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Surviving Highly Offended People

highly-offended-person-previewThe great majority of us are on the wrong end of an abusive relationship. There is a hypersensitivity problem in our society, and it’s costing us time, money, and freedom. This problem deserves a name, so I’ll take the liberty of coining a new psychiatric term: Highly Offended Person (HOP).

HOPs are stricken with a form of fragility that leaves them emotionally unsettled by routine interactions that non-HOPs find to be mundane or amusing. For example, according to this Washington Post story, a handful of HOPs have complained that this year’s Super Bowl commercials were sexist, racist, patriarchal, and transphobic. By extension, the women and men who created those ads would have to be sexist, racist, patriarchal, and transphobic.

That sort of name-calling has become the lever by which HOPs exercise power over the rest of us. Are you getting tired of it? I am. I’m also fascinated by this slow-motion train wreck. I’ve watched this behavior for years, and I’ve formed some opinions about what drives it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are a couple items to consider before we dissect this highly offended personality style…

First, I don’t intend “HOP” to be a term of derision. Hypersensitivity has become a widespread and costly problem, and it needs a solution. Assigning a proper name to a problem is often the first step in solving it. [A late edition to this post: HOP shouldn’t be confused with the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), which is an entirely different matter.]

Second, we can’t discuss hypersensitivity without a working definition of the word “offensive.” Let me give it a shot.

There are topics the vast majority of us consider to be morally offensive—things like cannibalism, sexualizing children, and dogfighting. The people who enjoy these things are such a small minority that we consider them perverted. Let’s call this category of perverted activities objectively offensive.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are words and ideas that offend only a small number of us. Here’s one:

Willem Dafoe Snickers commercial

That’s Willem Dafoe wearing a dress in one of the aforementioned Super Bowl commercials. He is trying to sell you a Snickers bar.

The vast majority of us don’t find Dafoe in a dress to be morally objectionable. Some do, but they’re such a small minority that we consider them hypersensitive. Let’s call this sort of thing subjectively offensive because it doesn’t violate our common moral standards.

Dafoe in a dress is the sort of thing that most of us find benign or humorous. But not the HOP. The HOP finds it threatening, and the HOP wants us to knock it off.

I’m certainly not the first to suggest that we’ve given too much power to HOPs. There’s palpable and increasingly open grousing about it these days. Let’s go beyond the grousing and try to understand the behavior. What drives this hypersensitivity, and how do we reverse this destructive trend?

Living with HOPs

If you ask a non-HOP what it’s like to marry or date a HOP, you’ll hear something like this…

It’s like walking on eggshells. I never know what’s going to set them off, so I avoid joking around or saying something that might make them angry. I have to keep things to myself. I don’t like it, but it’s better than trying to put them back together when they melt down over some stupid little thing.

I’ve met a fair number of these stressed-out folks because they end up in my office trying to cope with the anxiety of an unpredictably hostile partner. Living with a Highly Offended Person means living with random punishment, and few things are more anxiety-provoking than the loss of agency over the outcomes of our behavior.

Sorry, that was behavioral jargon. Think of it like this. Imagine you must press a button every day to get your breakfast. Without that button, you don’t eat.

Let’s say that most days, pressing the button produces a tasty stack of pancakes and bacon. But once in a while—completely at random—that button produces a painful electric shock. You’ll learn to dread pushing the button more quickly and more deeply than if it produced a shock at regular intervals—say, every third time. You would enjoy some measure of control if you were prepared for the shocks, but random punishment is a bitch. It puts a person on constant high alert.

That random quality is what makes HOPs so difficult to live with, whether it’s the hypersensitive spouse roaming the living room, or the hair-trigger activists roaming society.

Who would have predicted that Willem Dafoe’s dress would raise the ire of activists? Their reaction was unpredictable because it was unreasonable. But you can bet that at least a few people responsible for the advertisement feel undeservedly ashamed because they took to heart the accusation that they are sexist and transphobic.

Those well-intentioned souls were unpredictably punished for reasonable behavior. They’ll probably be a less daring and less creative next time. HOPs just made the world a bit less fun for the rest of us, and they’re doing it every day.

As a group, we’re walking on eggshells. We’re trying to avoid lawsuits, scoldings, and accusations that we are terrible people. This anxiety is turning to anger. An increasing number of us are openly griping about hypersensitivity. The backlash to the Willem Dafoe backlash, for example, has been pretty vocal.

So what’s driving these HOPs to punish the rest of us? Well, certainly there are some people who gather power and money by being offended. I’m working on a different blog post on that topic. For now, let’s focus on people who honestly feel traumatized by subjectively inoffensive ideas—the variety of folk who, rather than seeking money or power, would revoke freedom of expression so they never again are tormented by the visage of Willem Dafoe in a dress.

What Drives HOP Behavior

When the activist website Upworthy tweeted that Willem Dafoe’s Snickers advertisement was “transphobic,” one of the many frustrated commenters responded, “Hey Upworthy, have a Snickers. You get a little humorless & authoritarian when you are hungry.” Another wrote, “good grief, you are offended by everything, aren’t you.”

And then there was this comment: “Jesus Christ, its like you people can’t turn it off. That must be hell.”

I don’t think that last commenter intended any empathy toward HOPs, but he’s on to something. Emotional rawness must be difficult in a world with pointy edges. That’s one of the reasons I don’t use “HOP” in a mocking tone. While I’m not always patient about hypersensitivity, I feel for people who walk around feeling genuinely tormented.

