Originally published in Psychologies magazine, Feb 2011
Jane spent weeks organizing the office Christmas party. She booked the room, organized the entertainment and tickets, sent out the e-mails. The party went well and at its end, her manager stood up to make the customary speech. ‘He didn’t even bother to thank me,’ Jane says. ‘I was enraged. All the effort I’d put in and he didn’t even acknowledge it. So I thought, ‘If he doesn’t value my work, I’m not going to value him either.’ I felt I had to get back at him, so I was difficult and uncommunicative. Our working relationship deteriorated so much that I ended up leaving and taking another job. It was a big mistake, because in retrospect I realise I was happy with that job.’
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.
In one case, a teenager shot a man at a basketball match because ‘I didn’t like the way he was eye-balling me.’ He went up to the man and asked, ‘What are you looking at?’ This led to insults and the shooting. One young woman stabbed another because she wore her dress without asking. Another young man became enraged after an acquaintance tried to shake his hand while he was eating, and shot him later outside the caf.
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.
So what can we do to make ourselves less vulnerable to slights?
According to the personal performance consultant, Ken Keis – author of the book Why aren’t you more like me? – the first step is simply to accept that we feel hurt. ‘That sounds easy, but it’s much easier for us to 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.
The common types of slights:
— Being left out e.g. not being invited to a party which other people you know are going to, or being excluded from an important meeting at work.
— Being forgotten e.g. someone forgets to buy you a birthday present, or your partner forgets to buy you a valentines card; or you meet an old school friend and they don’t recognize you.
— Being ignored e.g. you say hello to someone and they blank you, or a friend doesn’t return your calls or e-mails; or you come up with some fantastic ideas at work but your colleagues don’t pay attention.
— Rejection e.g. when a report you’ve written is sent back for more work, when you ask someone out and they turn you down.
— When a favour or some help isn’t appreciated e.g. when you give someone a lift, or cook them a meal or buy them a present, but they leave without showing any gratitude.
— When people are rude or inconsiderate e.g. when someone pushes in front of you a queue, or doesn’t apologise after bumping into you.
How to deal with slights
- First of all, accept that you feel hurt.
- Take the perspective of the other person. Did they really mean to slight you, or are you misinterpreting the situation?
- Don’t ruminate over the hurt.
- Rather than automatically reacting with anger, ask yourself what the consequences of this will be.
- Practice meditation or other relaxation techniques to create a more grounded and stable sense of self.
- Remind yourself that as long as you respect yourself, no one else should have the power to offend you.