In these times, with emotions running high and the “snowflake generation” gaining prominence in society, everything seems to contain the seed of offense. A misplaced word or a vague attitude is enough to set off all the alarms and make others feel offended.
However, confusing offense with disgust leads us to a dystopian scenario. When everyone feels like they are walking on glass about to break, self-censorship sets in and differences are banished. Although everything seems to flow on the surface, the storm develops in the deeper areas. And sooner or later it will break out in the worst way, dragging everything in its path.
For this reason, today more than ever, it is essential to understand the difference between feeling offended or upset.
What is an offense really?
The word “offense” comes from the Latin offēnsa, derived from féndere, which meant to push or hit, so in the past it was used primarily to refer to physical attacks. With the passage of time, it was no longer used to designate physical wounds and was reserved for attacks on honor or dignity.
In psychological terms, offense is a feeling caused by an attack that calls into question our self-concept and identity. It belongs to what is known as “self-conscious emotions” – like shame, guilt and pride – so it can be particularly intense and has a great energizing power over behavior. That is, its impact is usually so strong that it pushes us to react.
In fact, in 1976 the German psychologist W. Zander identified the three phases that an offense goes through:
1. Identification of the cause of the offense, which implies the interpretation of what happened as an insult to an ideal value.
2. Assessment of the intensity of the offense, which will largely depend on the degree to which it affects the self-image and how much the offender’s beliefs and values are shared.
3. Emotional and behavioral reaction to the offense, generally with the intention of seeking relief.
This path shows that everything does not depend on the words spoken but also on the ears that listen. The offense can be a direct attack, but sometimes we can be offended by more subtle and implicit things, such as a lack of attention and even altruistic behavior that we find humiliating.
In fact, behind the offense we usually perceive an attack on our essence. When someone questions our self-image or challenges our values, they can bring our insecurities to light. And the greater the underlying insecurity and the dissonance that the words spoken cause with our self-concept, the greater the offense and the more likely we will be to react to defend our wounded ego.
Feeling upset by differences
A few years ago, professors at the universities of Yale, Oxford and Cambridge raised the alarm when they noticed that a new generation of particularly susceptible students were attending their classes, with a low tolerance for frustration and prone to dramatization. The truth is that when we do not have a strong self-esteem and we embrace a value system that is too rigid, the chances of us becoming people who are easily offended increase.
Curiously, a study carried out recently at the Universitá degli Studi Roma Tre revealed that more people feel offended by a simple criticism (24%) than by a direct insult (16%) and that we consider omissions more offensive (27%) than injustices (17%), hostility (13%) or even deception (10%).
These researchers also verified that we feel more and more offended alone, so that the offense is ceasing to be a public humiliation and becoming a more private feeling, so it is not surprising that the number of indirect offenses is increasing. They concluded that “Feeling offended is primarily an intimate condition.”
If we do not accept that we are all unique, we do things differently, we think differently and we live in our own way, it is likely that even everyday friction or small disagreements will end up upsetting us. And we run the risk of confusing this disappointment with offenses.
We do not realize that the problem are not necessarily the others, but rather lies in our inability to deal with what is different, with all those stimuli that activate our insecurities and call into question our ego or deep-rooted beliefs.
However, we must be clear that being contradicted may upset us, annoy us or even make us angry, but it does not imply an offense. That someone contradicts us or thinks differently is not an offense. And if we perceive it as such, we have a problem, which we should solve by looking within ourselves, instead of using all that energy to accuse others or try to silence them in an attempt to impose our insecurities.
The Stoic solution to not feel offended
Epictetus thought that what is offensive is not the person, his actions or words, but our judgment about what happened. “No one can harm you without your consent, you will be hurt the very moment you allow yourself to be harmed,” he explained.
For this philosopher, one of the greatest achievements of the wise man is to become “He who cannot be disturbed by anything other than his reasoned decision.” With these words, the Stoics remind us that we cannot control what others say or do, but we are masters of our reactions.
That something upsets us simply means that we do not like what we are seeing or hearing or it does not fit with our way of being or vision of the world. We can prevent it from affecting us, instead of turning it into an offense that ends up adding weight to our emotional baggage, letting it affect our interpersonal relationships.
So the next time you feel offended, ask yourself if maybe you’ve just been upset. The difference is important.
Poggi, I. & D’Errico, F. (2017) Feeling Offended: A Blow to Our Image and Our Social Relationships. Front Psychol; 8: 2221.
Mistler, B. J. et. Al. (2012) The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey Reporting. AUCCCD Survey; 1-188.
Zander W. (1976) Taking offence as seen in depth-psychology. Psychother. Med. Psychol; 26: 1–9.