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UPDATED: Feb. 19, 2021 —
It’s been said that if you really want to get to know a person, travel with them. I can vividly remember my first overnight trip with a particular relative whom we’ll call “Maya.” Boy, did I get to know Maya on that trip.
We were virtually strangers, but a recent marriage made us cousins. Though we were traveling together for a sad occasion — a distant relative had passed — we were both happy that we would get to spend some time together. Shortly after taking that nine-hour drive across several states, I realized that we wouldn’t be hanging out much after that. Maya retreated to her room and pretty much stayed there the rest of the trip. I figured that she was feeling down due to the death we’d experienced, so I gave her space but tried to cheer her up when possible. It wasn’t until we returned home that I learned the real reason for her gloomy disposition had nothing to do with the funeral and everything to do with me.
Days later, in a text message, Maya laid out a laundry list of things I had apparently done to offend her. My transgressions ranged from how I handled a tube of toothpaste to jokingly calling her annoying. I was deeply confused, to say the least.
“She’s just like that,” another relative said to me after I shared the text message.
Logically speaking, the offense just didn’t make sense. However, as I got to know Maya better, I realized our relative was right. Maya and so many others are easily offended. According to licensed marriage and family therapist Marissa Nelson, these feelings boil down to expectations.
“It comes down to their expectations of the way people should act or respond,” said Nelson. “When people are highly offended, they have their own ideas of how people should respond to them, how people should act to them in certain situations, how people should react in certain situations. And if that doesn’t happen, they feel slighted.”
What is this self-conscious emotion?
“There is no single term that serves as a catchall moniker for those who easily and frequently become offended,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, Psychologist. “But there are characteristics that can commonly be identified as linked to someone who gets offended by seemingly everything.”
According to Hafeez, if someone is offended at minor things like not being the first person informed of a change of plans or being told their outfit is cute and not iconic, then that’s a problem. Those are examples of insecurity manifesting as an offense with overtones of anxiety, fear, and possibly even a bit of manipulation.
Research also proves that these feelings are “self-conscious emotions” that are caused by a blow to the person’s image and self-image. Meaning, they are often triggered by a blow to a person’s honor.
They’re also anxious
According to the Intimacy Moons founder, people who are easily offended often have an abnormal desire for control and typically suffer from anxiety.
“People who are typically always offended have a need to control and feel as if they are in control. They need to be in control of their lives, in control of outcomes, in control of other people,” Nelson shared. “It is the largest predictor of anxiety. They typically live and operate in a world where they feel like they are in control. They believe that their truth and their version of the truth is the truth. There’s no room for other people’s realities.”
Holding grudges helps them to feel empowered
“They’re passive-aggressive because they can’t have an emotionally healthy conversation about their feelings,” added Nelson. “Being passive-aggressive is a form of power. It’s a form of maintaining power in relationships because they don’t know how to be vulnerable.”
Though these personality types often come across as bullies or hellraisers, psychologist Jalisa Barnes says that they’re often the most sensitive.
“People who harbor resentment or grudges, tend to be more sensitive and vulnerable than others. A lot of their grudge-holding comes from a fear of being hurt again,” said Barnes. “It may also be that the incident triggered memories of a traumatic ervent, and they are trying to prevent themselves from being in that position again. It may make them feel empowered at the moment, but it can also cause for a lonely existence and/or an anxious heart because they will have a hard time being flexible with any existing relationships they may have.”
They suffer from insecure attachment
Babies learn about the world through interactions with their parents. When they receive the nurturing that they need and their needs are met, they develop a sense of safety and what’s called secure attachment. According to Nelson, this allows toddlers to go out into the world and create relationships knowing parents are nearby and it’s safe for them to explore. However, when babies don’t get that, they develop an insecure attachment, which continues to manifest in adulthood.
“When people don’t get that, they get what’s called insecure attachment,” Nelson shared. “People don’t respond to my needs therefore, I shut down and I minimize my needs or I overreact. I overreact and I punish people for not giving me what I want. They don’t know how to ask for what they want in healthy ways. It’s much easier to make it other people’s fault and look at it as an injustice because that’s what they’ve felt all their life. They felt like people weren’t there for them or have taken advantage of them. To protect themselves they become very rigid because trauma is rigid.”
Despite this overt sensitivity to how they are treated, the easily offended don’t like to command certain treatment.
“They don’t want to tell you what they need,” says Nelson. “They feel like telling you is common sense”
Sometimes the feelings are legit
Taking offense can be a legitimate feeling when someone is expressing an unfair or deprecating sentiment about you or a group of people with whom you identify,” says Hafeez. “It’s a valid feeling to get offended at racist or sexist remarks. No, you are not overly sensitive when you express your displeasure at someone’s ignorant statement about people who look like you.”
However, if it’s a frequent mechanism by which insecurities or unresolved issues manifest, according to Hafeez, then it’s a problem.
They’re in pain
It’s very easy to write these personality types off as miserable, especially when their behavior is hurtful and divisive at times. So often we assume that auntie so and so is unhappy and she just wants to make others unhappy so that she has company. However, according to Nelson, it’s not that simple.
“Beneath misery is pain. People get turned off by the misery of it all, but if you look a little bit deeper, you’d discover trauma, abandonment, and neglect. This is who they’ve become because they’ve been emotionally isolated,” she shared.”
It’s not personal
Having someone who is regularly coming for you over small slights is emotionally draining, hurtful, and it can often feel as though that person simply doesn’t like you. However, their behavior is less about you and more about them.
“When people get offended, it’s not personal,” added Nelson. “When people get offended, it’s not you. They’re projecting their values and beliefs onto you.”
They need your empathy
When I encounter people who are constantly outraged or harboring resentment for the smallest of things, my knee-jerk reaction is to cut ties with the person, but according to Nelson, people who struggle in this way require empathy and love more than anything else.
“Everyone deserves the same amount of empathy and understanding. If we can just give the same kindness instead of shutting down, we can understand that it’s not personal, but that they do have their own work to do,” Nelson advised. “What you can do is love them the best that you can and try to understand where they’re coming from so that you don’t completely shut them out.”
Of course, being empathetic doesn’t mean taking on their baggage or subjecting yourself to abuse. Maintaining healthy boundaries is key.
“While we can be understanding and compassionate, we also have to remember not to take on other people’s baggage. Everyone has to do what is right for him or herself, and while we should be kind about it, we also have the right to establish and maintain boundaries,” added Barnes. “If someone cannot respect that, trauma or not, we need to be willing to let them work that out themselves.”