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.
So you have heard this many times before, when reporting about someone’s hostile interactions with you, you are advised not to take it personally. It’s good advice but how do you get there? As social, thinking and feeling beings, when we interact with others we come to seek feedback that mirrors our desires in the conversation. This leads to frustration when in return for our engagement in a conversation we receive hostile words and gestures.
The best way to understand this phenomenon is to visit this site and have a conversation with the Artificial Intelligence software called A.L.I.C.E. Having a conversation with the free to use A.I can be very frustrating if you came to the site with big expectations. By the third line into the conversation the A.I goes completely off topic, and then doesn’t return back to the conversation at hand. When you try to steer the conversation on a particular direction, the A.I responds to you as if this were the topic you both agreed to discuss. At times, the A.I might respond to you with provocative words like, “Whoa!” or insulting statements like, “You are an idiot.”
A similar phenomenon takes place with hostile people, you are engaged in what you determined initially to be a friendly conversation, or perhaps a routine conversation, and you are greeted with hostility. Your initially response might be confusion and anger, at which point you seek retaliation. Regardless of how you choose to respond, keep in mind that your intentions going into that conversation were never the same as the hostile person’s intentions. You intended for a peaceful conversation, and they intended for a hostile confrontation. It really isn’t personal, they were looking to have a hostile encounter with someone, anyone. So then it becomes irrational for you to take hostility personally. In some cases, the hostile person may insist that their hostility towards you is based on something about you that they find offensive. Even if the hostile person believes this, the truth is they were seeking out a hostile confrontation. It was never about you, you just happened to be someone who became available as a target. Furthermore, what keeps the hostile encounter going is your continued input. You working very hard to have a peaceful conversation, while the other person puts in half the effort into provoking you.
Understanding this phenomenon goes a long way in not taking things personal. The solution is simple, you disengage. If you are dealing with someone you have to deal with, you use verbal judo to throw them mentally off balance, state your boundaries and then disengage.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.