The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal - The Myth Of “Nobody Can Make You Feel Bad Without Your Permission”
April 17th, 2014
09:31 am

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The Myth Of “Nobody Can Make You Feel Bad Without Your Permission”

There’s a common sentiment that goes, “Nobody can make you feel bad without your permission” – generally trotted out when someone’s been hurt by a mean thing that someone said.

The idea, I believe, is that we are all rational, robot-like beings who can control our emotions – and thus if we get upset by someone’s assholic statements, we have chosen to be upset. We could have shrugged it off instead.

Problem is, people don’t work that way.

Now, first off, “shrugging off other people’s insults and accusations” is a learned skill. If you’ve ever raised a kid, you know most of them don’t come pre-baked with the “Eh, whatever” switch – if you yell at them, they cry. If other kids make fun of them, they get upset. Actually placing the “Okay, they’re mocking you, but do you respect their opinion?” switch in place is a process that takes years, requires a healthy ego on the kid’s part, and isn’t 100% successful.

So expecting everyone to have that skill is kinda jerky. Admittedly, it’s a vital skill that everyone should actively cultivate – without it, abusers can emotionally manipulate you into the most awful of situations by pressing your “guilt” button whenever you complain about valid stuff.

But not everyone had nice parents. Not everyone’s discovered how to interrupt their emotions with logic. And as such, sneering, “Well, you chose to feel bad”isn’t actually true. They have yet to develop a barrier between the onrush of primal feelings and the rationality to say, “Wait, no, that’s actually something I shouldn’t feel.”

You might want to start that long discussion of how to get to the point where they can shove off that tidal wave of sadness with a cold freeze of logic… but that’s not how this is used. Instead, the “Nobody can make you feel bad…” argument is generally wielded as a club to make it the victim’s fault when someone decided to be an asshole at them.

Yet hey! What about me? I’ve been on the Internets for years. I’ve received death threats. I’ve had hundreds of blog-entries devoted to what a jerk I am, entire forum-threads of vitriol. Some people loathe me personally, and they’ve never met me – and yet I’m still posting my opinions daily.

So as one of the most thick-skinned people I know, I clearly understand how nobody can make me feel bad without my permission, right? Otherwise I’d just be shivering in a closet.

Wrong.

What I know is that I can shut down those bad feelings that come when someone chucks a nastygram in my direction - but it takes me effort to do so.

I think of it as walking to the store. Under normal circumstances, I’ll get to where I’m going. But with the right insult, some asshole can drop a fifty-pound weight in my backpack. I’ll still get to the store, but thanks to their jerktasticness, it’s a fuck of a lot more effort.

And if I was low on energy that day? Or in a rush to get somewhere?

Lord, those insults can fuck up my day, whether I wanted them to or not.

And that’s not me saying that human interaction should be scrubbed of all potentially harmful content. Some people do get butthurt incredibly easily, and I think there’s a point at which you have to make the decision that this person’s rigid boundaries are going to hem in your speech to unacceptable levels, and blow them off.

(Some people don’t read me because they’re offended by my swearing. I support their right to unfriend me in order to protect their sanity, but stopping? Fuck that noise.)

But when you say, “Well, nobody can make you feel bad without your permission!”, that sets up a world where you have no responsibility for your speech. Were you digging for weak spots, mocking to make a point? Oh, hey, well, you were trying your damndest to make them feel bad, but if it worked it’s their fault for not having sufficient defenses. It’s not 100% correlation, but when I see “Nobody can make you feel bad!” I usually find a taunting dillweed nearby, taking potshots from the brush and then claiming no responsibility.

No. You may not be able to make someone feel bad, but you sure as fuck can make them burn strength they were planning to use for other projects that day. So speak carefully. Try to be kind. And don’t be a dick unless it’s your last choice.

It won’t hurt to be a little nicer, man. I promise.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/395567.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.

(27 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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From:anonymousalex
Date:April 17th, 2014 02:04 pm (UTC)
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So I had the inchoate sense that there was something amiss with the way you're interpreting this saying, though I couldn't put my finger on where, particularly given your rather tight and, I think, correct argument.

So I googled it, and oddly the whole first page of hits are for Eleanor Roosevelt's quote: "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent." Which, it seems to me, is a subtly but significantly different sentiment. Make me feel bad? Sure. But make me feel inferior? Arguably, that requires the added step of me agreeing with you.

