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  • Writer's pictureJessie Cheng

reading in between the lines

how to become resilient to others' rash words and poorly-timed comments


“You're so sensitive,” an acquaintance tells me after I express I’m uncomfortable with his jokes. I read in between the lines. He's probably never been challenged by a woman before. Well, he can thank me later.


“No offense, but they all seem fake,” a friend comments on people I love after meeting them for the first time. I read in between the lines. I wonder how much she’s been hurt by fake people in the past, for her to have jumped so quickly to this conclusion. 


“You’re a rude Asian lady, and you’re going to be doing this for the rest of your life if you keep this up,” a guest I help out at a concert yells after I explain how her VIP package won’t grant her access to soundcheck. I read in between the lines. She doesn’t know how to accept a no without taking it out on others. But I do, and I’m half her age. Sick.


A friend once told me I’m a doormat for trying to unpack why people are mean instead of making assumptions about their character and calling it a day. I think it’s easy to label someone as “rude” and “arrogant,” especially because sometimes they are, but I fear we jump to labeling too quickly as a reaction to being hurt. This causes us to respond to a fragile ego with our own fragile egos, when perhaps, reading in between the lines might lead to a healthier response. Certainly, there is a difference between understanding where mean words are coming from and approving them. I wonder if reading in between the lines – in this case, seeing how a person’s unnecessary cruelness may be a reflection of their own unhealed self – is not actually doormat behavior but an act of strength. I wonder if it can enable us to become more resilient to others’ rash words and poorly-timed comments. 


This doesn’t mean we deny how powerful language is – words can cut deep – but this does mean we don’t need to take every pointed comment personally. Reading in between the lines is like searching for the why behind someone’s unnecessary cruelness. These reasons are often hidden until they are not, and that’s when we realize that another person’s cruelness says a lot more about them than it does about us. Their words reveal where they need healing and self-awareness, because we are all most judgmental in the areas we feel most insecure. 


A person who is accepting of their body size and shape will never feel the need to criticize someone else’s body, the same way a person who is secure in their skillset won't feel the need to bash on their coworker's so-called incompetence. It is when we are unhealed that we will need to project our own insecurities to compensate for whatever void we have yet to confront.


This is why cruel words don’t need to be seen as daggers that wound our self-image. Rather, they can be seen merely as noisy pests we must learn to ignore or shoo away. 


A person's unnecessary cruelness may be a reflection of their unhealed self.

There are days when people we interact regularly with might say something insensitive because life hurts and they’re struggling to regulate their emotions. On these days, they might slam a door in our face, criticize the way we talk, or make an unnecessary jab at our fashion choice. And if we took everything so personally or never gave them the benefit of the doubt, imagine how much anger we would be harboring inside our hearts. 


The counter-argument is that we need to have firm boundaries, and that when people make off-handed comments, we should cut them out of our lives. I do think in many cases, this is difficult yet necessary, such as in potentially abusive relationships or in ones we simply do not participate in enough to offer the benefit of the doubt. However, in generally healthy and mutual relationships, I think we need to be wary about our double standards. Because let’s be honest: how many times have we given others an irritated stare or said something we regretted later because we were sleep deprived or the barista messed up our drink? Imagine if every time we acted from a place of hurt and insecurity, or simply exhaustion, people cut us off immediately? I do think it's worth paying attention to whether hurtful and potentially toxic behaviors are consistent, and whether these behaviors suggest that either initiating a conversation about them or creating more distance between you and the other person could be a wiser approach. Or, whether their behaviors remind us that we are all imperfect human beings who try our best but often fail, and that sometimes, we can show grace to others the same way we’d like them to show us grace in harder times. 


On the flip side of reading in between the lines, an area worth paying attention to is how well we can regulate our own emotions. The more vulnerable we are to external factors and changes, the more difficult it is to act from a place of authenticity and kindness when circumstances aren’t ideal. We might find ourselves repeating the same bad habit of giving others the cold shoulder when we are tired, or complaining about the smallest things every time we get off a phone call with an annoying relative. A huge key to emotional regulation in the way it impacts our relationships is open communication. Being honest with others can prevent unnecessary miscommunication and hurt. It might even lead to healthy conversation or another person showing up to help you navigate a difficult circumstance. 


Now, there are exceptions to reading in between the lines. Sometimes, words that sting are worth paying attention to and taking at face value. Here are two examples that immediately come to mind: 


#1 People with more expertise in a certain area point out our mistakes, poor decisions, gaps in knowledge, or opportunities for improvement. 

For instance, if your baseball coach yells that your batting stance is improper, you’d be missing the point if you concluded they’re projecting their insecurities on you. They might not be the best coach in the world, but their critiques are nonetheless aimed to improve your skills and reveal an area of growth. 


Or, you might find yourself in a discussion with someone who has vastly different political views. Sometimes, it's good to just listen, even if you're itching to give them an uppercut. Feel free to express disagreement or ask follow-up questions, but have the humility to listen for the sake of listening and consider whether there might even be something unexpected worth taking away. 


#2 People offer you genuine feedback. 

Let’s say multiple friends express that they wish you were a better listener. Well, that might actually be worth listening to. Or perhaps, an acquaintance approaches you and admits they felt hurt by a seemingly harmless comment you made. There is maturity in apologizing for the ways we intentionally or unintentionally hurt others. 


It is usually when people are saying things charged with emotions like hatred, arrogance, disgust, insecurity, or jealousy that reading in between the lines is most helpful in allowing us to respond authentically rather than to react counterproductively. And if their negative behaviors persist, even after we lovingly bring them to light and refuse to take them personally, what might require more strength than reading in between the lines is realizing we deserve better and walking away.

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