Growing Pains: Taking emotional responsibility

There you are, at school, in the street, at a bar, and someone is in your face. They’re beaking you, as some might say here in Pacific Canada. They’re all in your ear, saying things you ain’t trying to hear, and you’re on the back foot. Whose fault is this? What can you even do?

The other night, I got into a heated discussion with a close friend of mine about this very question. He has a reputation for confronting issues head-on, while I consider myself more apt to wait it out and turn the other cheek. For both of us, the conversation brought up a lifelong history of hurt brought on by conflict and the frustration of not knowing how to react. Midway through, we were shouting at each other — and by the end we were hugging it out like true bros.

The two of us are part of a fairly big circle of Magic: The Gathering players, a hobby through which I have met most of my closest male friends. Like many groups of young, competitive guys, we operate in an atmosphere of well-intentioned constant teasing.

We constantly make fun of each other, criticize each other’s play choices, clothing selections and sexual prowess. This pattern of homosocial conduct has been around for as long as there have been humans; it’s a good vent for those aggression hormones, and usually nobody gets hurt.

But things aren’t that simple. This kind of marginalized nerd hobby attracts a lot of people with low self-confidence and underdeveloped social skills, many of whom have been the target of intentionally cruel teasing and bullying.

I know this, because I’m one of them. My friend at the bar is another. We both have worked our whole lives to improve our self-image and learn how to relate to and interact with other people, things that have never come easy for us. Our community is largely a safe space for people used to being on constant social lookout.

So what happens when that teasing goes too far or hits a nerve? I used to feel trapped. I felt like I couldn’t back down from the situation without losing face. My only options were to come right back with it, escalating the situation, or act unbothered and seem to shrug it off.

I blamed the aggressor for putting me in this hopeless situation. How could they be so unaware of my feelings? But my friend called me out on this line of thinking. There I was, firing off comebacks or shrugging, blasé. How were they to know I was really feeling hurt?

The fact that my friends and I are largely introverts makes turning the other cheek the norm. When these situations happen, we complain to our other friends and talk about it behind closed doors. It’s very unusual for someone to simply tell the other guy that they took it personally, and the fact that confrontation is so rare means that people willing to speak up are ostracized.

The reality of human relationships is that someone’s feelings are going to get hurt sometimes. My friend’s point was, the responsibility for solving these problems lies on both sides. Obviously, we need to be vigilant about the fact that we might be causing harm and be as aware as we can about body language and situational awareness. But I’m starting to think we also need to have the strength, even when we’re feeling hurt, to stand up and be honest about our feelings.

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