So perhaps my initial sense was me conflating the two sayings. And, given the google results, I wonder if the one isn't a bastardization of the other.

-Alex
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From:bunny42
Date:April 17th, 2014 03:48 pm (UTC)
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There's also "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." We're taught that from a young age, and yet the initial slap in the face can make you feel bad. It should be accompanied with "consider the source" so that you can decide how much weight to give to the offending words. I believe that what's important is not so much what is said as how you deal with it. I think you get to choose whether to let some insensitive buffoon ruin your day. Winston Churchill had it down to a science. He would have a witty retort and walk away smiling. It's an acquired skill and takes work to achieve.

There're also people who go looking for a chance to be insulted, your butthurt people, and after a while you realize you just can't talk to them. But that's another category.
From:anonymousalex
Date:April 17th, 2014 05:26 pm (UTC)
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I always thought that little ditty was meant to be the retort. Admittedly, not a brilliantly Churchillian one, but what does one expect from a first-grader?

-Alex
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From:harvey_rrit
Date:April 17th, 2014 05:19 pm (UTC)
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Eleanor's wrong too. She was making people feel inferior by saying that, forcing them to assume that if they were made to feel inferior they actually were inferior to people who had this magic power or whatever it's supposed to be.

And she made it work on you. "...that requires the added step of me agreeing with you...." No, it doesn't. You're not inferior just because some apostle of privilege tells you that your soul must have consented to its own rape.
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From:misquoted
Date:April 17th, 2014 05:48 pm (UTC)
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This is what I was going to say as well. Valid points, but yes, subtle differences.
From:anonymousalex
Date:April 17th, 2014 06:47 pm (UTC)
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Indeed, at this point I'm not entirely sure whether I've heard it said both ways, the differences being small enough. And yet, quite a different meaning.

-Alex
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From:fatbunnyghost
Date:April 17th, 2014 06:09 pm (UTC)
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Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.


Do what you feel in your heart to be right- for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product. <--- This one is my favorite

Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn't have the power to say yes.
From:anonymousalex
Date:April 17th, 2014 06:48 pm (UTC)
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She is quite quotable. "Pithy," I think the correct term is.

-Alex
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From:snippy
Date:April 17th, 2014 10:11 pm (UTC)
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So great minds never have to discuss where to have dinner, or whether their partner is sick enough to go the doctor? I've always felt that was a completely false division. Everybody talks about all three things, just in differing proportions at different times.
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From:funwithrage
Date:April 18th, 2014 04:41 am (UTC)
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This.

Also, I have always loathed that sentiment since my ex used it to make me feel bad for not wanting to have political arguments with him.
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From:harvey_rrit
Date:April 17th, 2014 05:12 pm (UTC)
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"...Nobody Can Make You Feel Bad Without Your Permission...."

Thank you for bringing this up. I have hit upon a response which will explode this in the face of anybody who says that in my presence henceforth:

"Anyone who claims that is either a child molester or would really like to be."

(Now who would dare claim not to be hurt by that?)
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From:fallconsmate
Date:April 18th, 2014 02:10 am (UTC)
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i really want you to not only have the oportunity to say this, but to say it to someone's FACE and report back on it.

as someone who has been victimized by a child molester? and been the victim of plenty of ignorance in the form of insults?

both hurt my soul equally. so you get two thumbs up from me.

(and those two things are why i generally bitch on my lj rather than bitch at people.)
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From:harvey_rrit
Date:April 18th, 2014 05:28 am (UTC)
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So do I.
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From:ravenblack
Date:April 19th, 2014 05:25 pm (UTC)
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(Now who would dare claim not to be hurt by that?)

It's me! Because to me that appears nonsensical and a nonsequitur. My train of thought would be "what sort of an idiot would make that connection? Oh, wait, I think I get it, maybe they're trying to show that I would get offended by an insult out of nowhere that makes no sense. Well that kind of backfired, didn't it, because I'm not."

(This is totally hypothetical because I wouldn't ever say that thing, though to a certain extent I do sympathize with the sometimes-intent of saying it.)

For me, your retort would work better with an insult to the intelligence of the person saying the thing, because there could be a connection there, maybe only stupid people would say that thing, and if I was the one saying it that would lead me to doubt myself, and thus, ta-da, hurt by an insult. But calling me a child molester wannabe just makes me feel like *you* are stupid, so I'm not hurt by that insult.

