I get my fair share of hate mail on this blog, which I find unpleasant but not entirely surprisingly. Given that CFS appears to involve the emotional centre of the brain, it tends to generate a lot of anxiety and/or anger. Many people aren’t good at expressing their anger cleanly, and some of them choose to channel it into hate mail directed at me.
Being on the receiving end of somebody else’s hostility can be stressful, so it’s important to be assertive with these people to stop their stress from entering my emotional boundary.
He’s an example from last week: I got an email from a female ex-friend who I initially met through this blog, which began:
“I don’t read your shit, but…”
… and went on to give me some unsolicited advice that I didn’t find particularly helpful.
When I met her a few years ago she had been suffering from CFS for several years and seemed really pissed off. Since she lived in the same city as me, I could actually go and hang out with her physically; which I did for a while.
As I got to know her, I learnt a bit about her background story. Her father had abandoned her quite young, and by the sounds of it a string of men had taken advantage of her. To me, she seemed like a classic case of a woman who had been treated badly by men and had a lot of internalised rage towards them. I don’t think she realised this though. Although she was quite attractive, when I saw the way that she treated her boyfriend, I was glad not to be on the receiving end of that.
When I suggested that there might be some link between her anger and her illness, or that at the very least it would be worth seeing a therapist to deal with the feelings she had towards her illness (and hopefully towards men), she resisted the whole idea.
I was still working through a lot of the pain that I was carrying around my critical mother when we met, and was still attracting onto my radar angry women looking for a man to dump on. My mother would never plainly say that she was angry; instead, her anger came out in toxic passive-aggressive ways like sarcasm, criticism, belittlement and bullying. Just like this woman.
I finally decided to cut contact with her a couple of years back in the aftermath of some hostile comments she wrote on Facebook about an article that I wrote on another blog linking mental Illness with unexpressed emotion. She disagreed strongly, but that wasn’t the problem for me: it was the way that she expressed her obvious anger about what I wrote, that I didn’t like.
When I empathised with her for the anger that she felt, she reacted with increasing hostility and denial, often IN UPPERCASE as if to shout at me. Although she was clearly angry about what I had written, she was unable to recognise or acknowledge it in herself.
Like when someone yells “I AM NOT ANGRY!!!”
I shifted the conversation about my article to a private chat to see if we could resolve it. After a few goes offering more empathy for her anger and receiving more sarcasm and hostility in return, I realised that she wasn’t able to acknowledge her anger and I was tired of bearing the brunt of it. I didn’t like her pattern of sarcastic behavior towards me when she was angry, and I’d had enough of putting up with that kind of crap from other people. I decided to unfriend and block her from Facebook.
I now see showing empathy as the best way to both calm an angry person, and identify whether you want to keep them in your life or not. Just notice how they respond when you offer empathy. If you say “You sound really angry with me” and they deny it even more angrily or respond sarcastically; then you know you are dealing with somebody who doesn’t want to face up to their own anger.
Of course it’s possible when offering empathy that I might get it wrong; but if I empathise with someone’s anger and it turns out that they aren’t actually angry, they generally just correct me; without sarcasm and hostility.
I don’t mind people getting angry from time to time, but I don’t want women with internalised rage towards men using me as a dumping ground just because I’m a sensitive, compassionate guy. Women like that are just replaying the dynamic between my mother and father which I don’t wish to recreate in my life any more. So now I act assertively when they come my way.
If someone wants to pay me to teach them how to express that anger in a healthy way, I’m up for that. But to do that requires a certain level of self-awareness. You’ve got to be able to acknowledge that the anger is there in the first place, and some people just aren’t ready or willing to do that yet. Each time I walk away from them, it’s another step towards breaking the unhealthy relational patterns that I learnt from my parents.
The trick is to avoid getting sucked into an argument with someone who uses criticism, sarcasm and bullying to inflict harm as an outlet for their anger instead of identifying and expressing anger cleanly in order to resolve issues and build a stronger relationship.
The only way to “win/win” an argument with somebody who would rather deliberately hurt you than deal with their own anger is to not play the game. Have the last word by saying that you just don’t wish to continue the conversation.
My final email to my ex-friend read:
“I get that you’re angry and I don’t like the way you express it.
I don’t wish to communicate with you again.”