Surviving a Verbal Attack

A couple of years ago I headed over to my neighborhood McDonald’s and pulled through one of the double drive through lanes. I ordered a salad, which is literally something they can throw in a sack and hand you, so its a fast process. Because it took me so little time to order, I finished before the car in the left lane and I pulled forward.

The driver in that lane finished a few seconds later and pulled inches from my bumper. She rolled down her window and yelled at me. A pile of curse words, things I am, and things I should do to myself came pouring out of her. She even threw some trash out of her floorboard at me. She was still screaming as I made my way up to pay.

Honestly, I was a little scared. When I put my window down to pay she kept it up and the cashier assured me I’d done nothing wrong, my order had been finished before hers. I helpfully (not!) half-hollered back to the woman, “I finished first! That’s just how it works! I hope your day gets better!” I couldn’t just not say anything to someone yelling at me like that.

After that incident in my day I recalled it several times for friends seeking some emotional validation. Was I wrong? Should I have just slowed my roll through the drive? Did I know somehow she was going to finish just seconds after me? Was I being insensitive? Was I all the awful things that stranger yelled at me? Was it my car? My hair? What thing had I done to communicate that I was a drive-through snob? Had I reacted appropriately?

Sometimes through no fault of our own we’re the recipient of horrible words and we just have to endure whatever insults are hurled at us. The lack of choice in the situation doesn’t mean we have to take those words and insults at their face value. No matter what, no one deserves to be verbally berated and abused.

Sure, if you’ve wronged someone they have a right to tell you how they feel about it and you have a duty to make amends in the relationship. That said, letting someone’s insults chip away at your peace, self-esteem, and value is not an appropriate atonement for any wrong you may have committed.

You don’t have any control over someone else’s behavior or words. The only thing you can control is how you respond to whatever insults get hurled your way. The best way to do that is to remind yourself that another person’s behavior isn’t about you. It’s about them. Their words and their actions speak about them and who they are, not about the person they’re flung at.

The words aimed at you in situations like these are personal insults, but the real culprit is the other person’s inner world. Their feelings, life circumstance, and choices have nothing to do with you. You’re not at the controls, they are. It isn’t logical to assume responsibility for the emotions of other people.

There could be any number of things rubbing a person who launches a verbal attack on you the wrong way. They may be coping with a sick relative, health struggles of their own, a recent death in their family, divorce, family problems – any number of things that might affect their emotional status. Whatever lies beneath the anger, isn’t about you.

The lady at McDonald’s could’ve reacted differently. She could have hollered that she was late for work and I would have absolutely let her go ahead of me for whatever minutes it would’ve saved her. She could have kept it to herself, noting that it isn’t usual to scream at people in public that way. She had choices based on her emotional status that comes from her life circumstances – not my fast food salad order. It had nothing to do with me. When similar happens to you, it has nothing to do with you.

When you truly understand that you aren’t responsible for other people’s behavior or emotions it feels like a giant weight is lifted. When you get that words spoken toward you in a verbal attack are unpleasant, but not about you, the hit to your self-esteem lessens and dissipates. When you realize you aren’t responsible and it isn’t about you it also becomes easier to forgive the other person.

This reminds me of an Ian Maclaren (John Watson) quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Help yourself out of the hurtful aftermath of verbal attacks by remembering that the person flipping you off on the interstate, sighing loudly behind you in the grocery check-out, insulting you at family functions, or belittling you at work, is simply fighting a battle you don’t know much about. Repeat to yourself, “Their behavior and words are a reflection of them, not me.”

Smooth Sailing,

Whitney

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