I get my fair share of hate mail on the Internet, which I find unpleasant but not entirely surprising. Many people aren't good at expressing their anger cleanly, and some of them choose to channel it into hate mail directed at me.
Being on the receiving end of somebody else's hostility can be stressful, so it's important to be assertive with these people to stop their stress from entering our emotional boundary.
He's an example from a few weeks ago: I got an email from a female ex-friend who I initially met through a blog I run, which began:
"I don't read your shit, but…"
... and went on to give me some unsolicited advice that I didn't find particularly helpful.
When I met this woman a few years ago she had been ill for several years and seemed really pissed off. Since she lived in the same city as me, I could actually go and hang out with her physically; which I did for a while.
As I got to know her, I learnt a bit about her background story. Her father had abandoned her quite young, and by the sounds of it a string of men had taken advantage of her. To me, she seemed like a classic case of a woman who had been treated badly by men and had a lot of internalized rage towards them. Although she was quite attractive, when I saw the way that she treated her boyfriend, I was glad not to be on the receiving end of that.
When I suggested that there might be some link between her anger and her illness, or that at the very least it would be worth seeing a therapist to deal with the feelings she had about being ill (and hopefully also her feelings towards men), she resisted the whole idea.
I was still working through a lot of the pain that I was carrying around my critical mother when we met, and was still attracting angry women looking for a man to dump on onto my radar. My mother would never plainly express that she was angry; instead, her anger came out in toxic ways like sarcasm, criticism, belittlement and bullying. Just like this woman.
I finally decided to cut contact with her a couple of years back after she wrote some hostile comments on Facebook about the article that I wrote linking mental Illness with unexpressed emotion. She disagreed strongly; but it wasn't the fact that she disagreed that upset me, it was the way that she expressed it that I didn't like.
She was clearly very angry with me about what I wrote. That may have been a projection of the anger that she felt towards men generally, or towards people who said things she disagreed with; or any number of other things.
When I empathized with her for the anger that she felt towards me, she reacted with increasing hostility and denial. Although she was clearly angry about what I had written, she was unable to recognise it in herself.
I now see showing empathy as the best way to identify whether you want to keep an angry person in your life or not. Notice how they respond when you offer empathy. If you say to them "Wow, you sound really angry with me" and they deny it even more angrily; then you know you are dealing with somebody who doesn't want to face up to their own anger.
Of course it's possible when offering empathy to someone that I might get it wrong; but if I empathise with someone's anger and it turns out that they aren't actually angry, they generally just correct me; without sarcasm and hostility.
I shifted the conversation about my article to Facebook chat to see if we could resolve it. After a few goes offering more empathy for her anger and receiving hostility in return, I realised that she wasn't able to acknowledge her anger and I was tired of bearing the brunt of it, so I decided to unfriend and block her from Facebook.
I don't mind people getting angry from time to time, but I don't want women with internalized rage towards men using me as a dumping ground just because I'm sensitive. Women like that are just replaying the dynamic between my mother and father which I don't wish to recreate in my life.
Up until recently I've been an easy target for this kind of thing, but now I act assertively and don't take their crap any more.
If they want to pay me to teach them how to express that anger in a healthy way, I'm up for that. But to do that requires a certain level of self-awareness. You've got to be able to acknowledge that the anger is there in the first place, and some people just aren't ready or willing to do that yet. I walk away from people like that now, and each time I do it's another step towards breaking the unhealthy relational patterns that I learnt from my parents.
The trick is to avoid getting sucked into an argument with someone who uses criticism, sarcasm and bullying to inflict harm as an outlet for their anger; rather than identifying and expressing anger cleanly in order to resolve issues and build a stronger relationship.
The only way to "win/win" an argument with somebody who would rather hurt you than deal with their own anger is to not play the game. Have the last word by saying that you just don't wish to continue the conversation.
My final email to my now-ex-friend read:
"I get that you're angry and I don't like the way you express it.
I don't wish to communicate with you again."