Diane Wilson
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Emotional & Verbal Abuse

Diane's Patented Magic Flame-Retardant Elixir

This is for any person who may find themselves intimidated by the occasional, or sometimes frequent, flaming that occurs in your favorite newsgroup(s).

If you are intimidated into not participating on the net, this is sad, because it leaves you in the position of having to wait and hope that someone else raises the same issues that you are interested in. Hiding and waiting leaves you powerless to find answers to the questions that you need to have answered.

But at the same time, participation on the net may seem risky. What I would like to do is to show you a way to reduce that risk.

The first thing to remember about the net is that anybody can use it. Anybody. Keep that in mind.

The second thing to remember about the net is that anybody can say anything. Anything. Keep that in mind.

When Anybody can say Anything, the result is chaos. Flaming is one example of chaos. So is lying, with its many variants (half-truth, unbelievable presentation of the whole truth, outright fabrication, and infinite variations on these themes). So is trolling, which is deliberate baiting of others.

There are more subtle variations on chaos. There is no requirement that a post be rational, for instance. There is no requirement that people behave in a civilized manner. Nothing about the net enforces respect for other people's views or feelings.

Anybody. Anything. Keep those in mind.

In a sense, the net is absolutely safe: it's just you, your keyboard, and a piece of glass that has words on it.

Yet people do get hurt here. Not in a physical sense; at least for the present, it isn't true that anyone can DO anything on the net. The hurt I'm talking about is emotional hurt, and that is very real. Yet it is possible to protect yourself. That's what I want to talk about.

The key to protecting yourself is to understand that your feelings are your own, and that nobody else can affect them. People who haven't learned this are vulnerable to emotional hurt from others, because they don't know how to separate their own feelings from other people's words or behavior. A summary of this kind of reaction is,

"When you _______, you make me angry."

The reaction-mode of this emotional model is plainly stated here: "You make me angry." And yet the simple truth is that "you became angry." The other person did not reach inside you and MAKE you angry; instead, you became angry in REACTION to what that other person did. Recognizing this, we can make a new summary of this interaction:

"When you _______, I get angry."

The difference is huge. You are no longer blaming the other person for your anger. You have taken ownership of your feelings. You are still angry, because you are still reacting to what the other person did. Yet your anger is yours; the other person did not create that anger inside you.

It is now possible to take this a step further. If anger is one reaction, are there others? You can ask yourself questions: "Why did this person do this?" "Did I do something that might have contributed to this?" "Am I actually reacting to something else that happened, at some other time?" "Do I care what this person thinks of me?"

In short, you are asking the question, "What's going on here?"

Depending on the answers to those questions, you might have other reactions. Instead of being angry, you can ignore what the other person did. You can be sad. Instead of turning anger toward the other person, you may want to examine your own reaction. You may decide to avoid further interactions with this person. You can even laugh.

This is the key to safety on the net. Once you realize that Anybody can say Anything, but that it doesn't have to affect you, you are safe. You still may not like some of the things that happen here, but they can't hurt you any more.

It takes time to learn to think and feel this way, and it takes practice. But you can learn.

What's happening here is that you are establishing boundaries. You are saying, "I am responsible for what goes on inside my boundaries. I will not let other people affect what goes on inside my boundaries." When other people engage in obnoxious behavior on the net, they are attempting to crash over your boundaries, and affect what's going on inside you. You have the ability to say, "No. You aren't going to affect what's inside of me."

Boundaries are different from walls. When we put up a wall, we are hiding what's inside of us. We are taking the position that if people don't know about something inside of us, they can't use it to hurt us. (Walls take other forms as well, but that's another topic entirely.)

The problem with walls is that whatever is behind the wall is a secret. Yet we form or join support or discussion groups such as this one because we need to take these issues out into the open and talk about them. We may need to do this for a variety of reasons; secrets may hurt us too, or we may not understand them. But when walls are our only protection, it's hard to tear them down and leave ourselves exposed. It's especially hard when those secrets are painful ones.

Boundaries are an alternative. You can talk openly about yourself across a boundary, and know that you are safe.

Boundaries are limits on what we will do to and for other people. The best boundaries match the limits of our control. We cannot control what others do, so we can set a boundary that limits us to not attempting to control others. Few of us want others to control us, so we can set limits that say, "I will not accept your attempt to control me." Setting boundaries gives us back control over our own lives. Because we set and maintain our own boundaries, boundaries free us from meddling by others, and they free us to focus on our own concerns.

Establishing your own boundaries is part of a whole. The other part is respecting other people's boundaries. It's simple, really; if you want others to respect your right to live your life as you choose, then it's up to you to extend that same respect to others. What goes on inside other people's boundaries is their business. If they don't share some part of their life with you, don't ask about it. If they do share, then it's up to you to learn how to talk about it without stepping on boundaries:

1. Share your own experience. "I did _______, and it worked for me." You can share another person's experience as well, but if it takes the form of, "Everybody does _______," then you are becoming coercive. Coercion is one of many ways of stepping on others' boundaries.

