Weapons of upset

by Gautam Raja

This is a subject I’ve wanted to write about for some years, but every time I remember it, I’m fresh from a conflict, and I’m afraid that people who read it will think it’s “about” them. The truth though, is that this is about all of us—I’m certainly guilty of the tactic I want to discuss: using upset as weapon.

For a long time, I didn’t think there was any other way to “win” arguments—a method that psychologists actually deem emotionally abusive. When an argument is not going their way, some people have learned to break down emotionally—storming out of the room, slamming doors, and shutting themselves up, sobbing and going on about how they’ve been hurt. What happens next is that the issues of the argument are forgotten, and the story becomes about the upset person, about how they’ve been wronged and must now be appeased and comforted. It doesn’t matter any more that there were two sides to the story; in some situations, it won’t matter even if the upset person was 100 per cent responsible for the fight.

If you’ve been at the receiving end of this, you can see why it’s considered emotionally abusive. No matter what your stand, no matter how much you yourself have been hurt, you’re now a perpetrator and the other person a victim. You don’t have a place in which to air your views—you’re being forced to concede to a point through unconnected and unfair means. The result is that your side of the story must either be tossed away and forgotten, or bottled up to come out at some other time.

It’s amazing how prevalent this kind of behaviour is, and how long people can live without realising it’s simply the adult version of throwing a tantrum (and not that different from the childish version). Sadly, most people then rally round and give the person exactly what they’re trying to get—sympathy and apologies and back-rubs while they choke back sobs. And so the behaviour gets reinforced, ensuring it will repeat. And the next time round, if the non-tantrum-thrower is less startled by the upset and takes longer to concede, they’re training the person to escalate this behaviour until they get what they want. What may start as eyes filling with tears at the slightest sign that one is “losing”, may well go up the scale to breakdowns and even illness. I have seen people “trained” in this way to become fragile and emotionally dependent; unable to deal with any kind of conflict without falling to pieces for days, weeks or even years.

And on the subject of time, it’s funny how many people are almost proud that they bear grudges; that once crossed, they never forgive. They think it makes them sound hot-headed (in that positive, European sense) and deeply passionate. Artists. The truth is, they are essentially saying they have such a fragile hold over themselves that someone they barely know is allowed to have such a powerful hold over them.

Being cruel to be kind is such a trite concept, yet there’s such a short-sightedness in the relationships around us. Children get everything their little hearts desire. Spouses back down every time their partner throws a tantrum. Employees scurry whenever their boss loses his or her temper. In so many ways we encourage bad behaviour, not only to our detriment, but to the detriment of the person who thinks they’re “winning”. Sometimes, there are no more kinder words spoken than: “Oh please stop all this melodrama!”

First published in Gulf News, March 19, 2013