Saturday, July 08, 2006

Deliberate misunderstanding

How many times do we all deliberately misunderstand what someone has said, wanting to start an argument or a fight in order to safely vent our spleens?

When I lived in New Orleans for a brief time I lived with someone. His nickname was Cap, short for captain. He was a pushboat captain and I met him in the French Quarter when he was pushing a hot dog and getting what work he could since pushboat jobs were few and far between. I had an apartment in Gretna at the time and he lived with me. Many times he would come home angry and upset and start a fight with me. I knew enough of his habits and cycles that I knew not to get caught up in his need to vent. Of course, me sitting calmly on the couch while he stomped up and down waving his arms and shouting and answering him in quiet but neutral tones didn't help his mood at all. My calm fueled his rage until he finally stormed off in a huff.

Growing up, my mother's favorite pastime, or so it seemed to me, was arguing with me. She knew exactly what buttons to push and how to goad me into exchanging verbal blows until I was in tears and she ready to whip me. When I was older and married and living clear across the country she called me on the phone just to start an argument. That was in the old days when calling long distance was not even close to affordable. My mother's favorite tactic was starting an argument, get me going and then hang up when I had the upper hand. She did the same thing when I lived close by and the phone call was free. It was as if she needed to stir up my emotions for some need or reason of her own.

I have learned not to rise to the bait. It took me many years and I still sometimes slip but most of the time I remain calm and neutral and refuse to engage. Today was one of those days.

Every once in a while a friend, determined to be angry and vent their spleen at me because it's safe and they know my love and care for them will prevent me from walking away, takes a verbal/emotional poke at me. It's easy to remain calm and reasonable in the face of such anger -- even when the anger comes by email. I readily take responsibility for what may have seemed unclear to them but they seldom respond with sweet, calm reason. I know at such times they are going through some difficulties of their own that have nothing to do with me and I happen to be a convenient target -- the old "hurt the one you love" scenario. They don't know I understand their attach isn't personal, just convenient. Instead of facing their emotions and their anger and dealing with the reason(s) or person(s) at the root causing their need to be angry and vent they vent where and when they feel it is safe. In this case, with me. I would explain this to them if they were in a sane frame of mind and willing and able to listen and understand but that is a remote possibility. The only safe course of action is to recognize what is happening, if not why, and give them time and distance to cool off.

I know from personal experience that when I go to the calm and neutral place in the face of anger and personal attacks it seems disingenuous and almost as if I don't take the person or the situation seriously. I have even on occasion been called a martyr for such actions. That isn't the case. It's simply having learned the lesson that nothing is solved or resolved when people emotions are in the red and it's a waste of energy to discuss anything at that point. I'm no martyr but I am a student of human nature and their subtle but equally loud and clear nonverbal signals. I learned my lesson from a book called The Celestine Prophecy, which is now a movie. I have written and talked about the scene before that helped me understand what happens when people argue.

The narrator is walking down a path in a forest in South America when he hears and sees two people arguing. He sees them each sprouting flames from their heads (not real flames but psychic flames) that shift from person to person as they argue. As each person gains control of the argument the flames bend towards them and feed them, a sort of energy transfer. I realized at that moment that's what happened when I argued with my mother; she was being energized and feeding off my emotions. The same is true of anyone involved in an argument. Someone is being energized by the strong emotions being generated and that is why some people look for contention or cause arguments and emotional upheavals. Do it long and often enough and you have created a ready made source of psychic fuel for your system. People can and do become addicted to this kind of energy exchange. Some people actually use the energy to control others, especially people close to them, either physically or emotionally close. It is abusive -- emotionally and mentally abusive.

Today's situation was not meant as abuse. It was more like a child throwing a tantrum. There are two ways of dealing with someone having a tantrum. You can either fuel their need for attention or you can ignore them. Of the two, the latter works 100% of the time. As much as I care about my friend, I realize they are going through a difficult period and I am a safe target. Unfortunately for them I intend to ignore their temper tantrum and give them time to cool off and gain some perspective. Hopefully, they will realize what they are doing and face the root of their problem instead of aiming at a safer target. Maybe some day they'll get it.

No comments: