We’ve all been there: scrolling through a heated Facebook comment section, and some troll says the most offensive trash ever. You know you should let it go, take some space, but you can’t hold it in. You need to fight back. Or do you?
Holding a rational debate can be impossible when you are feeling triggered. Whether it occurs online or in person, over political stances or who does the most chores — when a dispute ignites, all bets are off. You might have a split-second reaction, jump to conclusions, and feel willing to risk it all just to claim victory.
“A lot of folks are in it for the quick win. They go with an impulse and abandon themselves as a person,” says Henry Ortiz, a Gestalt psychologist in Los Angeles, California. “Arguing and having the last word never wins people over to your perspective. You’re playing a tug of war and the harder you pull your end of the rope, the more the other person resists you.”
Especially online, a comment can trail you forever, says Brad Bushman, a communication professor at the Ohio State University and an anger expert. “It’s always best to prevent a problem from occurring than to try to solve it after it’s already occurred.”
More than ever, American discourse feels incredibly polarizing. Although it might be tempting to sound off when you’re angry or when you disagree with someone, you aren’t likely to win any friends by ranting in a comment section. Nor are you going to get your significant other to see it your way while you are both fuming. So what can you do? I asked five experts about the best ways to stop and think before you say something that you might end up regretting.
Put things in perspective
When you give in to impulses during a heated debate, your reaction is filtered through many of the pains, fears, and losses you’ve endured in the past. “We bring all these different experiences into every relationship,” says Bernasha Anderson, a psychologist in Washington, DC, who specializes in interpersonal therapy. “Sometimes they’re dormant, they’re underneath the surface, but they’re there.” You may be fighting with your new boo, but deep down, you could be evoking issues from your childhood. “Once our nervous system regulates, we find ourselves looking back and saying, ‘That’s not even my value system. That’s not who I want to be,’” Anderson says.
Be aware of your circumstances. Fights are more likely to strike when people are overwhelmed in other areas of their life. A dispute with your partner about doing the dishes, for example, may actually be about not having enough child care. When we feel powerless, we may be more likely to lash out, pushing our negative energy out at any cost.
The same goes for frustrations we might encounter online. On the internet, it can feel like we have no choice but to be pulled into arguments, especially when algorithms are tailored to our own opinions. Any break in those feedback loops can be jarring. “There’s a lot of pressure to make public statements that align with your group’s interests in order to be accepted by that group,” says Michelle Drouin, a psychology professor and the author of Out of Touch: How to Survive an Intimacy Famine.
“It’s very easy to get baited into these online debates because we want to channel this anger and hopelessness and despair that we feel,” says Joy Harden Bradford, psychologist, host of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast, and author of Sisterhood Heals: The Transformative Power of Healing in Community. But while it feels like fighting with trolls is a productive use of time, it almost never is. Sometimes, saying nothing at all can be powerful, too — especially when you feel vulnerable or unsure of how to calmly express yourself.
Pause and take it all in
Everyone has a window of tolerance where they are in a calm state and can take in information and tolerate emotions, explains Ortiz. When someone feels physically or emotionally threatened, they go outside of that window and either freeze or go into fight or flight.
Once triggered, your heart rate and blood pressure jump up, says Bushman. But shoving down your feelings can lead to rumination. “It’s like a tea pot boiling on the stove. You can vent the steam or you can try to contain the steam and stuff it inside. A better strategy is just to turn down the heat on that stove.”
Remember, the person you are arguing with is probably in fight or flight, too, says Ortiz. “Who you’re arguing with isn’t even that person anymore. You’re arguing with their pain, with their trauma, and with their past.”
Ortiz recommends asking to take a break from the conversation, saying something like, “I’m sorry. I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now, and I just need a moment. I didn’t mean to upset you.” You can even mark down a date on your calendar to revisit the discussion later that day or week when everyone is calmer. You’ll likely find that by then, you’ll feel a lot more levelheaded.
