“Rumor travels faster, but it don’t stay put as long as truth. ”
Inspired by a friend’s recent frustration, I’ve been thinking deeply about gossip. Seeking to ease my friend’s pain, I wondered: why does it happen? Must it happen? Why do we continue to hurt each other?
Let’s face it, gossip hurts. If you’ve ever walked into a crowd of people with hushed voices who, immediately upon your entrance, ceased talking, you’ll know what I mean. Perhaps you’ve been the victim. Perhaps you’ve been the bully. Perhaps you’ve been the so-called innocent bystander of gossip. In any case, to have avoided it on this planet, in this culture, is to have lived blind and deaf.
Gossip is a disease of our age. Gossip is the ultimate anti-love.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about gossip is how it multiplies. It is like a viral disease. We see people gossiping, and then we gossip about their gossip. How dare they speak so lowly of others? We believe, perhaps, that we are on higher ground but, quite accidentally, we find ourselves doing the very same thing.
Where does gossip come from? Why do people feel the need to engage in it? Is it necessary? Is it avoidable? Is it preventable? Can we stop it?
Firstly, let us look at what gossip really is. It is not a way to, intentionally, hurt others. No one intentionally hurts others.
Gossip is projected shame.
We don’t come out of the womb speaking down about others. The first bit of degradation comes to us from the external world. It may come in the form of slander against ourselves or in the form of slander against someone else. Even if a comment is made about someone else, we try it on like a new pair of pants. Whether we’re told “You are annoying” or “Rachel is annoying,” we wonder, “Am I annoying?”
To hear the defamation of another’s character is a threat against self. This begins to trigger, within us, feelings of inadequacy. What if I am annoying? How many other people think so? What if people talk about me like they talk about Rachel? What if I’m annoying, and there’s nothing I can do about it?
These questions are haunting. They begin to stew inside. Then, when we enter a gossip circle and the opportunity presents itself to slander another person, we face a choice: gossip or stew. If we’re overflowing with shame, we’ll try on gossip. If we’ve tried gossip and reformed or if we’ve been taught otherwise, we’ll stew. In any case, those deprecating thoughts either live within, or they come out externally.
This is why gossip spreads like a virus. We hear gossip, we try it on, and we get frightened. Many people, when they become frightened of their own inadequacy, project this onto others. This does not, by any means, make them bad people. Their actions are unconscious and reflexive. They are simply afraid. Just one browse through a history textbook should show you what people are capable of when they are afraid, insecure, and shameful.
What, then, can we do about it? Whether you are the victim, the giver, or the observer, here is a simple 5 step process that will help you cope with the gossip virus, no matter where you stand.
1. Stop Participating
The first order of business is to exercise some self-awareness and, thus, stop participating. This may sound simple, but it can be deceptively difficult. Gossiping is a behavioral pattern. It’s a pattern of projecting one’s own shame onto others. To stop this projection means to face your own self-judgment as opposed to externalizing it. It also means that, perhaps, you’ll be left out of social group patterns in which you were formerly a key part. To stop the spread of gossip is an act of courage.
2. Practice Compassion
Pull yourself out of the cycle of judgment. Be compassionate. Recognize that gossiping about those who gossip is still participation in the process. Recognize gossip for what it is: projected shame. Look at those who perform it, not with hate or judgment but with compassion. Recognize, in the rumour-spreader, the pain of self-rejection. The enemy is not the person, but rather the process itself. If we remove the process, we are all beautiful souls beneath the guise of externalized insecurity.
3. Forgive and Be Kind
As you learn to see the love hunger within gossiping individuals, give them some love. When you interact with people who gossip about you or people about whom you’ve gossiped, give them forgiveness, acceptance, and kindness. Give them genuine compliments. Even if it feels strange at first, even if you hold resentment against them or feel overwhelmed with guilt, remember that everything takes practice. You have come to your current state of functioning in the gossip virus (whether it’s avoidance, participation, or passivity) through practice. Now, you can practice an incompatible way of behaving. It may take some time to get used to, but it too will become automatic over time.
4. Spread Positivity
This step is my favorite: spread positive rumors. Begin, as often as you can, speaking positively about people behind their backs. Watch, over the coming weeks, how this transforms your environment. For those who are tired of the gossip virus, they will latch onto your leadership and continue the spread of love and joy. For those who wish to continue to gossip, they will start to do so away from your presence. Hopefully, one day, they will stop altogether.
5. Take Care of Your Thoughts
Recognize that both shame and gossip are not results of inadequacies in yourself or others. They are simply viral thoughts that turn into feelings that drive behavior. As long as you practice loving thinking about yourself and other people, you will radiate with a loving energy that gives you a deep resilience against all negativity.
Remember, most importantly of all, that even though gossip spreads like a virus, so does love. Each act of unity, harmony, compassion, and kindness makes a difference the same way that a hateful, fearful, or judgmental act makes a difference. Regardless of what you do, what you believe, and what you say, you always change the world. You cannot choose whether or not your rock sends ripples into the pond of life, but you can choose what sort of rock you wish it to be.
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Thank you for reading! What have your experiences been with gossip? How have you managed to cultivate compassion in the past? What is difficult about it, and how is it rewarding?
(Photo by Miguel Pires da Rosa)