I believe we've all been on the receiving end of a nasty email before. This is how my last week started, with an abrasive email on Monday morning. I find myself itching to ask: What do you do when this happens to you? Because after all the soul-searching work I have done – from meditation to family constellation, from shamanistic rituals to therapy, from kinesiology to astro readings – these emails get me every time.
Not only do they seem to always catch me on the wrong foot, but in a flash, I'm seven years old again and being sent to my room. Of course, I can rationalize. I know that objectively I have done nothing wrong. But even if I know the other person is hitting below the belt, emotionally, I panic. Inwardly I start shaking. My heart starts to race and I can't help feeling guilty.
I wish that somewhere over the last thirty-six years I had learnt to dodge the blow. But somehow I'm still not spiritually and emotionally evolved enough. I was stunned by the repercussions of last week's nasty email. So I did what I always do, when I'm perplexed. I went out and talked to the wise women and men in my life. And because I think we have all suffered from the emotional aftermath of a nasty email, here's some of the wisdom I've collected.
“Stay friendly.” At first it sounds a lot like turning the other cheek. But that's not what it is. I also don't like the phrase: “Don't sink to their level.” That's not what this means either. It's more the attempt of bringing the conversation back to a level that is civil and maybe even objective.
Being friendly can be like hitting the brakes and turning the car around. Sometimes it works.
It's also a smart move: If you stay friendly, especially in writing, down the road there's nothing anyone can hold against you.
Is it their stuff, or is it mine?
My friend Emily, who also does my astro charts, gave me this little piece of wisdom once. It refers to the fact that when we react in an irritable, cranky, rash or abrasive way, it's usually not exactly because of what is happening. The present situation triggers an old memory and we respond with a coping mechanism that we haven't updated since early childhood.
For instance: My husband often points to my half-empty tea cup in the morning and asks: “Are you still going to drink this?” Every time, I get cross. What I hear is “I'm so annoyed you're always leaving your empty tea cups on the table!”, even though that's not at all what he means. He's just asking if he can clear it away.
The child in me gets angry at being reprimanded. But that's not the present moment, that's the past. And it's most definitely my stuff, not my husband's. It's good to keep this in mind when you reread the nasty email. Say to yourself: “This person isn't necessarily reacting to something I did. This might be their stuff, not mine.”
My mentor, David, said to me: “The older I get, the more I realize I learn from absolutely everything.” Such emails are a fantastic opportunity to learn something about our psychological texture. We may be catapulted back to the age of seven, we may feel our inner child reacting, but we retrace our steps and ask: Why is this email such a big deal to me? What is behind my first reaction (which might be anger or defensiveness)? Why do I feel attacked when I know I have done nothing wrong? Why am I taking this so personally? What am I afraid of?
Strong emotions are always sign posts with the words “dig deeper” on them. I highly recommend sitting in meditation and just letting the emotion unfold. It doesn't even have to be on a cushion. You can do it while riding on the bus or driving your car or going for a walk or taking a shower. If you sit with it (or walk or stand with it) for a little bit, the outer layers are shed and you see what's inside. In my experience, it's almost always some kind of fear.
Something we did, not who we are
I don't know if this can be generalized, but the nastiness in any argument usually comes from turning something you did into something you are. Yes, sometimes I behave like an asshole. That does not mean that I AM an asshole. Pardon my French.
In other words: We all make mistakes. But that's something we did, it's not who we are. People may do something that isn't terribly mindful, but that doesn't mean that they ARE disrespectful. So forgive yourself. And others.
Not feeling seen
This relates to point four. When someone assumes that we are a certain way because we did a certain thing, it hurts. Because we don't feel heard or seen for who we truly are. Nobody is deliberately vile and nobody wants to be perceived as such. Sometimes we just lose control or need to say something that's not easy to hear for the other party.
Personally, I find it helpful to have a conversation with my inner child at this point. I know, frighteningly esoteric. But try to imagine yourself as you were as a four-year old child. Then tell the child-version of yourself: “I see you. I know you have a good heart. I know you didn't mean that. It's ok. I still love you.” Cheesy. But it works.
Beneath anger and aggression there's usually pain, fear or insecurity. The sender of the nasty email probably felt threatened, scared, betrayed or simply overwhelmed in some way. We are all familiar with these emotions. Is it possible to feel for the sender of the nasty email then? Can we develop empathy, or even compassion?What happens on the level of interactions doesn't always have to be lovey-dovey.
I think it's important to speak up for yourself and face conflict in a dignified and civil way (see point one). But beneath that, you can still keep that person in your heart. There's no need to shut them out. It may interesting to note that cultivating compassion behind the scenes goes a long way, even if on a surface-level the relationship remains difficult.
I know, revenge seems sweet. Lashing out and writing snappy reply can feel so tempting. I have been there many times in the past. And the temptation never seems to go away. But these days, I like to hold myself to higher standards.