How Quick Are You to Take Offense? 10 Powerful Remedies

There are many ways to keep your cool when you feel unjustly attacked.

Posted Mar 13, 2019

Let’s start with some self-assessment, though you may relate the following questions less to yourself than to someone you have major challenges with (say, your partner):

  • Do you explode in fits of anger over little things?
  • Do others say you make mountains out of molehills?
  • Do you frequently take things the wrong way?
  • Do others feel they have to “walk on eggshells” around you?
  • Do others consider you “high maintenance”?

(Ken Wert, “10 Ways You Can Stop Being So EASILY Offended”)

Hopefully, these characterizations—or charges—will feel exaggerated to you. But whether that’s the case or not, it’s crucial to realize that taking offense isn’t particularly uncommon for any of us. That is, we’re all susceptible to this typically counter-productive reaction to perceived slights and insults.

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

In addition, when your sensitivity buttons get pushed, there are a whole host of emotions—all, frankly, negative—that you’re subject to. You could feel irritated, upset, angry, enraged (or outraged!), infuriated, or resentful. Or, moving toward the opposite reactive pole, you could feel hurt, humiliated, injured, inferior, irked, perplexed, or (throwing up your hands in heated frustration) exasperated.

But before exploring the various solutions for your inward, self-imposed distress, it makes sense to understand some basic facts surrounding this all-too-familiar phenomenon of your (or someone else) taking offense.

Similar to anger, the reaction of taking offense to what another has said or done is a decidedly moralistic emotion. What, at the bottom, it’s all about is your feeling treated unfairly. If there’s a single common denominator to taking umbrage at another, it’s that, however implicitly, you perceive yourself as having been evaluated or dealt with unjustly. Another individual has been inconsiderate of you—rude, aggressive, bullying, condescending, or downright shaming. And to you, that’s undeserved—or “just not right!”

At one time or another, we’ve all no doubt experienced assaults on, or challenges to, our sense of pride, dignity, or self-respect—or maybe to our self-image generally. Because our self-confidence or -esteem may not have been sufficiently anchored from within, our ego somehow felt under siege. And so we felt compelled to push back against the person who, in that very moment, felt like our mortal enemy (despite their possibly being the one person who, just seconds ago, we loved and cared about the most).

Although we may be reluctant to admit it, how we view ourselves may have mostly to do with how we believe others view us. As children we couldn’t validate ourselves apart from how we felt our family valued us. And for too many of us, even as adults we may rely on others’ approval if we’re to be able to approve of ourselves. So self-doubts we harbored about ourselves in the past—some of which still linger below the surface—can all-too-easily be re-invoked in the present if another appears to question our basic attractiveness, competence, worth, or integrity.

As often as not, when you react strongly to what others might regard as a relatively minor affront, it’s because it’s unconsciously reminding you of a yet-unresolved disturbing, or even traumatic event you experienced when you were much younger. So, as disproportionate as others may regard your reaction, surprised or alarmed at how short your fuse seems to be, it won’t at all feel that way to you because your presumed exaggerated reaction tapped into what from your past remains substantially charged for you. After all, that’s what “magnified” your response.

In a sense you (and virtually everyone else) is “primed” to take things personally. For as a child you could only understand things outside yourself by relating them (however arbitrarily) back to yourself. As an adult you definitely know better, but the impulsive child that continues to resonate inside you may prevent you from more objectively evaluating the current circumstance—which, if you could accurately identify, would prompt you to hold your (self-vindicating) fire.

Of course, when you do “let go,” you typically only make the troubling interpersonal situation that much worse. And such an urgently felt effort at retaliation is rarely adaptive (if, in fact, it ever was). Still, it’s primal, instinctive, and pretty much universal. When your ego feels threatened, you can’t help but self-protectively fight back, or put all your energy into mounting the best, most “rational” defense you’re capable of.

