As a kid, I learned in First Aid not to pull out a fish hook if it got caught in my skin. The barb of the hook, designed to dig deeper with resistance, would cause more damage. Instead, the recommendation was to push the hook through until one could clip off the barb with pliers, then back it out.

This wisdom may well carry over into relationships and community interactions. We use the metaphor of “baiting” people into conflict and refer to sharp, cruel statements as “barbs.” They hook us into emotional reactivity, and the more we struggle against them, the deeper they get “under our skin.”

We see this in Internet trolling, how people looking to stir up trouble throw out barbs, and then their prey gets hooked into an argument or reactivity until the troll is able to find some evidence to vindicate themselves. No matter how cruel and stupid the troll has been, they win because they have the greatest emotional distance and outward appearance of self-control. The fact that others respond to them is seen to be proof that the others are in the wrong.

An image of a person holding a freshly caught fish.
“Catch of the Day,” by Sticker Mule

It’s classic bullying. It’s unfair. The fact that it’s unfair seems to make no difference.

It’s a challenge for people who value living authentic lives, too, for expressions of vulnerability and appeals to compassion are not always safe or effective. Indeed, sometimes this seems to intensify the attack as the bully finds delight in the pain they cause. Or one’s efforts to advocate for one’s self while upset and hooked end up too messy and unfocused to be effective.

One sure sign of being hooked is feeling convinced that you have to get the other person to change their mind or stop their behavior. There is a fine distinction here. I’m not saying the bullying is okay. What I am saying is that bullies are unlikely to stop what they’re doing when they’re getting what they want. There may be things you can do to advocate for yourself and change, but what helps all of this is to start by getting yourself unhooked.

Emotional hooks find purchase in the parts of us that are vulnerable to the attack. Some part of me that quietly worries that the attacker is right about me, or feels I deserve the treatment, or refuses to admit that I’m hooked because I don’t accept my vulnerability.

This is where the powerlessness comes in—I have, let’s say, a secret story about being selfish. That being selfish is bad and I worry I’m a selfish person. So here comes someone who can defeat me by implying or outright stating I’m being selfish. Now hooked, I do everything I can to convince this person and everyone around me that I’m not selfish—I’ve already lost because now I’ve agreed with the attacker that their claim has enough merit to be defended against. I am on their ground. And I am trying to convince people whose opinions do not matter because they are not coming from a place of good faith. The person who first needs to get it is me.

So unhooking is following this inward, finding the emotional vulnerability, and pushing it out to expose the barb. What in me worries about selfishness? What is “wrong” with being selfish anyway? Perhaps I check in with people whom I trust to care about me and give me accurate feedback about my selfishness. Overall, I want to befriend this part of me that is in pain and give it loving witness until it is able to release the barb.

In this way, being hooked leads me to my next phase of inner healing work. The difficult situation may persist while healing, and may linger for longer than I’d like. Whenever a person brings out reactivity in me, I see where I am still hooked and where there is more work to do.

With time, however, I’ve discovered more emotional freedom is possible, which can lead to surprising ways of standing up for myself and changing the situation. Those attempting to bait or bully find instead a disconcerting self-possession that does not feed their hunger for victimization.