Why Getting Offended is Dangerous

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There’s a weird reason people get coaching from someone like me: it’s a place where they can finally get the NEGATIVE feedback they’ve needed all along.

When I was a people-pleasing Nice Guy, my biggest issue — though I didn’t know it at the time — was that no one was pointing out the error of my ways. I couldn’t see them myself because I’d never known differently. I had been this way for as long as I could remember. And even worse, I had often and frequently received positive feedback for it.

I can count on one hand how many times someone hit with me with some hard truths about how I was harming myself with my own behaviour. One girl told me my self-deprecating humour came across as pathetic. One guy said I was being too nice for girls to find me attractive. One manager told me that I needed to grow some balls before he could respect me.

And every time I got some of this harsh feedback, I was able to turn that into massive transformations that significantly improved my quality of life. I don’t think I’ve EVER improved my life based on positive feedback, because I only ever really get positive feedback for pleasing someone else. It’s incredibly rare for someone to compliment a person on their integrity.

The problem is of course that we all grow up in most Western cultures, and now moreso than ever before, being taught that giving negative feedback is BAD and WRONG. Why?

Because it might hurt someone’s feelings.

It’s implied that hurting someone’s feelings is always a bad thing, no question about it. And of course, making someone feel happy is always a good thing. Basically, we should always make people feel good about themselves, even when we believe they’re living wrong and harming themselves and others, and we should never offend someone.

We’re reaping what we’ve sown with this approach. We now live in a time where in some countries it’s actually illegal to offend someone. It is now against the law to give negative feedback… even if that feedback could save a life.

I take full responsibility for my errors and mistakes, but I can say without a doubt that I couldn’t have made progress without someone taking the risk of offending me. I simply could not see myself objectively — no one can — and so I needed outside perspective on the flaws that were ruining my ability to enjoy life.

Without someone being willing to offend me, I would never have learned that I was being fake due to abandonment fears, that I used humour to keep people at arm’s length, that I refused to delegate because I had a twisted belief that I must control everything, and that my chronic anxiety was a reaction to my own cowardice.

Without being offended, I would never have learned to stand up for myself, to become an honest person, to find the love of my life and start a family. I would still be fake, miserable, alone and possibly suicidal if no one had had the guts to tell me that they didn’t approve of what I was doing.

Sure, not all negative feedback I’ve received has been helpful or accurate. But within the crap there has occasionally been gold nuggets that make all the rest of it worthwhile. I’d happily receive 10,000 unfair insults to hear a single truth that triples my quality of life.

One thing I’ve learned as a coach and previously as a Probation Officer is that positive change is not inspired by positive events. You need a crisis to pull yourself out of a complacent trap and take risks to improve your life. It needs to hurt to motivate. The simple fact is we’re rarely inspired in a positive way. Behaviour change is driven by guilt, frustration, confusion and exhaustion.

Most of the time, if you see someone making big positive changes in their life, it’s because something hurt enough to make reality come crashing through their wall of self-deception in such a way as to be impossible to ignore.

If I couldn’t risk offending people, I couldn’t help them. While strength-based psychology has it’s benefits, it’s useless until a person first decides that they need to get off their ass and make something of their life. Positive psychology only becomes useful comes after a painful crash.

If you are someone with whom it’s unsafe to be honest, someone who resists and counterattacks negative feedback, then you’re at a severe disadvantage. Whether you’re an egotistical boss, or a know it all student activist, or a narcissistic partner, or whatever you are that makes you explode in the face of confrontational ideas about yourself, then it will be almost impossible for you to recognise what you’re doing wrong.

The simple fact is this: feeling offended is a sign of psychological fragility.

Even if the feedback is inaccurate or unhelpful, the fact that it hurt your feelings is a kind of meta-feedback: it means that your psyche is unable to handle conflicting ideas, or hostility from others, or truths about your weaknesses. It means you’re powerless to the point where someone can harm you without even touching you.

A truly confident person would almost never be offended by anything. And if they were, they’d quickly take responsibility for that feeling and ask themselves,

“What gap in my psychological armour just allowed me to be harmed by simple words? What truth have I been exposed to that I resist at my own peril? What can I do with this information to become even stronger?”

Being offended is in the Fear category of emotions. It does not come from a place of strength, confidence or intelligence. It means you fear that what’s being said is true, or that it’s a threat to your comfort zone, or that you won’t be able to handle it. Being offended is NEVER a sign that you’re healthy, doing well and capable of handling life at a superior level.

And nowadays we live in a global culture that shames offensiveness. We’re literally training the younger generation to avoid giving offense or taking it. In other words, we’re disabling their ability to give and receive helpful corrective feedback.

How is this a good idea?

Some people even get offended by positive feedback. It’s common for people push back on compliments, accusing the giver of having hidden motives or being a liar. We’re now at a point where people are scared to give recognition, or show attraction, or express happy emotions about someone.

We’re getting close to creating a culture where it’s not possible to express yourself honestly. Ever.

Of course, offensiveness includes potentially harmful behaviour, such as bullying, racism, hate speech etc. But these are the demons that must be risked to allow the door to remain open to helpful feedback, as they come through the same door.

I’ve had some very hateful feedback on my YouTube posts etc., and yet it’s often quite helpful. If nothing else, it shows me that I’ve pissed off the right people. I’ll get someone calling me vicious names and insulting me, and yet when I challenge them to provide evidence or rationale that disproves me, they can’t. It shows that their attack on me was validation that my points were solid and they were upset because their beliefs were shaken.

I actually find hateful feedback like that more helpful than vague positive feedback like, “Great video!”

Coaching should not be the first time someone gets the feedback they need. It almost breaks my heart when I have to tell a 50 year old man that his behaviour is what destroyed his marriage, or to tell someone who’s been working at the same job for 20 years that he’s only there due to fear, or the worst: when I have to point out that a parent is passing on generational trauma to their own children.

I almost weep for the decades lost — someone else must have noticed these issues earlier! Why the fuck didn’t they say something? Those cowards!

I plead to you: allow people to offend you without consequences, and be offensive without apology.

Negative feedback, when accurate or insightful, is probably the single most helpful source of information a human can get their hands on. Do not deny yourself it’s riches by being an overly sensitive, fragile, arrogant, close-minded coward. Let people hurt your feelings so that you might rise from the ashes as a stronger and wiser person.

And let people be upset by what you have to say to them. Sure, take your time to think it through. Don’t confuse being a judgmental bigot with being a helpful advisor. Your feedback should be evidence-based, aimed at helping them live the best life that suits them (not just what you think other people should do), and open to being challenged and corrected. And always ask permission before giving feedback — you’re not entitled to be heard.

But even if you’re not sure that you’re right, try to share your views with them anyway. Who knows how it might help them? Even offending them will go some way toward helping them grow a thicker skin.

More importantly, for your own self-centered benefits, make yourself open to ideas that hurt to hear. Listen to the other side of the story. Ask people what they think of your behaviour. Read books that challenge your long-term beliefs.

You’ll be better for it!

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