The (lost) Art of Dignified Restraint

I was recently blindsided by an experience that probably should not have caught me off guard. It happened when someone, with whom I have never had a negative interaction (and mistakenly thought I was developing a decent rapport), was exposed as referencing me in a way that, at its best, could be defined as stereotypical. Worst–racist (Please read up on racial microaggressions). 

 

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Since this incident, I have been deeply contemplating the (lost) art of dignified restraint. 

Michele Obama spoke of this so eloquently during her 2016 DNC Speech when she shared the advice she gave her two daughters during the unprecedented ugliness of the presidential campaign. She told them,  “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

Quotes About Rising Above

 

I admit that I am suspicious about the prevalence of dignified restraint in our society, hence my reference to it as a “lost art”. For most people today, it can be a difficult, even unnecessary concept to grasp. Social media sites make it less desirable to exercise any restraint, let alone in a way that could be classified as noble. Everyone has unlimited access to a free, world-wide platform that makes us feel like what we think is of great importance. We can use these platforms to build up or tear down at-will. If I’m being totally honest with my readers and myself, I can also admit that my blog has the same capacity, though I try to suppress that by provoking meaningful discourse, critical thought and self-reflection. 

For some people, the ability to “go high when they go low,” comes quite naturally. You probably know at least one person who possesses this ability. More than likely, you have either admired them as (s)heroes or looked at them with eyes of wonder (what the fckness?!?). Perhaps, you have even accused this person of being a bit of a coward for not having the backbone to stand up to their offender(s).

Science tells us that in situations which evoke the strongest emotion and greatest stress, our response is based on our instinctive need to survive or overcome that stress: Fight or flight.

When I find myself in physical danger, that fight or flight response happens without a second thought. I am in danger, so I will either try to fight against that which threatens physical harm or I will escape the danger by any means necessary.

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When it comes to a threat that is emotional or psychological in nature, however, dignified restraint provides us with an alternative response that can also be highly conducive to our survival. See, to be composed and self-controlled in the way we respond to acts of cruelty or hatred is not synonymous with being apathetic or complacent.

It does not suggest that we condone the inappropriate behavior and no–it does NOT require that we remain silent about the act that is so clearly intended to harm or demean us. It does, however require that we take time to contemplate and assess, thus enabling us to remain true to our desired values and decorum.

Dignified restraint enables us to maintain control in a situation that is designed to force us to relinquish it. 

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My pen will always be mightier than any sword a person chooses to use against me. I am secure with who I am and will always choose to be dignified in my restraint against a person’s attempt to undermine me.  In this situation, I have decided that opening a dialogue with the person who sponsored the micro-insult against me would be highly unproductive. Insecurity breeds contempt and I have no time or desire to entertain that.

What is productive, however,  is to share my experience and open a dialogue with my readers. So, I’d like to hear from you, readers. How do you choose between fight, flight or dignified restraint when some aspect of your identity is under attack?

 

 

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10 thoughts on “The (lost) Art of Dignified Restraint

  1. I must admit, the younger me, my instinct was to fight when under attack. The older and more mature I’ve become, I realize how precious my time and energy is. I will not waste it on those undeserving folks that choose to tear down rather than build up.
    Very well written T.

  2. Excellent statement! I appreciated your emphasis on a positive approach to solving social problems while also admitting to the difficulty of restraining emotional reactions that may run the gamut from disappointment, anger, fear, frustration or anxiety.

  3. I’m not sure how I would respond, I do know that I wouldn’t use violence, usually I do something silly. Like once this guy said look at that N…
    referring to me, and before I knew it I turned quickly and said where? You should have seen the look on his face!

  4. It’s interesting to read this, because I’ve been thinking a lot about responding to hate since November 9. In 2016, and especially in the lead-up to the election, I was very engaged in political conversations in person and online. Those months took a huge emotional toll on me, one I didn’t even quite realize until I took a much-needed vacation in December and saw how long it took me to reclaim a little of my sense of “wholeness” and well-being. I realized then the extent to which I had weakened myself by the emotional investment I had put into all those interactions with people who did not respect me and in some cases even wished ill upon me.

    When I got back from the vacation, I made some rules for myself, because I knew that 2017 would require me to “fight” even more than 2016 had, but that this meant I also owed it to myself and to the fight not to destroy myself in the process. I think that your discussion of dignified restraint meshes well with what I’ve decided I need to do, as well. A “third way” between fight or flight. I’ve started doing yoga (for the first time in my life), and for me something clicked when I learned about the “tree pose.” Anchoredness. Rootedness. Stability. Strength. This is what I will need in 2017: the dignity, strength, and anchoredness of the tree. You can fight better if it’s harder to push you over.

  5. This reminds me of an incident in the film “Hidden Figures”. When the white supervisor tells her subordinate who is black that she “never meant anything personally” her subordinate responds, “I know you think that.”

  6. It depends on the venue. If it is in public where there the confrontation may become physical my essential cowardice kicks in. Unless I perceive the threat to be against someone else who is weaker then I do try to make a reasoned interference in support of the attacked. If it is not face to face, I can be pretty combative and relentless again especially if someone else I identify with is being attacked or threatened.

  7. What’s so difficult is that this emotional labor is, of course, that it is not shared equally. The less privilege you have, the more often you are called upon to show restraint.

    Lately I’ve been thinking about this (in a different way) with respect to the larger conversation about how Democrat’s might respond to those who voted for President Trump. The idea seems to be that we should listen more than we talk and really try to understand the conditions that have led us to our current government. I agree with that in many ways, but I also feel that overt racism and sexism should be disqualifying for President. So the fact that these things weren’t disqualifying for those voters can make it tough to really listen. I’m not sure the answer at this point: how to be inclusive while also making it clear that some things just are not okay. How to stay with someone and show restraint when one’s person hood isn’t valued.

  8. Recently I had an experience of someone being cruel and heartless. I had more than one opportunity to be less than dignified in response and I chose to go high. I would like to think I was invoking dignified restraint, but it felt more like circling the wagons to protect myself and my pride. The same outcome or outward appearance that I wanted to portray but for different reasons.

    • You know, now that I think about it, the closer the person is who causes the insult, the more difficult is is to be dignified in my response. At least for me, this is the case! When I am hurt by a person I count on for safety, my default tends to be either “fight” or “flight!”

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