In my clinical estimation, the HOP’s pain is genuine, and it’s rooted in three maladaptive ways of interacting with the world. They appear prone to misinterpretation of intent, external locus of control, and poor self-regulation. Let’s look at ’em.

Misinterpretation of Intent. Here’s something to ponder: why is it OK for Willem Dafoe to wear drag but not blackface? They are similar behaviors, so why aren’t they similarly offensive?

The answer, I think, is intent. Blackface denigrates a race, which is objectively offensive in Western culture. Willem Dafoe in drag, however, is self-deprecating. He’s not mocking gender or orientation. He’s chiding himself for possessing a decidedly harsh appearance. If he’s making any statement whatsoever about gender, it is only to celebrate the qualities of femininity.

Most of us understand that. But Upworthy’s protest of the Snickers advertisement is a perfect example of misinterpreting intent. They failed to correctly ascertain the intended target of the humor, and they took offense.

As the Twitter commenter noted, that must be hell.

External Locus of Control. Locus of control is a wonderful old personality concept that has fallen out of use. It refers to way in which people explain their experiences. Those who possess an internal locus of control generally believe that events in their lives derive from their efforts. If they passed an exam, it’s because they studied. If they’re happy, it’s because they did things to create happiness.

People with an external locus of control generally believe they are at the mercy of outside forces. If they failed the test, it’s because the teacher was unfair. If they’re unhappy, it’s because someone made them that way. I believe HOPs operate with this externalizing worldview.

Several people responded to Upworthy’s Twitter post by suggesting that they were looking for a reason to be offended. I think that observation is spot-on. People with an external locus of control cannot rely on themselves to regulate their own emotions, and so they must monitor their environment in order to make sense of their internal state.

I believe this is why the HOP appears to be constantly on the lookout for a good reason to feel injured. They are probably relying too heavily on external cues to guide their emotional experience. This is undoubtedly why non-HOPs feel as though they are constantly being scrutinized by the HOPs in their lives.

Poor Self-Regulation. People who interact with the world in a maladaptive way face an unpleasant truth: they are making their own lives difficult, and they are the only ones who can fix it. In short: they need to change.

We all need to change and improve in some way. That can be tough to sit with. Sometimes it is easier to demand that others change. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a maladaptive personality style has to do with willingness to behave differently. Clearly, some people at Upworthy prefer that Snickers do the hard work of changing. That would certainly be easier than learning to tolerate ideas they dislike.

When people cannot regulate their own emotions, they try instead to regulate other people’s behavior. If there is one single trait of the HOP that stands out more than any other, this is it. It’s why non-HOPs perceive HOPs as constantly making unreasonable demands: poor self-regulation leads HOPs to place the burden of change on others rather than on themselves.

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Responding to HOPs

Humans are astoundingly resilient creatures. Yet, the vast majority of us have ended up in what is essentially an abusive relationship at the hands of a few Highly Offended People.

I use the term “abusive relationship” advisedly. Too many of us are frightened that we’ll be randomly punished for mundane behavior. We feel constantly monitored. We police and squelch our own normal discourse to avoid the anger of some hypercritical HOP lurking in the shadows. We risk public shame or humiliation when we displease HOPs. Too often we behave as if their happiness is our responsibility.

If that doesn’t sound like an abusive relationship, I don’t know what does. And like any abusive relationship, it is the emotionally immature who dominate the strong and capable.

How the hell did this happen?

I think the answer is that we are basically a kind society. We don’t like to see people suffer. And so, like overindulgent parents, the majority have allowed a small minority to dominate us with ridiculous demands. And like the overindulgent parent, our kindness amounts to cruelty. All of us need emotional limits, and our misguided deference has contributed to the HOP’s painful inability to regulate their own emotions. And it’s certainly not making the rest of us happy.

The answer is simple, on paper: stop apologizing for normal behavior, and stop constraining subjectively offensive expression in the service of “protecting” the hypersensitive among us.

In practice, though, it’s a bit more complicated. This abusive relationship is now part of our legal system and our corporate culture. Hypersensitivity now pays. Literally. The right complaint, now matter how unreasonable, can result in a tidy windfall at the hands of a sympathetic judge or HR department.

Reversing course—that is, demanding that HOPs take responsibility for their own emotional regulation—would undoubtedly create what we psychologists call an extinction burst. Whenever you try to extinguish an established behavior, that behavior increases temporarily in an effort to reestablish the previous reinforcers.

Sorry. That was more jargon. It works like this: imagine a mother and child who go grocery shopping together each week. The child demands candy each time. If the mother doesn’t deliver the goods, the child delivers a tantrum. The mother supplies the candy in order to silence the child and avoid accusative stares. Before long, the kid will have the mother well trained to provide candy on demand. (This hypothetical is not so different from activists calling advertisers racist, sexist, patriarchal, and transphobic.)

Now imagine that the mother decides to deny the demand from this day forward. The first time she stands firm, the child will deliver a tantrum of increased proportion in an attempt to regain control over the candy situation. (That’s the extinction burst.) But the tantrum will be smaller next time. Eventually, the child will learn to regulate his own behavior and the tantrums will diminish.

One gets the sense that the majority of us are in the position of the mother who is about to take a stand with the child. It ain’t going to be easy. It might involve lawsuits, public shaming, and new heights of hypersensitivity. In other words, a big ol’ tantrum. But if we’re strong—if we show true kindness by providing emotional limits—we can eventually escape this abusive relationship.

So the next time a Highly Offended Person demands that you stifle yourself, you might consider responding with something like this: Cool it. You’re being unreasonable. You don’t get to control my behavior.

In the long run, tough love is the only truly compassionate response.