Why We’re Quick to “Go Negative”

There’s a reason we’re so easily “ticked off.”

Comedian Bill Maher wrote an amusing article in The New York Times recently, asking, “When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?”

In the article, Maher makes the point that we’ve become too easily offended and too quick to be outraged over nothing. It’s as if we’re eager to take everything personally.

Well, guess what? Unconsciously, we are indeed eager to take things personally. We jump at the chance to feel insulted, disrespected, or disgusted by what others say, even though their words may be only mildly inappropriate, or even just candid, and have nothing directly to do with us.

Why would we want to feel that aggravation? Obviously, we’re the ones who suffer with tension and stress if we get “ticked off” this way. Once triggered, we’re stuck with a negative feeling that can last for days.

We all remember that old adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” In principle, we certainly want to see a decrease in derogatory language, racial slurs, and displays of ignorance and incivility. Yet, as Maher said, we show a willingness to get upset over nothing. We feel offended when some jerk or loudmouth says something stupid or when some high-profile person (actor Robert De Niro, to use Maher’s example) makes an attempt at humor that might be, at worst, a dumb joke.

In a similar vein, we can get irritated and even outraged over trifles involving a friend or spouse. We can easily get ticked off by a spouse’s peculiar mannerisms or details of appearance, or by his or her harmless personal idiosyncrasies. Most of us can remember times when we felt this irritation.

Before I get to why we so easily “go negative,” here’s a bit of background.

On an inner level, we resonate with the feeling of being mocked, disrespected, and criticized. We’re inwardly defensive against allegations of wrongdoing or condemnations of stupidity from an inner source, our inner critic or superego. This agency in our psyche is a villain in the drama of our life, and its voice may or may not be conscious. (Read, “The Tyrant that Rules Our Inner Life”.) Its role is to dominate our inner life, and its primary mechanism is to question our judgment and often to proclaim that we’re wrong, foolish, stupid, flawed, or worthless. This primitive drive in our psyche is a biological fact of human life. However, it can be tamed and brought to heel by our intelligence and awareness.

Often, we can’t squirm out from under the thumb of the inner critic that professes to be the judge and jury of our inner life. Yet this voice or drive is just one-half of an inner conflict that, for most of us, is so familiar we don’t know who we are without it. Our defensive unconscious ego (the seat of inner passivity) takes up the other half of the conflict. Most people haven’t achieved sufficient autonomy in their own sense of self to escape this conflict. This lack of insight prevents us from understanding our unconscious resonance with the feeling of being criticized or judged.

Mainstream psychology  tends to overlook both the inner critic and inner passivity. Superficial psychology emphasizes handling conflict involving criticism through rational, reasonable dialogue and polite listening to one another. This cognitive approach can have some limited benefit in reducing external conflict—but it doesn’t make us more conscious. And this approach usually doesn’t mention the problem of inner criticism or teach us how to escape from the tyranny of the inner critic. It also declines to acknowledge unresolved, negative emotions and their power to disrupt our life. An egotistical bias emerges, as well, in the assumption that mind can tame emotions. Whatever is unresolved in our psyche produces negative emotions that are going to get the best of us in some manner or other.

Now, let’s get to the heart of the issue, why we’re so easily feel offended by the allegedly insensitive remarks of others, even when those remarks don’t directly apply to us. There are two main reasons.

First, we’re quick to identify with the person or group that we imagine is feeling slighted and disrespected by an apparently offensive remark. We identify with the other in this way because we ourselves are quick to feel slighted or disrespected, particularly through the dynamic relationship we have with our inner critic or superego. To cover up our resonance with the feeling of being criticized or disrespected, we create a psychological defense. That defense can operate on this basis: “I’m not willing to feel disrespected and indulge in the feeling. Look, I’m angry at the person who made that offensive remark. That person needs to be identified as the problem.” So we unconsciously produce the unpleasant sensation of being offended or insulted as a psychological defense. The defense covers up our emotional resonance with feeling criticized, mocked, or belittled.

Second, we often look for a scapegoat so we can minimize our own inner sense of wrongdoing and deflect our inner critic’s spotlight away from us. Now the defense reads, “I’m not the one who’s guilty of wrongdoing. It’s that fool over there. Look at what he just said. He’s the one who needs to be condemned.” The deeper our sense of being offended by the “fool,” the more successfully we’re covering up our unhealthy emotional entanglement in the situation. Our defense exacts a heavy price—the burden of our ugly outrage. We suffer this way in order to cover up our resonance with the feeling of being criticized or belittled.

Earlier I raised a related issue concerning our tendency to become irritated or enraged by a spouse’s or a friend’s trifling idiosyncrasies. We feel this flash of disapproval toward our friend or spouse because we do to others what our superego or inner critic does to us. Our inner critic pounces on us for alleged wrongdoing, often over minor or even imagined transgressions. Instinctively, as if blowing off steam, we do the same to our loved ones.

When we bring the inner critic’s incessant negativity into focus, we can remain free of its influence. Eventually, under the gaze of our awareness, the inner critic’s power dissipates and we become much less prone to negative experiences.

Once liberated from the primary conflict between our inner critic (inner aggression) and our unconscious ego (inner passivity), we’re no longer practice or tolerate inner incivility. Now we’re immune to the outer manifestations of it. We no longer “go negative” at the drop of an offhand comment.