In disputes online, Drouin suggests pulling out of the conversation completely by making a boundary-setting public statement, saying that you will not have conversations about certain issues online but will have them in private. Conversations that take place over DMs instead of the world stage of a public feed or forum can often be more civil.
“My grandma used to tell me that before you say or do anything [while angry], you should count to 10 before you respond,” Bushman said. “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘If you’re really angry, you should count to 100 instead.’” Just taking that pause allows you to clear your thinking.
In addition, Anderson recommends using the acronym HALT — Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired — to take inventory of silent predators that can cause you to act out of character. Used in sobriety communities, HALT helps people recovering from addiction recognize overlooked stressors that may not seem major but can throw off someone’s ability to make clear decisions, leading them back to a drink or drug. She also recommends that you ground yourself in the present by meditating, taking a walk, or doing the five senses exercise, where you pause to identify five things surrounding you that you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste.
Lead with empathy
There’s a chance that you will realize the dispute isn’t even worth revisiting, but there are certain discussions that may still need to be had. In those cases, provide empathy from the jump. Tell the person how much the relationship means to you and that you understand that they were really upset. Explain your feelings too, saying something like, “I was really hurt by what you said, or I was very shocked,” Harden Bradford recommends.
Try to view differences of opinion as interesting and not a threat, says Ortiz. Often, people don’t need to be debated or preached to when they are triggered, he says, they just need someone to listen and hold their pain. Being the person to offer them an ear can be a magnificent gift. It’s similar to when a toddler gets a booboo and needs a quick cuddle and a kiss.
When someone is heard, they often drop their guard, says Ortiz. “Because you’re heard by me, you may be actually willing to listen to what I have to say.”
Remember, the person you were fighting with online may not be the person they are in reality, says Drouin, so take difficult conversations offline. “When people are posting online, they post one or two things a day. Going to them for the full story is probably a good way to move forward.”
Focus on a solution
Because fights with friends and significant others are often about something completely unrelated to the topic at hand, acknowledge that and focus on the real issue. Maybe you are both overwhelmed with kids and work and need a date night. Maybe a bud keeps canceling plans because they are afraid to tell you that they are struggling financially. “It is not you against your partner. It is you and your partner against whatever this thing is,” Harden Bradford says. “When you think about it, like, ‘We’re on a team together.’ That’s a very different approach than, ‘You’re my adversary, and I’m trying to win this battle.’”
Be willing to apologize for stepping out of line, and ask how you can repair the situation. This could mean monitoring your tone and approach in the future, or it may mean putting up a new post saying you published inaccurate information.
If your online battles stem from feeling powerless over world issues, “find a more productive way to channel that,” says Harden Bradford. “It could be making calls to politicians or making a donation.”
Plan for the future
Tough conversations will arise again, so discuss with your significant other or friend how you can handle them better in the future, especially when you are overwhelmed. Harden Bradford recommends saying something like, “We know the world is falling apart, but what kinds of things can we do to support each other? That might mean conversations, or that might mean we don’t talk about these things.”
You might even decide it’s better to unfollow certain friends online in the interest of your relationship. Maybe you don’t discuss politics with your buddy and simply bond over other shared interests. Maybe you just accept that you and your partner are going to be snappy for the next few weeks, and you will both try to be understanding of each other despite that.
When conversations emerge, be empathetic. Set boundaries for fighting fair, both in person and online. If someone is swearing, threatening to leave, or shutting the other down, it’s time to take a pause.
Try and remember, most of these fights don’t matter much in the lifespan of a relationship, says Bushman. “This issue might be important right now at this moment, but what about tomorrow or a week from now? Or a month from now or a year from now? How important is this issue?”
If arguments arise, stay accountable, but have self-compassion. Be willing to forgive yourself and the other person. “We have to humanize them,” Anderson says. “And we have to humanize ourselves.” The harder you are on others, the harder you are on yourself. “We must be intentional about giving ourselves compassion as well as giving compassion to others. We have to say to ourselves, ‘These people are human.’ Because right now, I see a lot of dehumanization.”