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5 Ways the Silent Treatment Is Really Damaging (And How to Deal with It)

5 Ways the Silent Treatment Is Really Damaging (And How to Deal with It)

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the silent treatment. It’s a method of psychological punishment and manipulation we’ve all probably used or experienced at some point, whether we were aware of it or not. This applies to any relationship—romantic, friendships, familial, coworker relationships, and even interactions with strangers.

In this article, I’m going to explain to you why people use silent treatment to ignore people in a relationship, how serious the consequences of silent treatment can be, and how you can deal with it. When you understand more about the reasons why people do this and how bad it really is, you will learn to solve problems in your relationship in a different and positive way.

Silent treatment — what it is and what it’s not

But here’s the thing about blatantly ignoring someone: not only is it rude, immature, inconsiderate, cruel, and petty, it’s downright emotionally (and sometimes physically) damaging.

Ignoring someone is not an act of love. In fact, it qualifies as abuse:[1]

    Just because you are not using your hands doesn’t mean you can’t irreparably hurt someone else. Ignoring someone is also not a strategy, it’s just a flat out disregard for someone else’s feelings.

    It might be hard to read what I have to say, based on my own experiences and some research on the various effects of the silent treatment. But I’m writing this because it’s so, so important.

    There are people who take the silent treatment to extremes. No one should ever be treated this way, or feel like they have to put up with this kind of behavior in someone else because it is most definitely not okay. It is also not something you can just “get over” or  “just move on” from because it stays with you.

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    Why people use the silent treatment

    There are a few reasons someone might ignore you:

    They blame you for a problem that is really their problem.

    Personally, I think this is the easy way out. Someone might blame you for a problem and ignore you so that the “problem” goes away; or they might just be mad at you (but too immature to talk to you about it) ― ironically, it actually makes things worse.

    But either way, it’s just an excuse for someone to avoid caring, or dealing with any drama or problem (which again, is ironic, because it either creates a problem that wasn’t there, or adds to the drama).

    They just want to hurt you.

    Maybe they’re deliberately trying to hurt or punish you, or they’re too selfish to care about what your feelings are, or they don’t respect you.

    It gives them control of the situation, and a power over you ‒ they might even try to turn it around so that they are the victim, or deny that there is a problem, thus making your feelings irrelevant. This is one of the typical narcissistic behaviors.

    They think it’s the right thing or that it’s good for you.

    When someone ignores you, they might not realize the damage it causes ― or they do and they think it’ll make you better. Or maybe they need space but don’t bother to tell you that. They could just be avoiding a confrontation, and not realize they’ve gone about it the wrong way.

    To be clear: I am NOT saying that people who ignore others are automatically bad people. Everyone has their own problems, and life is hard, so figuring out the right way to deal with things isn’t always easy. Sometimes, all you need is time; sometimes people come around, and relationships can heal.

    But regardless of the reason, ignoring someone can have serious consequences.

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    How the silent treatment sabotages you (and your relationships)

    Here are 5 ways the silent treatment is more damaging than you know:

    1. It causes emotional trauma or stress.

    This may be a given, but there is a wide variety of overwhelming emotions that come with being ignored. Victims may experience depression, anger, and frustration, as well as feelings of restlessness, isolation and rejection, guilt, loneliness, and despair ― maybe even a sense of betrayal or bitterness.[2]

    When someone’s existence and feelings are dismissed and disrespected, they feel devalued, unloved, unworthy, and insignificant. Like an old couch you toss out because you don’t have room for it.

    2. It causes psychological stress.

    The word for this is ostracism (exclusion, banishment). The silent treatment can be a mind game for some people, and in some cases can be used as a form of psychological manipulation. Along with the emotional roller-coaster, it tears down your sense of self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

    It also increases stress levels, leading to more feelings of grief, loss, misplacement, and abandonment; the victim may feel they have no control. The longer and more intense the ostracism continues, the more permanent the psychological effects, especially in children.[3]

    3. It may have serious physical side-effects.

    There’s a part of our brains specifically designed to detect different levels of pain. It’s called the anterior cingulate cortex, and it activates when someone receives the silent treatment.

    You heard that right: When someone is ignored, their brain tells them they are in physical pain.

    Symptoms could include anything from headaches to diarrhea or constipation to stomach pains, as well as insomnia, anxiety, and fatigue. Different states of emotional stress could lead to more serious health risks, such as eating disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, blood clots, urinary and bowel problems, erectile dysfunction, and cancer.

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    4. It can cause behavioral changes.

    What am I doing wrong? Is something wrong with me? Are you there? Was it something I said? Am I too annoying?

    Being ignored could cause you to behave in ways you might not normally― things like questioning and second-guessing yourself and others, lashing out, or doubting yourself and situations where you normally don’t. You might start to feel like you’re bothering the other person, or being too needy. All the questions and doubt might cause you to act like someone who isn’t really you.

    Realizing you aren’t quite acting like yourself could further feelings of guilt, loss of control, and uncertainty; since these feelings initiate a sense of threat to your survival, this may heighten any fight-or-flight reaction you may have.

    5. It can destroy relationships.

    Often the issue here is with communication.

    For any of the reasons mentioned above, one partner might ignore or distance themselves from the other. No matter the reaction of the other partner, this action causes a rift. Each partner might feel the problem is with the other, and instead of communicating with each other, they wait around for the other to admit they’re wrong and apologize.

    But in this situation, each cares more about being right than they do about the relationship. Or one or both partners might feel they’re being the bigger person by not interacting with the other, when in reality the opposite is true. This decreases intimacy and trust between partners, and can cause anxiety and aggressive behavior.

    The silent treatment may become a pattern, which hinders the ability to communicate effectively.

    Many people don’t realize the dangers of engaging in the silent treatment, which only adds to the problem. The intensity of all these feelings and side-effects depends on the intensity of the silent treatment, but that doesn’t make it any less unhealthy or damaging.

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    How to deal with the silent treatment

    First off, stay calm. Whether you’re doing the ignoring or being ignored, forget about anger, forget about your ego, just apologize. Have a conversation like a real adult. It’s not worth it to keep the silence.

    If you’re the one being ignored, do your best to find out what is wrong; do not give them the silent treatment back. If one or both of you needs space, establish that. Since, as mentioned, communication is often the issue, try to discuss and understand the situation. Understanding is key here. You need to have patience, the intention to be loving and kind, and the willingness to be understanding—on both sides.

    Part of the reason the person doing the ignoring might be irritated is because they’re not getting what they want, and don’t see why they should compromise. Depending on the situation, they might not see how much they’re hurting you. Make sure the other person knows that you care about them, and that you’ll be ready to listen when they’re ready to talk.

    Now, if someone is purposefully trying to hurt you through the silent treatment and acting out of malice, then obviously they might enjoy your negative reaction. He/she could be a narcissist. Remember, this is abuse. Don’t keep begging them to talk to you―to them that just means they are right. Just don’t contact them. Don’t return the silent treatment in this situation either, but don’t let the situation get to you. It’s possible the relationship is unhealthy, and needs to end altogether.

    Don’t let anyone treat you like an old couch; don’t ever let anyone tell you you don’t matter. No one deserves to be treated that way, no matter the situation. No problem can be solved by ignoring it, and people still exist whether you ignore them or not.

    In a nutshell: Just don’t ignore people, especially those closest to you. Everyone will be better off if you take the time to sort through the situation.

    Featured photo credit: finda via finda.photo

    Reference

    More by this author

    Devin Gackle

    Writer and Editor

    5 Ways the Silent Treatment Is Really Damaging (And How to Deal with It)

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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