One of my students wrote me an ugly email the other day. This happens rarely, but it has happened. They get on their class website (for online classes) and find out that something isn’t what they expected for a grade, due date, etc. Then, because it is easy to do, they write an email where they vomit their frustrations into cyberspace. They say words with attitudes I imagine they would never say in person. Many people have not figured out yet that there is such a thing as Internet social skills.
At this point there is a part of me that wants to blast them. I would love to be sarcastic and difficult. I am the one with some power after all. However, that desire represents just part of me. I also know that if I am rude back I will likely get another email from a dean. That email would require a conversation, possibly multiple conversations, and in the end just take too much of my time. I don’t have time to be rude. I don’t have time to make it difficult on myself.
Here is something I have learned. We all have running conversations in our heads. We talk to ourselves…hopefully not out loud. These conversations are held in the dark crevices of our mind. They are written against the backdrop of a landscape of past relational experiences. Listen to your own voice closely enough and it might resemble voices you knew long ago. The teacher who was unreasonably hard on you. The friends who picked on you. The dad who abused you. The mother who slapped you with her words as much as with her hands.
If you are lucky, your inner dialogue is constructive…challenging when needed and condoning when appropriate. It is a wonderful mix of cheerleading, accountability, and grace. The ideal inner parent.
If you are like many people, some days you don’t talk very nicely to yourself. The voice sounds more like the impatient grandmother who compared you to your older sister.
This is the truth. We may not hear the actual conversation going on in a person’s head (unless it is our own), but we can get a pretty good idea of what it sounds like…by how the person talks to others.
Show me a person who is hard on others and I will show you a person who is ten times harder on themselves. Show me a person who seems to have a big head and looks down on others. I will show you a person whose head is empty. Air. Nothing of consequence. And, terribly, ironically insecure.
My mom’s greatest wisdom to me may very well have been revealed in the hard middle school years. And, if you are a human being who grew up in the United States and attended what was then junior high then you likely know what I mean by H-A-R-D. Also known as challenging (euphemism). Or, of the “I want to die” variety. Take your pick on where your experience likely fell on the junior high pain spectrum. Talking to adolescents on a weekly basis, I hear that not much has changed.
Whenever I cried or was frustrated about a friend or classmate being what I experienced as “mean”, “spiteful” or just a plain “bully” my mother’s famous one liner was: “Emily, they are just incredibly insecure.” Like a broken record she would tell me that when a person is being mean they are often putting a person down to make themselves feel more powerful. Now, this proverb is a family joke and whenever anyone in the family has a story about a person being rude to us out in public we look at each other knowingly, smile, and say, almost in unison: “They are just insecure.”
I had a hard time believing her words of wisdom as a twelve year old. These other growing people certainly did not seem insecure to me. They seemed quite cool, confident, and powerful. I was tall, skinny, and easy to blow over. Awkward. Painfully self-aware. I thought they were so self-absorbed. I didn’t notice that in my insecurity, I was, too.
Have you ever been around a child who is completely self-absorbed in his or her temper tantrum? One way to address this kind of behavior is to ignore it. That can work…sometimes. But, one thing I have noticed with my children and with other children is that if you ignore the behavior first without any recognition of where they are in their anger, they tend to get…louder. My little boy constantly asks for treats right before supper. He isn’t going to get one. He is learning this boundary, but it hasn’t been long since he has thrown a knock down, feet kicking, face to the floor tantrum to try to get a popsicle minutes before supper hits the table.
Here is what I have learned. If I ignore his tirade completely, he just gets louder. If I stop and say: “Emmett, I hear you. I hear that you want a treat. I can see that you are really angry right now. And, you are not going to get a treat. You may have something after supper, which will be ready soon.” Does that stop his fit? No, but I’ll tell you what…it sure does seem to take some of the steam out of it. I know every child is different, but I am always amazed and a little tickled to watch as he goes off to his room to cry and calm down. The next thing I know, I hear his door open and close, hear his little footsteps pad across the study, into our kitchen, feel his hug around my legs, and hear him ask to sit with me while I finish making our food.
What he needed from me in that moment of rage…more than to give him what he thought he wanted…what he needed was to be seen and heard.
My own daughter did this with me the other day. I was throwing my own little fit, fretting from room to room, trying to find something while also trying to understand if she wanted to compete in a swim meet that evening. She had changed her mind at least three times already. I stopped to see her sitting on my bed watching me. “Mommy, you seem upset. Are you upset with me?” Oh, my goodness, sweet girl. I felt the steam of my tirade cool down, soothed by simple recognition and the stating of the obvious. I stopped my fit as well as my futile hunt and I sat down with her. I apologized. I explained that I was frustrated because I could not find X,Y, or Z and that it was a little frustrating that she kept changing her mind about the swim meet, but that no, I was not upset or angry with her. My own daughter gave me the gift of being seen and heard. I thanked God that she was able to stop and ask me, that she felt freedom to state the obvious. She chose not to swim that night. About a month later I found what I was looking for.
And, I know that is what my hateful student needs now, too…to be seen and heard. So, I will open up a reply. I will start with something like: “Wow, I can tell that you are really angry. I am sure you are very frustrated. I cannot change your grade at this point, but I’ll tell you what I think you can do to help your situation…Let me know what your thoughts are.”
I can’t change the inner dialogue of a person, but I can recognize that when a person goes off on me for any reason that their words to me are truly the proverbial look into their soul, into the landscape of their mind, and that what they are throwing at me has way more to do with their past relational experiences than the one we are having right this minute. That hurt little boy or little girl just needs to be seen and heard and somewhere in that seeing and hearing the air out of the empty headed balloon is let out, and the decompressed soul makes room for a little more grace, a little more peace, a little more love.
And, sure enough, I get a reply within a few hours: “I am sorry to go off on you like that, Professor Stone. I am just having a really bad week…Thank you for being patient with me.”
You’re welcome, I think to myself. I have had more than my fair share of people who have been patient with me.