the incompetence he has to put up with. You’re not sure if you’re relieved or disappointed that you weren’t fired.
Your office mates cast sympathetic glances your way. Later in the day when the boss steps out, a few stop by your desk to help cheer you up, but it’s small comfort.
How do you heal such a gaping wound in your self-esteem?
It only took a couple of hours to fix the error. At least it would have only taken that long if your mind hadn’t been so preoccupied with replaying the verbal attack over and over in your mind. So you stay late, double and triple check your work, and then slide the revised report under your boss’s door.
On your way home, you pick up a six-pack of beer. The first one goes down fast, so you open another. Sometime past midnight, you finish the last one as you drift off to sleep. Before you know it, the alarm goes off and it’s back to the grind. Only now you have a hangover to nurse as well.
You hate your job, you hate your life, and you hate yourself.
Sometimes we’re the target of angry words and have no choice but to endure the insults. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept those words at face value. No matter what you’ve done, you don’t deserve to be abused—verbally or otherwise. If you’ve wronged another person, he or she has a right to express their grievance, and you have the responsibility to make amends. However, allowing corrosive language to eat away at your sense of self-worth is no way to do penance for your sins.
You can’t stop others from losing their temper, but you can decide how you’re going to respond. And the place to start is by reminding yourself—over and over again—that it’s not about you. Words spoken in anger tell far more about the person who speaks them than they do about the person they’re targeted at.
The words that came out of his mouth were personal insults. But what your boss was really expressing was his own inner feelings, which he cannot put into words and which certainly have nothing to do with you. We aren’t responsible for the emotions of other people, just as it’s up to them to decide how to react to our behaviors.
Who knows what’s going on in the life of another person—the stresses they endure, the demons they struggle against. Perhaps your boss is having family problems, or maybe he’s under pressure from his higher-ups. It might even be that he’s nursing a hangover. No one knows what’s eating him. But whatever it is, that’s what he’s expressing when he vents his anger. It’s simply not about you.
After all, your boss could have behaved differently. He could have asked you to step into his office. He could have thanked you for finishing the report on time. He could have matter-of-factly pointed out your error and politely asked to you correct it by the end of the day. Whether he treats you kindly or cruelly depends solely on what’s happening in his life. Again, it has nothing to do with you.
Understanding that you aren’t responsible for other people’s behavior is liberating. When you know that words spoken in anger aren’t really about you, the attack, while still unpleasant, doesn’t have to damage your self-esteem. It’s also easier to find a way to forgive the other person.
The next time someone approaches you in anger, honks at you in traffic, or puts you down, do yourself a favor: Silently repeat this mantra as many times as you need—“It’s not about me. It’s not about me.”
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).