Hit Me Again: The Value of Being Offended

The feeling of being offended or hurt by another's opinions, beliefs, or values is something we can all identify with. It's an unsettling and unpleasant experience, and rarely leads to healthy or appropriate responses. However with just a little intellectual training, we can develop the capacity to turn this usually negative experience into a positive one. Others' expressions per se have no power to offend or hurt us. It is our own immature relationship with the world that is the cause. By recognizing the part that our immaturity & attachment play in creating our own offence, we are offered the opportunity to re-orient our perspective, thus promoting within us a more mature one.

What is 'Human Maturity'?

Human maturity can be measured in terms of our independence from the world. Put another way, spiritual development is limited by our dependency upon the world, our attachment to it. The individual naturally seeks wellbeing or peace; an inner sense of being in harmony with circumstances and oneself. The mature individual possesses the insight that this happiness can only be considered genuine when it exists independently of events and circumstances; that the world itself cannot deliver a lasting peace.

Lacking this knowledge, we believe that various aspects of the world inherently possess the capacity to make us genuinely happy. We over-inflate the worth of these aspects, placing upon them a value that cannot be justified, and thus prioritize their pursuit irrespective of the effects on ourself and others. Thus, although there is nothing inherently wrong with the directive for self-satisfaction, when it blends with an immature, egocentric relationship to the world, the pursuit becomes directly counterproductive. The ego privileges our own perspective or experiences, placing little or no value on those of others; it considers of highest (or even sole) importance how events & circumstances relate to or impact 'me.' This egocentric attitude opens the door to a host of indiscriminate thoughts, flowing from the mind to an object of fascination or attraction.

What is 'Indiscriminate'?

Consider for a moment the myriad thought-flows that are initiated and entertained throughout the day. How often was our 'thinking' nothing more than the mind blithely continuing to muse upon a thought that simply entered – unasked – into our present awareness; conversely, to what extent did the intellect scrutinize the thoughts to ensure that we entertain only those that advance worthwhile goals, and are thus worthy of our attention? For the majority of us, the ratio tips heavily in favor of the former case. That is, our thinking tends to be mostly indiscriminate. It is this indiscriminate thought that creates within the personality an attachment to the object so mused upon.

What is 'Attachment'?

Attachment refers to the bond of indiscriminate thought flowing from the mind to an object or being. When we are attached to an object/being, a kind of solace or pleasure is experienced in its presence; an emptiness or anxiety is felt in its absence. This is the essence of dependency, the death-knell for the emotional freedom and self-sufficiency that any mature human naturally craves. By becoming dependent upon particular events & circumstances for our peace and contentment, we have given the ever-changing world the power to determine our psychological state. The stronger the attachment, the less we are able to accommodate changes that impinge upon it. The individual thus develops an immature, unstable relationship with the object of attachment, which can be from any aspect of the human experience – material status or choices, physical appearance or prowess, sensual experiences, personal relationships, national identity, political affiliations, religious beliefs & practices – the list is endless. A full discussion of attachment's negative effects is beyond the scope of this essay, but they include:

  • Impaired thinking. Attachment constitutes an attitudinal bias, reducing our capacity to think and reason clearly. Thinking is skewed irrationally in the direction that caters to the attachment. Attachment further inhibits the ability to consider consequences, as we confine our scope for action to the narrow focus of maintaining the attachment relationship.
  • Negative emotions. E.g. Jealousy when a lover gives attention to another; disappointment when expectations are unmet; offence from criticism of something we hold dear. As Parthasarathy states “Attachment is the prime cause of mental agitation and sorrow.”1 Emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger, hatred, etc can arise from even imagining our attachment being challenged.
  • Relationship disharmony. The negative emotions elicited can manifest externally as harmful, anti-social behaviors. Also, demands, restrictions, and manipulations are imposed on others in an attempt to ensure they continue to satisfy our attachment.
  • Isolation. Those who cannot satisfy our attachment are dismissed, those who threaten to impinge upon it are attacked. Thus by attaching oneself to any aspect of the world that (ostensibly) delivers happiness, we isolate ourselves from the rest.
  • Reduced material success. With clarity of thinking reduced, we lack the ability to accurately assess circumstances, plan a course of action, and concentrate on the action being undertaken. This impedes goal attainment, bringing frustration and anxiety.

How does attachment give rise to offence?
How can offence be used constructively?

Offence need not be triggered just because a principle or practice that we respect and cherish is called into question, disparaged, or attacked. However, a healthy appreciation for anything can devolve into a dependence upon it for a sense of purpose, morality, or identity. Criticism is then mis-perceived as a direct threat to these, and thus we feel offended.

The path of self-development is the maturing beyond our egocentric attachments. Correctly identifying existing attachments can be very useful, as it gives us the opportunity to evaluate the fundamental beliefs we hold regarding what is of value in life. However, the feeling of offence can only be constructively used when the intellect recognizes that we were/are in fact feeling offended. Often, the emotional agitation triggered from criticism overwhelms us such that we aren't objectively aware of our own state. In this case, we have essentially no capacity for introspective awareness, and thus no capacity to deal with the experience constructively. However, once we recognize and accept our own attachment as the "prime cause" of our distress, we may reflect upon the experience to overcome it. Dealing positively with hurt or offence means investigating the internal cause for it and dealing with what we find there. This process is most productive when the emotional state is sufficiently calm for an unbiased investigation. Therefore, while in some cases this can be done in the moment of offence, it is often better to reflect post hoc.

We can start by briefly reviewing the experience to establish the external trigger for offence: What was said or done to trigger the mind's feeling of being offended? Clearly understanding the trigger can give us a good starting point to determine the object of our attachment from the numerous possible options. Thus we continue to investigate: What are the attachments that could cause this offence? What am I attached to? Once identified, we can question the object-of-attachment itself, establishing a more realistic perspective on its importance and role: What role does this object/being play in life? How important is my relationship to it? What does it bring me, and at what cost? What is more important than this? Finally, we can redirect our attention towards an ideal. The intellect visualizes living without attachment to the object, being established in a more mature attitude towards it. In essence, we imagine we would like to have done if we could re-live the experience: How would I react internally and respond to this criticism if I was not attached? What does greater maturity look like?

It is at this point, when the mind is relatively calm, that we should then investigate the validity of what is being said. If there are aspects of the criticism that are accurate or valid, it serves our best interests to acknowledge them. What we draw from the other's perspective – however harshly delivered – we can blend with our own to arrive at a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of the situation. This ensures our mental poise, and gives us a wider latitude for action.

As a final note, it is important to recognize that remaining un-offended by others' expressions does not mean that we have no reason to dissent or take issue with the views being expressed, or take action to censure them. In fact, it is only when we are mentally poised and balanced, and with a wide appreciation for the context of the situation, that we can make unbiased judgements and effective choices regarding the most appropriate boundaries, and how they can be established and maintained. This promotes harmonious interaction, and smooths the path of our own growth.

1 ^ Parthasarathy, A. (2004). Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities. p. 219.