2. Ask without intruding. "How are things going with _______?" is not intrusive. "Why haven't you done _______?" is intrusive; it is asking someone to defend their actions.

3. Admit to a lack of knowledge or understanding. "I don't understand about _______." gives the other person the option to explain. If they choose not to explain, don't push; remember, it's their life, not yours.

Remember that it's not your responsibility to understand why someone else does the things they do. You aren't responsible for the results, either; you aren't the one who has to live with their issues. Remember that irrationality is often in the eye of the beholder.

We are only responsible for our own lives, and no one else is responsible for anything in our lives. The same standard applies to each of us. In most cases, that gives each of us as much responsibility as we can handle. The only exception is that we do sometimes take on certain specific responsibilities for others, such as in the case of having children. But as adults, we are not responsible for each other, and our interactions with each other will proceed more smoothly if we remember that at all times.

What happens if you do get caught in the crossfire?

First, before you do anything else, remember to ask yourself, "What's going on here?" Surface issues and immediate feelings may be misleading.

It's OK to defend and maintain your boundaries. Silence is one way; you don't owe anyone an explanation. Boundary maintenance is essentially an internal matter; your boundaries don't depend on what others say, think, feel, or believe.

You may choose to explain what you are doing, and also why (if you want). Remember to stay within your own boundaries when doing this, however; the fact that someone else has crashed on your boundaries is generally not a good reason to go crashing back.

Boundary crashing is not good manners; it is perfectly OK to say, "That's none of your business." If you say that, however, silence is the appropriate follow-up. As long as you have not violated anyone else's boundaries, you don't owe anyone an apology or an explanation.

If you have violated someone else's boundaries, confess and apologize. You will not loose stature in anyone's eyes if you take responsibility for your mistakes. You will loose respect from everyone if you refuse to take that responsibility.

If the flaming continues, you can do your part to reduce the scope of the flame war by not participating. You will not loose stature by ignoring a flamer; most rational people recognize flamers for what they are, and will ignore what they say about anyone else.

You may also choose to stand up for your right to a flame-free environment. By standing up, you will almost certainly catch some of the flames, so it is best to do this only if you are confident of your own boundaries. It is also good to remain within your own boundaries; it is OK to say, "I don't like this behavior," or to state your own position--and to state it strongly, if necessary. It is reasonable to say this once, but repeatedly defending your boundaries tells flamers that your boundaries are weak. Flamers will target this kind of weakness, instinctively, whether they understand it or not.

Remember that there is a difference between talking about behaviors, and talking about people. It is OK to say, "I don't like this behavior," but if you say, "Anyone who would commit this behavior is a _______," then you are also flaming. You have the right to flame, of course, but be ready to take responsibility for it, both by being a target of flaming, and by admitting to your flaming.

When flames start distorting the truth, maintaining your boundaries requires extra care. It is OK to say, "This is what I did" or "This is what I believe." When you say, "'_______' is a lie," then you imply that someone else is a liar. By implication, you have you have crossed the other person's boundaries; you have discounted their view of the world.

Flamers may not even realize that they are flaming. You have the choice to ignore them, just as you have the choice to tell them. But telling them more than once is rarely useful; people who listen with their mouths do not understand how to listen with their ears.

Flame wars sometimes start by accident. One of the joys of human language is its ambiguity, but that same ambiguity can also cause problems. If you believe that you or someone else has misunderstood, it's OK to ask for clarification. Then, having received or given clarification, you can decide what to do next.

Finally, always remember that few flamers even understand the concept of boundaries. Often, silence is all they deserve.

Is it possible to carry on an open discussion of sensitive topics in the midst of a flame war? Yes, it is. You know whose opinions you respect. You know which options are right for you. Ignore the rest, and trust those whom you trust to ignore the rest also, at least where it has any relationship to you.

Having said all of this, I must also say that it isn't always easy to live by these guidelines. Always, it is important to admit to your mistakes, to examine them, and to learn from them. Having done that, it is time to move on with your life. Mistakes are past; you can sometimes correct them, and you can always learn to avoid repeating them. But you can't undo them, and it doesn't help anyone to beat yourself up for them.

It takes time to learn to live this way. I can say that it has been worthwhile for me. If you adopt this way of looking at the world, I hope that it will enable you to participate safely on the net, and to accomplish many other things as well.

As always, take care of yourselves.

Many thanks to those who have written to suggest improvements in this document!

Copyright © 1995, 2001 by Diane Wilson. All rights reserved. Permission is given to copy freely under the conditions that this material will not be included in publication for profit, and that passing this information on to others will be done free of charge. This copyright statement must be part of any copy.