Illustration by Suneesh K.
Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.
You’ve been minding your own business, or maybe partying with a crowd that does their own thing while you do yours; you live and let live. Yet, somehow you’re in the wrong. Someone has decided they don’t like you, and that you deserve to be punished. You don’t have to be the son of a superstar to feel like the world is out to get you. It happens to us in our workplaces, neighbourhoods and communities. It can be a guy in the building who decides he doesn’t like single women or men, people who smoke or drink, wear jeans, or just because. We’re reaching flashpoints of intolerance that don’t even need a clear cause anymore.
How do we cope with aggravations that are designed to provoke us? The first thing is to recognise that they need your reaction to justify their aggression. When they get an outburst from you, they have the satisfaction of being provocateurs. This grants them a position of power in the dynamic. The unprovoked victim leaves them feeling dissatisfied and even looking a little foolish.
The outburst has them pulling the strings. Typically, the reason for unsolicited aggression is power itself. You have or are free of some form of it that they have had to bow to, so they have been feeling powerless when you were feeling (they would say ‘flaunting’ because that is what it feels like to them) free.
Let’s say a neighbour has never been able to wear what they want when they want, or leave the house at night. They’ve silently obeyed these rules but then here comes someone (you) to whom such restrictions don’t apply. It irks the neighbour. The contrast to them, even if you’re oblivious to it, is clear. And it makes them feel foolish. How do they reclaim some power in this situation? They turn to the external power structures available to them. Perhaps a community-appointed designation or a morally conservative religion-sanctioned position. You find a notice goes up in the housing colony that women will not be permitted to wear jeans or enter and exit the building alone after 10 pm. This makes them feel like they’re back in charge.
You have two paths of action. The first is don’t react, the second is respond. Non reaction sounds defeatist. After all, why should you comply with a clearly arbitrary and irrational order from someone who has no authority to make such impositions? However, your reacting grants them the fix they’re seeking, which is control. You now comply with their terms, even if that compliance is an argument. When we react to people who take arbitrary control, we grant them arbitrary power over the situation. We’re looking to them for answers, we want to win them over - either through argument or by appealing to their better judgement - which puts them in the pole position. Worse, when you argue from personal privilege, you reinforce their feeling of powerlessness and activate their self pride. Now they won’t back down.
Instead, if you need to correct a situation, avoid a direct reaction to the person making the power grab. Instead, consider the situation. Is there only one response available to you? You could check the bylaws, file a complaint with the ombudsman, take it to the law, or call in the media; i.e., appeal to a higher power. What this does is shift the locus of power from yourself to an external source. Now the battle broadens and where they were looking for an argument from just you, they now have to explain themselves to a larger group of people who do have legal authority over them and greater staying power in the argument, which is a potential threat to them. Social media has been really useful in making this larger virality of amplified power available to ordinary people. This is why companies with bad customer service will respond when called out online.
If you’re looking to win an argument, a shouting match is best and he who shouts louder wins. If you’re looking to manage the situation with the least possible damage, shift the locus of power away from yourself. Don’t play the game on the opponent’s terms. Just win.