Your email has such a bad attitude! I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job. Stop giving me crap!
A 50-something man (let’s call him D) from the other side of the planet shouted down the phone at me, completely enraged. All for a matter-of-fact email I sent in response to his earlier one discussing a minor work issue.
I had heard about his short temper and aggressive manner long before having had any dealings with him. Though it was still shocking to receive such a totally blown-out-of-proportion reaction. I remained calm and professional on the phone, like I always do, and essentially coached him into finding a solution to his perceived problem. However, it did involve me biting my tongue and holding back my anger, which was not easy.
I sent him a follow-up email that day letting him know that I did not appreciate his manner on the phone and requested that he did not speak to me like that again. He replied simply saying that he did not need to be told how to conduct himself at work.
His boss eventually heard about the incident, had a word with him and apologised to me ‘on his behalf’. He told me that this was not the first time he had to warn D about his attitude towards his colleagues. Many had complained about him over the years. Shouting at good-tempered C. Patronising his peer manager K. Condescending demeanour towards stakeholders. Throwing objects at external consultants. You name it. The man is like a walking bomb!
Most people, who haven’t experienced D’s aggressive tactics first hand, acknowledge how unpleasant his ways can be in the office. But most brush it off as a ‘cultural characteristic’ that is necessary to get things done in his country. Well, I guess, if he lived in a country run by bullies. What kind of culture promotes aggression, belittling, and lashing out, completely oblivious to others’ rights and feelings? Could this really be the best way to manage relationships, let alone an organisation?
The bully in pain
I thought about the incident a lot afterwards because something about it was very puzzling. Why does a church-going man, with his own family and a fairly successful career, feel the need to patronise a colleague on another continent, and then show not even the slightest hint of regret?
Applying the principle that when we criticise others for their unpleasant traits, we are really criticising something within ourselves, D must be extremely sensitive to being undermined. That explains why a seemingly unprovocative email could trigger his fear-turned-rage towards the sender. The irony was that all the things that D accused me of doing, i.e. belittling, patronising, disrespectful, were the exact traits that his colleagues attribute to him.
According to Jung, we are all much better at identifying our shadow traits in other people than we do in ourselves. This human psychological tendency is so common that it has a special term called ‘projection.’
On the other hand, if my email were provocative, how would an emotionally balanced individual with a healthy level of self-esteem have responded? Possibly something like ‘Dear Ellen, whilst I don’t agree entirely, you make a good point on the disjointed communication. Why don’t we set up regular catch-ups to improve our communication moving forward? How do Tuesday afternoons work for you? Sincerely, D’ Wouldn’t this have worked much more effectively in getting his opinion across and achieving the desired outcome without compromising his personal integrity?
I have no doubt that D was capable of coming up with the better way of responding to my email. But the truth is that his low self-esteem wouldn’t allow him to.
My chance of getting to know his past in any level of detail is remote, but my guess is that D grew up in a strict or even authoritarian household. Having been largely denied the opportunity to express himself in a full and cathartic way, D is used to suppressing his emotions in front of people he sees as authority figures. However, the natural human need to express and to be understood does not go away. It has to find an outlet. D then learnt to identify those around him whose opinions of him would not pose a threat in any way. They are the suitable targets of his for projecting all the hurt and anger that D’s inner child is still suffering from.
Perhaps the 1-year old D was repeatedly denied his meals when he cried at ‘inconvenient’ times, but only got praised for ‘waiting’ to be fed when his parents were free. Or perhaps when the 5-year old D threw a tantrum because his favourite toy was taken, he never received the comfort and affection he so needed from his mother but was instead told not to be such a sissy. Gradually, D learnt that no one out there is willing to acknowledge or understand his feelings. He sees the world as belittling, cruel and insensitive. And that becomes the norm for him. Note that it does not mean that D never recognises that his view of the world is distorted, but as his inner emotional triggers are so real and hurtful, he cannot help but react to perceived external threats to his ego in a totally regressed way. For him, danger is everywhere. Consequently, he selectively takes it out on those he feels that he could get way with.
This is why we often see that bullies only pick on those that they identify as vulnerable and weaker than them. Women, children, ethnic minorities, animals, etc. In reality, they are merely projecting their own pain, the most vulnerable part of themselves, onto others. Because deep inside, they feel easily picked on.
If only he could see…
It is deeply saddening that D, now a middle-aged man, father, and husband, is still so hurt that he cannot tolerate any possible signs that he is not utterly accepted by all those around him. And a mere expression of disagreement could trigger his rage.
Alas, if only he could see that his pain is totally understood and empathised with! If only he could see that he needs to fear no more. He has done well finding the strength and resources for himself to build a life that is functional, financially secure and socially well accepted. He is clearly capable and resourceful in life and no one can take that away from him. If only he could see that as humans who were once vulnerable little children completely at the adults’ disposal, we are all connected in our pains.
Unfortunately, living an emotionally unaware life inevitably leads to inappropriate outbursts which cause damage to relationships and productivity. And living in denial makes it impossible for the person to seek help and to grow. If D continues to turn a blind eye and simply push all the responsibilities onto those on the receiving end of his rage, he is unlikely to be able to unload his emotional baggage, no matter how materially successful he may become.
I have no idea what D is like in his personal life and how open he might be to growing and developing emotionally, but I sincerely hope that he will figure out a way to be kinder to himself, acknowledge his true strength and find a path towards the deepest inner peace. Ultimately, we are all on this sometimes-excruciating journey called ‘life’ together. We can’t always stop ourselves from hurting others from time to time because we ourselves are hurting, but only when we allow ourselves to feel our own pain can the real healing begin.
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