Sunday, October 21, 2018

Some people just want a Reaction

It's a funny old world that we live in and it's full of people that I just don't understand. For the most part, I get along really well with just about everybody but every now and then I encounter "rogue people" who just want to attack me for reason unknown. 

It's something I've noticed since I was a kid and I've never felt that I had a very good handle on why this happens. I don't read people terribly well. I'm improving but I've got a long way to go.

Recently, it's been suggested that it's something to do with the way I present as emotionally unreactive. I thought I'd use this post to explore this.

The Unreactive Child

When I was growing up, it was very much the norm for parents to say "boys don't cry" or "boys have to be tough". Of course, I did cry, especially when I injured myself but after an early life of tantrums and meltdowns and I learned to suppress my emotional responses.

There's also the idea that bullies attack people to get a response and that the best responses for bullies were "no response at all".

At some point in my primary school years, I stopped reacting badly to things that weren't pain -- and I stopped responding to a lot of pain in itself. It wasn't total stoppage of course, if people kept at me, eventually they'd break me but it meant that for the most part, words stopped having any visible effect on me.

Controlling your emotions to such an extent when you're barely into double-digit ages creates a lot of internal stress and torment. I quickly learned that being around people made things so much more difficult and at every possible moment, I retreated to the world of books instead. 

Bullying Doesn't Stop if you Ignore it

At age 12, I was moved in class to sit next to one of the worst of the bullies of our year group. I sat next to him all day, every day and I used to come home with lots of bruises on my arms because he enjoyed punching my shoulder. Eventually, after months of copping abuse, my parents announced that they had to go to a parent-teacher night and they asked me if there was anything I wanted to say.  I asked if I could be moved to sit with someone else.

When my parents got home, they told me that they'd mentioned it to the teacher and that the teacher had said that he'd moved me there because I was the only one who could stand up to the bully. Unlike other people he'd been seated next to, I didn't cry and I didn't seem to be emotionally affected by him. The teacher couldn't move me because nobody else would sit next to the bully.

It seems ridiculous to think about this now because essentially it meant that I, the victim, was suffering on account of the bully's bad behaviour. Regardless, I finished out the year in that position. 

Restoring Emotions

I was sixteen before I gave myself permission to cry again over non-physical issues and when I finally did, It felt like a dam had burst and I cried, out of sight of others, for weeks. It was a big turning point in my life and I emerged a very different person.

Unfortunately by then most of the damage was done. My reactions were numbed and while I'm now able to convey my feelings to a small group of very trusted friends and family, my general reactions in day to day life are those of nonchalance - unless it's an issue of huge proportions.

People often used to say to me, aren't you happy about this (insert whatever happy event), why aren't you smiling?  I don't know exactly what it is but I guess my face has a "resting blank look". Yes I was happy but it just wasn't showing on my face.

The same goes for sad events. Just because my face or my voice don't show issues, it doesn't mean that I'm not drowning in a sea of unhappiness or self-criticism. 

This is me in 1994, It's my ecstatic face. I'd found a Doctor Who museum during a trip to Wales.

Pushing for a Response

Recently I was talking to my wife about an issue in which a colleague was taking every opportunity to pick on me. I was putting on my usual "brave face" but was having some very dark thoughts. I was stunned when my wife turned to me and said, "perhaps she keeps attacking you because you're not reacting".

When it became clear to her that I had no idea what she was talking about, she elaborated; telling me that sometimes in the past, if we had disagreed on something and I was dismissive or didn't put up a fight, she would be so angry with me that she'd push me as hard as she could trying to get a response.

This was news to me but it certainly explained some of her "rogue" behaviour.  Perhaps it was the explanation for others too?

Selecting Responses - Or Not

In exasperation, I asked my wife what I was supposed to do for a response, cry, shout, somehow look dejected?

I've kept my emotions in check for so long that I really wouldn't feel comfortable letting them out, particularly not in the workplace. As for displaying emotional responses on my face, I doubt that I'd be able to figure out how exactly to place my face and in those situations, I'm too stressed and upset to try acting.

We talked about alternative coping strategies or other ways in which I could let people know when their responses hurt me. There are certainly some options available, such as telling someone that their behaviour is hurting you but I don't think I'll be using them. I know enough about bullying to know that showing any sign of weakness can make things so much worse.

I also feel that no matter what I did, I'd still end up being the victim. 

The best I can do is add this person to my mental list of rogue people and limit my interactions whenever possible. After all, it's worked in all other areas of my life.

Sometimes nonchalance is actually the brave face. 

Just a quick final note: Burying your feelings or suppressing your emotions is actually very poor advice but controlling outbursts and being choosy about who to show your feelings to is not. Make sure that you have an outlet. Make sure that you have people that you can talk to. It's okay to hide from bullies but it's not okay to hide from family and friends.