They say actions speak louder than words. Our responses to events in our lives are often brimming with deceptively subtle and complex micro-level actions. I find this to be especially true about responses to adversity. Whenever we come up against adverse conditions or mistreatment (whether that’s violence, abuse, rejection, judgment, alienation, or dismissal), we resist.
People’s resistance to negative experiences and mistreatment by others is something I pay a lot of attention to as a therapist. I’ve written previous posts about resistance to adversity, and how some so-called “negative” emotions can serve the purpose of resistance. They point to our position of where we stand on the things that happen in our lives. As one of my mentors, Allan Wade has put it, the ways we resist can be likened to “small acts of living”.
Sometimes our acts of resistance are blunt and totally out in the open, like a public protest or simply saying “no” to another person. Other times, when it might not feel safe to resist in really overt ways, our resistance flies under the radar, and is either invisible to others (by design), or is witnessed but misunderstood. In this post I focus on the latter kind of resistance – responses that might appear negative or self-harming to outside observers, but which actually might create safety and self-protection.
Caring For Yourself By "Not Caring"
I was inspired to write this post by a young man I was working for. He’s someone some might describe as having been “dealt a rough hand” in life: his father made his love and attention conditional on his son’s success as an athlete, which faltered when he was seriously injured; his parents divorced and he was subjected to abuse and mistreatment by some of his mother’s new partners; he was the victim of a sexualized assault by a male peer; he received an onslaught of condemning and threatening responses from other peers via social media when he confronted the perpetrator; finally, he made a statement to the police, who subsequently chose not to look into the assault..
These experiences and the subsequent social responses he received were understandably distressing and upsetting for this young man. He responded by feeling anxious about going to school (feeling unsure of who he could trust), feeling hopeless about things getting better, and ultimately resigning himself to his bedroom and taking on a position of “not caring”.
Now, I’m someone who is both personally and professionally committed to being helpful and wanting to see people living happy and fulfilling lives. As you might imagine, I was initially really concerned to hear him say that he doesn’t care about himself, what people do to him, or how things turn out in the future. It sounded like he was giving up on life. But when I started asking more questions about “not caring” – about throwing up his hands and giving up – he started to reveal more about the purpose of this response.
It turned out that “not caring” was actually an act of resistance against the bad stuff that had happened up to that point, and a pre-emptive means of protection against more bad stuff happening. He figured out that if he were able to “not care”, it wouldn’t hurt as much when bad stuff happened. There’s a saying I throw around from time to time: “the bigger the meaning, the bigger the feeling”. In other words, the more something matters to us, the more pronounced our emotional response to it will be. So if he was able to “not care” about himself, he could mitigate the emotional pain he would feel when he reflected on all the terrible experiences he had up to that point, as well as those that had yet to happen.
When we spell it out like this, it becomes clear that “not caring” can actually be a way of taking great care of oneself. However, it’s easy to miss that when we look only at what’s being said, and not its purpose as a response within a specific context. In this case, this young man cared about himself enough to want to feel less pain and take away other people’s power to hurt him. What might be misread as a case of “low self-esteem” is actually a case of esteeming himself highly enough to create a kind of shelter from abuse – abuse that nobody else was doing anything stop.
Resistance Isn't Always How it Appears
There are many other creative forms of resistance that people employ that can be easily misread as “negative” emotions, behaviours, or attributes. For example, guilt and shame are often regarded in a problematic light, but can speak volumes about our sense of right and wrong. Anger is often looked at as an unhealthy emotion, when in fact is can be one of our most basic and fundamental forms of protest. I’ve even heard stories of how self-hatred can be a way of finding a target for discontent when it’s unsafe to express it toward more fitting subjects.
If you’re in the process of navigating and making sense of your own responses to adversity, here are some questions to consider:
- Imagine yourself responding differently (perhaps how other people think you “should” be). What’s your gut emotional response to this image?
- If your first response includes feelings of distress or discomfort, why do you think that could be?
- What might your discomfort or distress say about your knowledge of the situation and your reason for responding as you have been?
- If you experiment with responding differently, do you expect you’d feel more or less discomfort or distress?
- Would responding differently make you vulnerable to anything negative that might actually make matters worse?
- What does your response say about your values and what’s of most importance to you?
- If your response has worked well enough up to now, at what point would you seriously consider doing things differently?
Have you ever considered how your own so-called “negative” emotions or behaviours were resistance against adversity?
Do you see value in any particular actions you’ve taken that others have misunderstood or misread as negative or harmful?
Could you share some pros and cons of so-called “negative” responses to adversity, and how they’ve helped or hindered?
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