It would probably work pretty great on people who do have molestation tendencies though.
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From:harvey_rrit
Date:April 19th, 2014 05:41 pm (UTC)
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In fact what made me think of it is that the person I first heard it from was a child molester.
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From:miintikwa
Date:April 17th, 2014 07:04 pm (UTC)
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I am so grateful to see this.
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From:ccr1138
Date:April 17th, 2014 07:08 pm (UTC)
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I don't consider you anywhere near the most thick-skinned person I know. Just the fact that you admit "insults can fuck up my day," is an indication that you're not exactly impervious. But whatever, it's too subjective to argue about.

I do agree that not everybody is good at shrugging off the blows of life, and that it is a learned skill that some people are naturally going to struggle with while others find it fairly easy.

I must say, though, that when I encountered this concept (IIRC, in a sequel to Jonathan Livingston Seagull), it was a huge light-bulb moment for me. I was a teenage girl embroiled in all sorts of drama at the time. Suddenly, I could simply CHOOSE not to let people get to me. It was marvelous and empowering! In the many years since, it has made my life immeasurably better.

So I think this statement should be repeated to each new generation, and people should be encouraged to actively resist letting others' opinions, statements, and acts bring them down.

None of this is an excuse for people to be abusive and then blame the victim. No, but the idea that you can *choose* is very powerful, if it isn't used as a club.

The best thing you can say to a toxic person is, "Next!" -- along with a a dismissive wave.
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From:dornbeast
Date:April 21st, 2014 09:34 pm (UTC)
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So I think this statement should be repeated to each new generation, and people should be encouraged to actively resist letting others' opinions, statements, and acts bring them down.

Encouragement isn't enough. There has to be careful training.

I worked out a way to not let people get to me. All I had to do was disconnect most of my emotions.

Nice short-term solution. Shitty long-term solution.

If we can't teach people how to block effectively, perhaps we're better off teaching people not to hit unnecessarily.
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From:ccr1138
Date:April 21st, 2014 10:54 pm (UTC)
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I tried the Spock method for many years (no emotions). It's not sustainable unless you're a sociopath.

Instead, I find if I stop and think about the other person's motives for being so mean, it helps me realize it's very often nothing to do with me at all.

Long story short: after many years, I have found the most effective way to deal with somebody who is bringing me down is to stop and pray for that person. It sounds cheesy, but Jesus's advice to "pray for your enemies" has worked to defuse my hurt, anger, and frustration on several occasions. There's something about actively considering the "enemy" as a person with their own troubles that just defuses a situation, and turns hatred to pity.

The most memorable time I used this tactic, it was with a fellow who was cursing me out for several minutes for dinging his car with my door. I told him, "You're obviously upset about more than this non-existent damage to your car. Whatever it is, I will pray for you, that you will be happier and not so upset." He burst into tears and confessed a litany of problems having to do with losing his job, his wife being sick, etc., and then apologized to me.

Another time, my boss lit into me and ripped me a new one for something totally not deserving of that level of ire. Then I found out he'd just learned his father was dying.

This sort of thing has happened often enough that I am able to short-circuit my own hurt feelings and just be aware of others and their struggles. I'm no Polyanna; I'm not even that fond of people. But I can use my brain to assess a situation and conclude that I don't need to let other people's ugliness stick to me.
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From:theferrett
Date:April 21st, 2014 11:13 pm (UTC)
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The most memorable time I used this tactic, it was with a fellow who was cursing me out for several minutes for dinging his car with my door. I told him, "You're obviously upset about more than this non-existent damage to your car. Whatever it is, I will pray for you, that you will be happier and not so upset." He burst into tears and confessed a litany of problems having to do with losing his job, his wife being sick, etc., and then apologized to me.

You've mentioned that before, and that anecdote's always stuck in my mind.
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From:ccr1138
Date:April 21st, 2014 11:34 pm (UTC)
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And you know, it's not like I didn't spend a couple of minutes inside the Post Office trying to come up with a pithy comeback to make this dude simultaneously feel like a worm, shut the heck up, and explode into tiny steaming gobbets of flesh. I was FURIOUS, and I really wanted to teach him a lesson. Then, because of another incident in which I prayed for the PTA ladies who were making my life a living hell (and it made me feel so much better), it dawned on me that I should try saying a prayer for this guy.

I fully expected him to just cuss me AND Jesus out some more. I was completely floored by his reaction.

