Stay Right When You’re Wronged

Stay Right When You’re Wronged

There’s been mistreatment or injustice – now what?

The Practice:
Stay right when you’re wronged.

Why?

It’s easy to treat people well when they treat you well. The real test is when they treat you badly. (Much of what I say here applies to concerns about injustice or mistreatment that threatens or happens to others, from someone bullying a child to an oppressive government, but I will focus on the personal level.)

Think of times you’ve been truly wronged, in small ways or big ones. Maybe someone stole something, turned others against you, broke an agreement, cheated on you, or spoke unfairly or abusively.

When things like these happen, I feel mad, hurt, startled, wounded, sad. Naturally it arises to want to strike back and punish, get others to agree with me, and make a case against the other person in my own mind.

These feelings and impulses are normal. They may also bring an energy, focus, and power that’s needed to fight back (one way or another) against an attacker or escape or protect others. I’ve been involved in a few of these kinds of situations myself. Still, I haven’t had to face many of the things that people deal with who are not white or male, or privileged in other ways that I’ve been. So take whatever you find useful in my perspective below, and of course leave the rest.

When we get caught up in reactions and go overboard beyond whatever is necessary and useful, there’s usually a feeling of justification, release, and gratification. It feels good.

For a little while.

But bad things usually follow. The other person often overreacts, too, in a vicious cycle. Other people – relatives, friends, co-workers – get involved and muddy the water. We don’t look very good when we act out of upset, and others remember. It gets harder to work through the situation in a reasonable way. After the dust settles, you feel bad inside.

Consider this saying: “Blasting another person with anger is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.”

Sure, you need to clarify your position, stand up for yourself, set boundaries, and speak truth to power. The art – and I’m still working on it, myself! – is to do these things without the fiery excesses that have bad consequences for you and others.

How?

Start by getting centered, which often takes just a dozen seconds or so:

  • Pause – You rarely get in trouble for what you don’t say or do. Give yourself the gift of time, even just a few seconds.
  • Have compassion for yourself – This is a moment of feeling “ouch, that hurts, I wish this hadn’t happened.” A neurologically savvy trick for activating self-compassion is first to recall the feeling of being with someone who cares about you.
  • Get on your own side – This means being for yourself, not against others. It can help to remember a time when you felt strong, like doing something that was physically challenging, or sticking up for someone you loved.
  • Make a plan – Start figuring out what you’re going to do, or at least where you’ll start.

And now that you’re on firmer ground, here are some practical suggestions; use the ones you like:

  • Clarify the facts – What actually happened?
  • Rate the bad event accurately – On a 0 – 10 awfulness scale (a dirty look is a 1 and nuclear war is a 10), how bad was it, really? If the event is a 3 on the awfulness scale, why have emotional reactions that are a 5 (or 9!) on the 0 – 10 upset scale?
  • See the big picture – Recognize the neutral or even good aspects of the situation mixed up with the bad ones (without denying or downplaying what’s bad). Put the situation in the larger context of unrelated good things happening for you currently, and over the course of your lifetime altogether.
  • Reflect about the other people involved – Consider the “10,000 causes” upstream that led them to do whatever they did. Be careful about assuming it was intentional; much of the time you’re just a bit player in other people’s drama. Try to have compassion for them, which will make you feel better. If applicable, take responsibility for your own part in the matter (but don’t blame yourself unfairly). You can have compassion and forgiveness for others while still seeing their actions as unskillful, harmful, unfair, or immoral.
  • Do what you can, concretely – As possible, protect yourself from people who wrong you; shrink the relationship to the size that is safe. Get support; it’s important for others to “bear witness” when you’ve been mistreated. Build up your resources. Get good advice – from a friend, therapist, lawyer, or even the police. As appropriate, pursue justice.
  • Act with unilateral virtue – Live by your code even if others do not. This will make you feel good, lead others to respect you, and create the best chance that the person who wronged you will treat you better in the future.
  • Say what needs to be said – There is a good formula from the field of “nonviolent communication”: “When X happens (stated objectively; not “when you are a jerk”), I feel Y (emotions; not “I feel you are an idiot”), because I need Z (deep needs like: “to be safe, respected, emotionally close to others, autonomous and not bossed around”).

Then, if it would be useful, you can make a request for the future. Some examples: “If I bother you, could you talk with me directly?” “Could you not swear at me?” “Could you treat your agreements with me and your children as seriously as you do those at work?”

  • Move on – For your own sake, start releasing your angry or hurt thoughts and feelings. Stop your mind from obsessing about the past, and focus on the present and future. Turn toward what is going well, what you’re grateful for. Do things that feel pleasurable.

In the garden of your life, you have to pull some weeds, sure, but mainly focus on planting flowers.

  • Be at peace – All you can really do is what you can do. Others are going to do whatever they do, and realistically, sometimes it won’t be that great. Many people disappoint: they’ve got a million things swirling around in their head, life’s been tough, there were issues in their childhood, their ethics are fuzzy, their thinking is clouded, etc. It’s the real world, and will never be perfect.

We need to find peace in our own hearts, not out there in the world. A peace that comes from keeping eyes and heart open, doing what one can, and letting go along the way.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

Get the Just One Thing
Weekly Newsletter

A simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You can unsubscribe at any time and your email address will never be shared.