One of my favorite books, by Dr. Eric Berne, discusses in detail three ego states people transition throughout their daily experiences. These ego states are simplified as adult ego state, parent ego state and the child ego state. For clarity, I will define each of these states as their definitions bare importance for the title of this post.
The adult ego state can be defined as an objective state of consciousness. It is in this mind state that we can see things for what they are, without any assigned meanings or interpretations, (think Data from star trek). The parent ego state can be defined as a moralistic state of consciousness, it is from this state of consciousness that we pass judgement on the behaviors of ourselves and others. Finally, the child ego state can be defined as primal/emotional state of consciousness. It is from this state that we seek to get our emotional needs of acceptance, recognition, love, respect and autonomy met.
Now, you may be asking yourself, what does all this have to do with handling hostility? Simple, the best way to handle hostility is from the adult ego state. This is because, in this mindset, you are not taking things personally, you have both your parent and child ego states in check and you win. The aggressor is not successful in getting you upset and gives up.
This video, shows the me using demonstrating the adult mindset in action.
Now getting yourself in the adult ego state is easier said than done, even If you know you will be dealing with hostility in a future interaction. While I respect and deeply appreciate the work of Dr. Berne, nothing compares to cognitive behavioral therapy. This is because the best way to handle hostility comes from a revaluation and reordering of your belief system. For example, if you know you are headed into a hostile situation, it would be a great time to challenge your beliefs regarding your interactions with others.
If done properly, you will always arrive at an objective belief that states something to the effect that while hostility from others is not preferred, you can choose to not take it personally and focus on more healthier relationships. The process of addressing your beliefs forces you to simultaneously address your beliefs about morals and values (parent ego state) and how you get your emotional needs met, (child ego state.)
The strange thing about the parent ego state is that is that it is often wrong and only right when you encounter someone who shares the same morals and values with you. A popular example would be religion, specifically, religious rules on human behavior. Your morals are often going to be validated by someone of the same faith as you, while disregarded by someone else who does not share your faith. An objective reevaluation of your belief system will reveal that if someone’s behavior does not involve harm to someone else, then there are no issues. Further, even if someone’s behavior does involve harm to another person, the best course of action is to aid the person harmed, rather than attack the person doing the harming.
I knew of a gentleman, an old friend, he is deceased now. Years ago, before he passed away, he was well known between circles as being obnoxious and aggressive. Then there was an incident in which he and I received unfair treatment from a professor. As I engaged the professor to engage to rectify the situation, I noticed that my friend was unusually quiet. As the disagreement between the professor and I intensified, my friend became even more uncharacteristically meek.
In the years that followed, I have seen this phenomenon repeat itself several times with different people. Heck, it appears that the more boisterous they present themselves, the more likely they are to respond passively during a serious conflict.
Now why is this?
With clients, I have worked with over the years, who display this phenomenon, one thing they all have in common is an emotionally abusive and sometimes physically abusive past. This is not to imply that anyone who experiences an abusive past will grow up to be pretentious, but those who are pretentious about being tough, almost certainly do have an abusive past. The reason for this behavior is due to the manner the person learned to interpret conflicts as a child. Specifically, for those who engage in pretentious behavior, these people came to the unfortunate conclusion that they were ill equipped to cope with conflicts. Thus, the obnoxious and aggressive behavior is an adaptation to ward off would be bullies and abusers.
This technique may have served its purpose during their childhood, however in adulthood, they run into the inevitable of having to deal with people intent on provoking conflicts with them and others. The problem with people who are pretentious in regards to the attitude they put on, is that in their private lives they habitually run away from conflicts. Examples of issues they deal with are, failure to stand up for themselves, on the job, in their personal lives and failure to protect their children from abusive situations.
I once witnessed a father threaten his daughter, after she confronted him for not protecting her from an abusive situation during her adolescent years. It is interesting that he felt comfortable with saying the things he said to her, even though he never addressed the poor treatment his daughter received with her aggressors. In truth, he lashed out the way he did, because he was ashamed and it was too painful for him to hear about how he had failed his daughter.
The good news, is that there a solution towards becoming more courageous and it has nothing to do with putting on an aggressive act. The solutions are a three-step method and is as follows:
- Calmly address the offending behavior by the other party.
- Listen carefully for a possible explanation, or a refusal to explain.
- Calmly state what actions you are going to take if the behavior continues.
In this video, I demonstrate with a colleague how to use verbal judo, in which I carefully integrate the three steps.
Of course, this is easier said than done, and that’s because issues of incompetency highlighted by feelings of intense fear will come up for some people who use this technique. A solution to this would be practice beforehand with a situation that you just experienced.
For example, let’s say you experienced a conflict with a supervisor, where you became tongue tied due to a fear of being let go. Write out the incident as it happened and document your feelings every step of the way. The goal for this exercise is to document how you reacted to each feeling and then document how you would have preferred to have responded to the feelings. Finally, you are going to practice visualizing yourself giving your preferred response to each feeling.
You should practice exercise at least once a day, to trigger the process of neuroplasticity. For best results, I would suggest working one on one with a cognitive behavioral therapy.
Do you find yourself getting easily angered during debates with someone who vehemently disagrees with you. Whether you get angry because you expected to be agreed with or you get angry because you feel you are being villainized for your beliefs, this video is for you.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.