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Being Civil is Really Hard.

So, how do we treat people well when we're pissed off? Should civility even be the goal?

 

Quick note: this post is about anger. It'll dip its toes into topics like abuse.

If those are not topics you want to read about, skip over this one.

 

Here are my thoughts: trying to have a high standard for yourself during conflict is much more important than acing it.

Right now, our society is having a moment where we're supposed to be so thoroughly removed from our emotions during conflict that it sounds like we're sending memos back and forth. But let's be real, for a lot of us, that is just not possible, nor do I think it should even be aspirational.

I am a really passionate, highly emotional person. Anyone who watches my videos (and I am assuming that's most of the people reading this) knows that I am highly expressive. I gesture, I have a very animated face, and when I'm upset, I sound upset. For me to come across like a memo, I would have to divorce myself entirely from my authenticity. And I don't want to do that.

I do not think the goal of civility should be not sounding upset, or being perfectly serene. My take is that the goal ought to be expressing upset in ways aligned with our personal values (more on personal values at a later date). So, maybe I'll still raise my voice, but I will make a concerted effort not to call anyone a butthead. But it can be really hard sometimes to avoid calling people buttheads, and that's important to talk about, too.

First of all, let's talk about why we get mad.

Anger has a really bad reputation, and while I get that it can be uncomfortable to witness or to feel, it is actually really important. We get mad when something feels unjust, and we get mad when we're not being understood. There are things in life that should piss us off! Some stuff sucks, and it makes sense to respond like it sucks. When stuff sucks and we respond like it's fine, that is the less healthy reaction.

Anger is an emotion. Anger is not: rage, abuse, or any specific behavior like yelling, insulting, hitting. Anger is not an excuse for abuse or violence, either. But sometimes, anger will lead to some of these behaviors, and sometimes our best attempts at confronting injustice will in themselves be unjust to others. Sometimes, we yell, or we call someone a butthead.

But I thought we were trying not to call people buttheads.

Operative word: trying. I honestly don't think it's healthy to aspire to never ever ever enact any of these behaviors. "Avoid where possible" is a much more achievable goal, and it comes along with the recognition that sometimes, it's just not possible. Sometimes, people hit a particular pain point. Sometimes, we've tried really really hard to be civil, and it just didn't work. There are a lot of reasons to end up arriving at butthead.

Generally, I think that too much of our societal view of personal growth is aimed at becoming perfect and serene. There will always be something you're doing imperfectly, and in this view, that means there will always be something you're doing wrong. In this view, it is your duty to ascend to perfection, to always be kind, to always have the most patient, measured, nuanced response. And importantly, there will always be someone whose book you can buy about it.

(Okay, I know I started this blog to get used to writing and eventually write books. And I know that what I am doing right now can for sure be lumped into "self help." But I can still try to be ungrifty about it & call out the grifty folk...right?)

Selling perfection is a fantastic grift, because when it inevitably doesn't make everything in your life better forever, it'll be because you simply weren't perfect enough. No matter what happens, it's somehow always your fault. You will always have room to have done whatever it was better. And I don't know about you, but that doesn't inspire me to stay serene and civil.

But what if I DO want to be mad and civil?

I think the place to start is to figure out why you want that, and what it even means to you. Are there benefits to you & your relations that you want from it, or have you just been told you're supposed to want it? If you really do want it, great! I am by no means anti-civility. I am against the idea that it is required at all times in all situations.

I wasn't really planning to go how-to here, but I'll give a few ideas:

  • Express to your partners and friends that you're trying to stop saying butthead so much, and that it would go a long way if they'd validate the times you don't say butthead.

  • Do some research on communication styles that might more effectively get across what you're trying to say when you call someone a butthead. I really like nonviolent communication, where you focus on needs and feelings.

  • When you inevitably do say "butthead," apologize, and re-frame what you want to say without calling the person any names.

  • Remember that when you feel yourself getting escalated in conflict, it's okay to take a break and try again. And try not to spend the break stewing about it. (the last section of this post may help)

So to sum it all up: do your best, but don't expect perfection. Anger is important and powerful, and it's okay to get angry sometimes. Your habits do not need to exist to bring you closer to perfection. You can just exist and do the stuff that aligns with your goals (or, ultimately, not). And of course, where possible, try not to call your loved ones buttheads.



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