So, if we’re to categorize the various things that can offend you—that is, lead you to feel threatened, insulted, or abused—they relate to your being made to feel:

  • demeaned, degraded, or inferior;
  • condescended to, patronized, or humiliated;
  • pitied or looked down upon (e.g., because another person concluded you required their assistance, whereas you felt totally qualified to complete the project or task on your own);
  • criticized, blamed, put down, or chastised;
  • discriminated against (a remark made to you that seemed sexist, ageist, elitist, racist, religiously prejudiced, etc.);
  • ignored, dismissed, passed over, or rejected;
  • objectified (e.g., you were complimented on your appearance or physical form, yet felt denigrated as a sex object);
  • victimized, exploited, or persecuted;
  • socially incompetent (because you got the message, true or not, that you lacked rudimentary social skills);
  • stupid, useless, or inconsequential (e.g., for your input, feedback, or offer to help was, if not exactly scorned, at least denied); and
  • accused of immorality, cheating, negligence, unreliability, or selfishness.

Obviously, the more vulnerable you are to having your “I’m really offended!” buttons pushed, the more internal resources you’ll need to develop to safeguard yourself from such distressful reactions. Here are 10 remedies for overcoming a hypersensitivity toward others’ behaviors and opinions. Taken together, they should help you claim the authority to be the final arbiter of your worth rather than forfeit it to others. And once you do so—curiously, calmly, courageously, and compassionately—then, regardless of whether the other person intended to offend you (or not), you’ll be able to handle such challenging situations in a way you won’t later regret:

1. Suspend judgment about the other person’s malignant intent. If you harbor a negative self-bias, you’re likely to project that onto how others perceive you, too. You’re apt to read into what they’re saying adverse motives toward you. But you need to realize that you may unconsciously be jumping to conclusions to (almost masochistically) confirm your own self-doubts. Knowing that you’re prone to read others’ intentions distrustfully, keep your eyes and ears open to ascertain that they did in fact mean what you assume they did. As your dialogue with them progresses, you may well discover that they really meant no offense at all. It may, as the expression goes, all have been “in your head.” (e.g., See Ken Wert’s article cited above).

2. Before getting (irrationally) carried away with derogatory conclusions, ask yourself whether your immediate reaction is possibly inflated. Ask yourself what you’re really reacting to, why you’re feeling so “put upon,” and whether you’re making too much of something that’s minor, trivial, or insignificant. Remember, when you overreact, it’s a child part of you that’s temporarily taken custody of your mental and emotional faculties. So start talking back not to the person who triggered you but, sympathetically, to the hurt, uneasy child within who’s just been reminded of some emotional pain never fully resolved. You may need to learn how to reassure that perhaps overly criticized child that you’re basically okay just as you are—and despite whether you failed at something, were misunderstood, or falsely accused of some misdeed.

3. Unless the other person has clearly insulted, discriminated against, or wronged you in the past—or, for that matter, talked negatively about you to others—give them the benefit of the doubt. Ascribing vicious motives to others typically isn’t a winning strategy. Remind yourself that most people aren’t driven to make others feel bad about themselves. Consequently, see whether you can’t moderate your essentially self-protective cynicism. And, too, reflect that most people don’t express themselves all that well, so although you may have taken their words as an affront, their purpose may have been far more benign than you’re giving them credit for.

4. If another definitely criticized you, ask yourself whether their negative assessment can best be seen as constructive. You won’t be able to learn how to better yourself, or transcend certain limitations or weaknesses, as long as you feel compelled to resist any and all criticism because it just feels too threatening or shaming. So when faced with another’s criticism, it’s crucial that you alter your focus and think about whether their negative feedback can help you grow and further develop your skills, understanding, or compassion in areas that warrant criticism.

5. Consider that your reactivity may be closely tied to your self-absorption. An excellent academic article on this subject, entitled “Feeling Offended: A Blow to Our Image and Our Social Relationships” (I. Poggi & F. D’Errico, 2018), discusses feeling offended as one of our so-called “self-conscious emotions.” And when you’re single-mindedly focused on yourself, you can’t but lose sight of the other person’s self. So can you break free of your anxious insecurities and reevaluate the present situation from a viewpoint divergent from your own?

