There are a handful of phrases that just make me seethe, teeth automatically gritting and hackles rising, in this world. One is the just ignore it/don’t let it affect you/treat it like water off a duck’s back family of assurances, a set of phrases that fundamentally boil down to this: Someone is making you unhappy, but you should ignore it in the interest of the greater good. Uhm, excuse me, but no. No, you are not required to do this, and I have absolutely no truck with people who make these kinds of statements. Period.
If an individual finds it helpful to ignore things or to concentrate on not letting them affect her, that’s great. She’s allowed to do as she pleases, and I support her right to deal with things that are stressing her out and upsetting her in a way that’s productive for her. Maybe she’s in a high stress environment where she needs to stay focused. Maybe she’s trying to scrape by in a hostile and aggressive workplace. For whatever reason, this strategy works for her — but as soon as she tells anyone else that they should be doing it too, I’m done.
This kind of language devalues the very real harm that people experience, suggesting in a way that they’re actually responsible for being upset. If so-and-so says something to you and it makes you unhappy, it’s your fault for being unhappy, you see, because you let it get to you. Don’t be so uptight, and let it just slide by; he didn’t mean it, you have more important things to worry about, you don’t want to be known as difficult simply because you can’t take a single comment, even if it was badly worded.
No. Here’s the thing. For starters, this kind of language is highly gendered. It’s often (though not always) telling women that they should just let stuff that men did go. Which really echoes larger social attitudes about how women are all too emotional and their feelings are too sensitive and they can’t really function in society because they’re unable to be levelheaded. Saying that someone should just ignore something upsetting is, in essence, saying that she shouldn’t be upset, and it devalues her legitimate emotions. Instead of acknowledging that something is occurring and addressing it, people are instead trying to erase it. That’s a terrible thing to do, and it speaks poorly of people who do it.
It also tells us something about how uncomfortable people are when emotions come into play. People don’t want to be reminded of the fact that other people have feelings — especially when they are the ones hurting them. To acknowledge the fact that someone is upset is to admit that feelings happen and they matter, and that people have an obligation to be fundamentally kind to one another, whether they’re in a workplace, having a conversation, or interacting in a passing, casual way. The discomfort humans experience when confronted with the reality of other human experiences is troubling — why shouldn’t we acknowledge emotions? Why shouldn’t we admit that it matters when someone is unhappy?
This language also commonly comes up in abusive situations, and no matter what the scale of the abuse, telling people that their emotions don’t matter in a situation where they are being treated poorly is unacceptable. Maybe it’s the employee with a boss who takes things out on her, or with a boss who’s just unkind to staff period, no matter what kind of mood he’s in. Maybe it’s a woman in an abusive relationship who’s routinely showered in comments about how she’s ugly and worthless. Maybe it’s an outspoken woman criticising social issues who’s told to just ignore trolls.
Since when have the feelings and priorities of people who are being nasty become more important than the effect those actions have on other people? The onus here is on people who are causing harm, not on the people who are suffering as a result — and it’s legitimate to be upset and troubled when one is being abused. Likewise, it’s entirely reasonable to want the behaviour to stop, and, in some cases, to want restorative justice of some form or another. That employee wants her boss to stop being a dick, and she wants him to apologise for treating her the way she does. She wants him to rethink the way he engages with staffers, and wants him to think about using positive reinforcement to respond to great work, rather than being abusive when people make mistakes or need guidance.
Why is it on her to ‘just let it go’ or leave if she doesn’t like it? Why are we still prioritising the interests of people who are being assholes? The fact that we’re so committed to telling people with a variety of colourful metaphors that they are responsible for their own feelings says a lot about us, culturally and socially. It says that we don’t value individuals as people, and that we’re overtly, frustratingly focused on making people feel bad for experiencing feelings while ignoring the people who cause those feelings. Instead of admitting that humans deserve to be treated with respect, we’re saying that people need to stop being so uptight and sensitive.
On what planet is that okay?
Image: Mandarin Duck, Mike’s Birds, Flickr