Managing Feelings — 30 October 2005
How to recover from mild social upsets

Everyone, at times, witnesses or encounters embarrassing, uncomfortable or awkward moments in a social setting. Once that occurs with a particular individual, a mild unease is associated with that person in future meetings. How can you reduce the emotional impact of mild social upsets upon your comfort?

Most people have been in situations where another individual was inappropriately questioned about a private issue, insulted, confronted, or dealt with insensitively by a third party. Just being an observer to such an event is sufficient for the creation of uncomfortable feelings. Among other options, one may intervene on behalf of the offended, or stay silent and continue to observe the evolving interaction, or withdraw. Whatever option is selected, the emotional reaction to the offender is recorded. That individual may now be seen as an unsafe person. Future encounters with the offending party may evoke mild fear and caution.

In some situations you may have been the person who was directly questioned, embarrassed or shamed in front of others. In this case a greater need for self-protection develops for emotional self-preservation. Some people are very quick to respond cleverly to embarrassing confrontations, others become stunned and mute. Later they may tell themselves that they should have responded in a more creative way, which eluded them at the time.

Those who are not quick with comebacks to unexpected verbal assaults often feel inept, perhaps less witty or slow. In actuality, their nature is often kinder and they are shocked by the insensitive remarks, which they would never utter. They are often caring people who do not find verbal sparring an enjoyable, respectful or worthwhile endeavor.

Shaming another person in public is an unacceptable, cowardly way of venting frustrations. Frequently, the person engaged in this habit feels insecure to iron out his or her negative feelings directly with the other person. Choosing to do so in public, affords him/her a safer way to express frustrations, jealousy, envy, grudges or disapproving emotions. The person finds protection in the audience, while further compromising the offended.

As an observer or offended party, you may develop an unfavorable opinion of the offender and may be reluctant to encounter him/her in the future. Some people abstain from going to certain functions in order to avoid being in the presence of the offending party.

Other ways of self-protection may serve you better than depriving yourself of a social outing due to fear of encountering Mr. or Ms. Insensitive.

• Realize that the discomfort you feel about the offending person is your body’s healthy alert system intending to protect you from hurt. Honor this emotion, record it and thank yourself for the warning.
• Develop ways of coping with the possible recurrence of the social embarrassment by creating and rehearsing statements that you may use if needed. For example: “This is a very unkind thing to say, I am surprised that you said it.” Or, “ You seem to be very unhappy about my choices, I’m sorry to hear that”. Or, “This is a great rhetorical question”. Or, “I appreciate your interest and curiosity about my life, thank you.” These reactions will stun and often silence the offending party.
• As you see the person from a distance and feel yourself tighten up, reassure yourself that whatever he/she thinks of you, or intends to say to you –does not define you. It is only a reflection of that person’s low self-esteem and poor social skills. Healthy people do not routinely offend others in public.
• When walking toward the feared individual stand taller and feel powerful. Remind yourself that you are the kind person. Do not give him/her the non-verbal message that you feel intimidated. Emotional bullies are quick to read and respond to body language. A confident posture discourages assaults.
• Stay in the moment by appreciating the event. Tell yourself how positive and pleased you are to be where you are. Avoid rehearsing in your mind the last hurtful scenario.

• Practice relaxation breathing. Breathe in to the count of four, hold your breath to the count of four and slowly exhale to the count of eight imagining that you are pushing your air toward your naval. You can do this anywhere without anyone noticing. After three repetitions you will feel relaxed and at ease. This simple exercise can be used for other situations of anticipated or experienced mild anxiety or tension.
• Above all be pleased to be you, the person who is gracious and kind to others.

October 23, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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