6. Take a deep breath, relax, and emotionally detach from the felt provocation. Remember, however self-centered you may be (as, to whatever extent, we all are—for who else could be the center of your universe?), the world doesn’t revolve around you. The person who offended you may not have had you in mind at all when they said whatever they did. It may merely have felt that way to you. So be careful not to take their words personally. Consider whether the antagonistic effect of their utterance might not be coming from them but from something inside you. Consider, too, that if they’re intoxicated, in a bad mood, or irritable frame of mind, it’s wise to witness their uncivil conduct at a distance, rather than let it affect you personally.

7. Learn to meditate—or cultivate a deep calming technique such as abdominal breathing, visualization, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, body scan and progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, and so on. As one author points out (with admittedly some hyperbole): “ Nothing beats meditation for cultivating an air of serenity and greater peace of mind. It enables you to rise above such petty emotions as jealousy, envy, resentment and lust for revenge. . . . Once developed, it’s a state of mind that can be effortlessly maintained . . . [and] helps us to develop greater awareness, which in turn helps us to catch the triggers before the trigger catches us and takes us over” (James Pointon, “Easily Irritated? 7 Actionable Ways to Stop Being Offended”).

8. Ask yourself whether you may have been the first offender. If you can become less self-absorbed, you may actually perceive that either the other individual hadn’t meant to offend you or that their giving you offense may have been in reaction to your having earlier offended them. In general, when we’re self-consciously fixated on how others might be appraising us, we can easily fail to pick up on hints about what’s going on with them apart from ourselves. So check out this possibility. For it may actually be you, not the other, who needs to apologize—and even if you simply misspoke, without the slightest aggressive motivation.

9. Catch yourself looking for things that could offend you. Ironically, one way to prop up an unstable ego and fortify a compensating sense of superiority over others is to catch them saying or doing something that legitimizes your disapproval. Such a habit could well be a way of validating or comforting yourself, and so temporarily camouflage your self-doubts. But its net result is to keep you in a state of needless tension and distress. Realize that it’s better to focus on your own failings and how best to ameliorate them than to self-defensively redirect your attention to the flaws of others. (e.g., see Bill Apablasa, “Stop Being Offended Today: 3 Cures for Everything That Irritates You”).

10. Lower your expectations of others—and yourself, too. Other people may not be as empathic, sensitive, or responsive as you’d prefer. They may be deficient in considerateness or caring. So can you simply accommodate their shortcomings since, finally, it’s your choice as to whether you’re going to accept others as they are and not impose on them standards they can’t, or won’t, abide by? Frankly, most of the frustrations we inflict on ourselves relate to personal ideals—frequently perfectionistic—that we ourselves may have difficulty adhering to. After all, these ideals are mostly aspirational, no?

If you’re willing to revise your unrealistic standards downwards, you’ll find yourself getting much less upset by the perceived indignities, callousness, or heedlessness of others. Almost guaranteed, that self-change will contribute to your happiness and peace of mind. And all of this will be far easier to accomplish if you can first be kinder and unconditionally accepting of yourself—warts and all.

To conclude, perhaps the best buffer against a person’s doing something that most people would view as offensive is in raising your self-confidence and -esteem. For upgrading your self-image can help others’ insensitivities bounce off you. And if you detect an element of truth in their words (however tactlessly expressed) such acquired inner strength can enable you—non-defensively—to better your own behavior. As Poggi and D’Errico (cited above) observe: “High self-esteem may protect a person against the feeling of offense and the constellation of negative emotions triggered by it.”

Ultimately, pushing back against your real or supposed adversary is an exercise in futility. It’s far better to learn how to validate yourself independent of others’ possible criticism. That’s what helps immunize you against what previously may have harmed your sense of self and relationships. And contemplate all the advantages of fostering such a non-reactive stance toward others.

For, think about it: Once you grow a thicker skin, you’ll notice that less and less will get under your skin.

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© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.