Sometimes, the prayer takes the form of, "Lord, please help this person to stop being such an unpleasant dick (and help my attitude but not really okay yeah I need that, too)."
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From:tylik
Date:April 17th, 2014 11:27 pm (UTC)
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While forms of this saying have been around from various sources, I often run into them in the general context of the kind of pop culture interpretations of Buddhism that, um, leave me really seriously struggling with that non-harming. (You'll also run into a lot of "your control your own experience" and - one I actually like, except it gets used really badly "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.".)

So, I'm going to give a fairly Buddhist rebuttal.

All of this stuff is pretty akin to saying that you can choose to be enlightened. Except (assuming you can buy the whole enlightenment thing, which is another conversation) all but the most annoyingly puerile will tend to acknowledge that no, to whatever extent such things exist, they take a lot of work. And we're all human, so, even if we're whole and complete and perfect just like we are (which is pretty much a definitional question, really) we're also caught up in the world with all the problems that entails.

The idea that we can choose not to feel bad because of anything anyone can do to us? Is pretty much saying that was can choose to be Olympic athletes. It's just not that simple. At the very least, it takes a lot of work, and there are a lot of variable outside of our control. Learning to shrug off the unavoidable chaff of life is probably more like learning to walk. Learning to have a public persona, whether being in politics or having a fairly well read blog, its probably like learning to have reasonable proficiency at a sport.

Knowing that this isn't something we're entirely at the mercy of, and that we can learn this and can have better lives from doing so is really useful. But heck, people spend ridiculous amounts of time in meditation working on this stuff. It generally doesn't just happen. (And even when we have bursts of profound insight and everything gets better... you still have to keep up with this work. It's like anything else you do for your health.)

But yeah, you're completely right - telling us it's our fault if we're hurt by someone being an asshole is, well, further assholery.
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From:fallconsmate
Date:April 18th, 2014 02:14 am (UTC)
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as a short chubby girl who grew into a fat chubby young woman with severe problems going on at home, i swear i used to walk around with a neon "victim" sign and arrow pointing RIGHT at my head.


no, one does not choose to feel bad because someone else flings uginess at one. one feels bad because it HURTS. and you are totally correct, taking those two breaths to choose to speak kindly does not hurt me at all, not once i got used to the concept.

at the begining, choosing kindness when i'd rather hurl a piece of furniture across the room in my fury was a majorly hurtful thing to me. i got over myself.
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From:asakiyume
Date:April 18th, 2014 02:38 am (UTC)
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The notion that you're responsible for if you feel bad falls in the same category of pernicious thought as the notion that if you just think positively, you'll never get ill (or that you can cure illness with positive thinking)--or the variant that says that if bad things happen, it's because you've been thinking negative thoughts.

ALL of those seem to me to be cases of people having taken the notion of the power of positive thinking and extrapolated it to ridiculous extremes. Sure, to the degree that you can control your moods and opt for a positive outlook, that process will generally be beneficial. But none of the other stuff follows, and if you jump to it, you're jumping into a horrible world devoid of empathy (because who needs empathy when every negative thing is caused by people themselves).
From:serakit
Date:April 18th, 2014 03:11 am (UTC)
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I always liked the way the quote is presented in the Princess Diaries movie-- gentle, understanding, and intended as a reminder that the words being shouted at her aren't true. But that's all established through the tone of the scene and knowing the characters rather than the words. So in thinking about this I end up in the "how you do is as important as what you do" camp. Yes, it is terrible when used as victim-blaming, but when applied properly it *can* be empowering. You can say the same about most sentences, really.
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From:fatbunnyghost
Date:April 18th, 2014 03:41 am (UTC)
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opinion on Cliven Bundy?
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From:grenacia
Date:April 19th, 2014 04:27 am (UTC)
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If "Nobody Can Make You Feel Bad Without Your Permission" that is a skill you have developed that is worth being proud of. It's not a thing that should be expected to have automatically. But if you can acquire it, it is a useful, and sometimes necessary skill.

There is a ridiculous amount of stuff in our culture that can be lumped under the description of "shaming women for not behaving in accordance with sexist and old fashioned ideas about how a woman ought to behave." When it doesn't cross the line into actual discrimination, I'm very good at shrugging it off as stupid shit not worthy of my attention. But when I realized I was shrugging it off and that this was a life skill not all women have, I started to think about just how damn much of it there is in so many different aspects of our lives.
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