Slighting: The Best Way to Respond to Feeling Slighted

How should we respond when people disrespect us?

Posted Jan 22, 2012

PamelaJones/Flickr
Source: PamelaJones/Flickr

We all feel slighted when we're not given the respect that we feel we deserve. Think about how you feel when someone forgets your birthday, doesn't return your phone calls, or doesn't invite to a party or 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 a lift or cook them a meal and they leave without saying thank you. 

Some forms of disrespect - such as racist or sexist abuse - are heinous, and it's almost impossible for us not feel angry and upset by them. It would be inhuman not to react by feeling hurt. And if you do experience this kind of disrespect, I don't want to imply that the responsibility lies with you for feeling hurt, rather than the perpetrator.  I'm also not saying that we shouldn't stand up for ourselves, and challenge people who disrespect or abuse us - I think it's very important that we do so. I want to make it clear that in this article I am talking about minor slights, the kind of trivial incidents I have just described. I want to explore how we can make ourselves less vulnerable to feeling hurt by minor slights. 

Watch yourself closely, and you'll probably find that you experience minor slights almost every day — possibly even several times a day. Maybe a person didn't make eye contact when you spoke to them or they 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 and make us feel belittled. Ultimately, all types of slights boil down to the same basic feeling: being devalued or disrespected. 

Although many slights are fairly trivial, they can have dangerous consequences. They can play on our minds for days, opening up psychic wounds that are difficult to heal. We can 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" or, "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 mean 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, or 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. 

Our vulnerability to minor slights seems to point to a 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 minor 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 emphasizes 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 behavior 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 slights often stem from a misreading 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.

Let me reiterate that I'm not saying that we should be completely invulnerable to feeling disrespected. For many people - particularly members of ethnic minorities - disrespect is a part of their everyday experience, as a result of embedded prejudice and social conditions. It would be totally unrealistic to be immune to such disrespect, and completely wrong for a person to think it was their own fault if they felt hurt. But when it comes to minor slights - which often have damaging consequences - it's very helpful to develop some degree of inner resilience. Perhaps then, if we stop expending so much energy on trivial issues, we can focus our attention on more important concerns. 

Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. This article is adapted from his book Back to Sanity. www.stevenmtaylor.com