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Why People Get Offended So Easily

How the past affects our reaction to the present.

Key points

  • People who push others' buttons are not always doing so intentionally or consciously.
  • People might not know they've offended someone without realizing it until later or when the person brings it to their attention.
  • People are often particularly sensitive to what they presume as criticism, abuse, or neglect.
Liza Summer, photographer/Pexels Free Photo
Source: Liza Summer, photographer/Pexels Free Photo

When they're offended, more people than you might imagine "act out." Whether straightforwardly or passive-aggressively, they're motivated to retaliate against their (supposed) assailant. Yet most people whose words or actions are experienced as offensive lack antagonistic intent.

These predominately innocent offenders tend either to be insensitive, in that they don't consider their interactional behavior in terms of its psychological effects—that is, as regards its likely impact on another's thoughts and feelings. Or they simply don't know enough about the other person's history to predict what words or actions might disturb them.

If you're on the receiving end of a person's bumbling or blundering behavior, and it's fired up one of your hot buttons, you may not be able to avoid taking them personally. But that hardly means their intent was personal, that the noxious motives you're ascribing to them are valid.

You might reflect on whether you've ever offended someone without realizing it until later—or not until the offendee brought it to your attention. In advance, you might not have imagined that what you did would be perceived anywhere as inimically as it was.

Most of us, despite how much we may see ourselves as having evolved over time, still possess an ego more fragile than we typically realize. So it's likely that your ego may be more vulnerable than you assumed to experiencing another's behavior as hurtful, hostile, or threatening.

Given the multitude of insecurities we're subject to in growing up, there exist within us parts that—more than we'd like to admit—remain particularly sensitive to (largely presumed) criticism, abuse, or neglect. And with few exceptions, others are even less aware than we are about what, emotionally, we're susceptible to and can't help but (over) react to.

This post will cover what causes us at times to be suspicious or distrustful about another's motives when, however accidentally, their behavior yanks our emotional chain. And it will also explain why some people are especially likely to feel offended in situations where no hurt or harm was intended.

So, for instance, if because of others' past criticism you've long been painfully self-conscious about your weight and, in bantering with a friend, they innocently crack a joke about an obese person walking by (e.g., "I bet she never met a bakery she didn't like!"), you might instantly start to wonder whether they might indirectly (sarcastically?) be judging, teasing or making fun of you. And if so, you might even glare at them—making them wonder what in the world is going on with you.

How the Past Affects Your Reactions to the Present

Say you experienced something in the past as traumatizing. And now, just thinking about it brings it back to life—as though it happened yesterday. To the degree you still experience intense emotions, sensations, or worrisome thoughts about what occurred back then, it's clear you've never been able to fully resolve it.

The very nature of trauma is to negatively sensitize you to anything in the present that unconsciously reminds you of something in the past. Something that deeply affected you—maybe scared, terrified, or shamed you.

So given a situation today that internally feels analogous to the traumatizing one, you can't help but be more offended than would others. For, involuntarily, such a circumstance puts you on high alert. Although it's fine to be vigilant, having been victimized earlier by something over which you had no control forces you to be hyper-vigilant.

And that can be problematic.

For example, you may have been humiliated by constantly being mocked when you were growing up. So if a friend or acquaintance playfully comments about your race, religion, height, weight, dress (frankly, it could be anything), then, as long as their remark reawakens an old defense against being ridiculed, you'll feel compelled to react negatively.

Or better, overreact since whatever slight you may feel in the moment will be significantly amplified by its revivifying an earlier, unassimilated insult you felt much earlier, which could be to your pride, dignity, or self-respect.

If your ego is resilient a and reasonably strong (vs. super-sized or inflated) such that you don't take things too personally, you may not be that upset with another's tactlessness or insensitivity. But if you're afflicted with self-doubt or self-image issues generally, or if you haven't yet learned how to validate and soothe yourself independently, your self-protective programming will take over. Or rather, take you over. For you'll be driven to take offense at whatever—or whoever—appears responsible for your immediate distress.

The expression reading between the lines refers to going beyond a literal comprehension of what's said to interpreting it—based on its felt connotations. And if you're subconsciously relating another's words to your personal history, you may well appraise their meaning as implying something disparaging about you.

Misreading another's intent is also likely if, say, the person you're conversing with is vehemently venting anger toward an injustice they recently experienced. If you grew up with a raging parent who, out of nowhere, could verbally pounce on you, this person's pronounced anger could prompt you to feel endangered, intimidated, or offended.

And something similar might happen if a person started crying in front of you because, say, their partner just left them. If in your past you were unfairly blamed—maybe even excoriated—for another's tears ("Damn you! You make me cry!") and that unwarranted attack hurt, irritated, or incensed you, you could feel compelled to react as though—again—you were falsely accused.

Learn more in part 2 of this discussion, and in my earlier post, How Quick Are You to Take Offense?

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.

Facebook image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

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