What 'Taking The High Road' Really Means & Why It Doesn't Always Work

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Society puts a lot of pressure on us to "take the high road" when someone wrongs us. We're supposed to turn the other cheek, tell them we're not going to get even because we're better than them, and just go about our daily lives without them in the picture.

But sometimes, people don't quite understand what it means to "take the high road."

What does it mean to take the high road?

Taking the high road means choosing a path or making a decision that is morally acceptable and won't hurt other people in the process.

Taking the high road is "Letting go of needing to be right by releasing any judgment, resentment or blame that someone is wrong or bad," says spiritual life coach Carolyn Hidalgo.

But for those who take the high road, it doesn't mean forgiving them, nor does it mean keeping them in the picture. What it means is not retaliating — and that's a difference many people don't understand.

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Where does 'take the high road' come from?

Taking the high road actually comes from across the pond. The British used the term to describe their literal main streets; they called them "high streets," while calling back streets "low streets."

The phrase "take the high road" became popular during the 1948 American Presidential Campaign where it was used to describe how Thomas Dewey dealt with Harry Truman's dirty campaign tactics.

In most situations, taking the high road is commendable and will actually make things turn out better for you. It's a classy way to handle a situation, and it's often the best choice in a professional setting (like with Thomas Dewey).

Is taking the high road a good thing?

While the intention behind taking the high road can be a good thing, unfortunately, it's not the answer to everything.

Here's the problem with taking the high road all the time: some people assume it's a sign they've "won." Others may assume that since nothing bad ever came of it, they can still do bad things to you and other people.

When you're dealing with people who actively hurt you or did something insane to try to control you, taking the high road is basically putting yourself and others at risk for their bad behavior.

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"Your first responsibility is to look after your own emotional health (emotional intelligence, IQ)," adds counselor and therapist Audrey Tait. Because taking the high road only works if the person you're dealing with has morals and ethics that match yours.

Some people need consequences in order to learn a lesson, and taking the high road removes those consequences.

Others will just assume that you're fine with being taken advantage of and treated like garbage if you don't retaliate. With these folks, you need to make sure they feel the brunt of their damage. Otherwise, they'll hurt more people and possibly continue to hurt you.

Therefore, sometimes you can take the high road, but I'll be taking the low road. You can be the bigger person, but I'm going to get petty about it.

The trick to getting even is to know how to do it in a classy, effective way that doesn't necessarily hurt you in the long run.

Here's how to deal with people who don't understand the idea of taking the high road.

1. Put them on blast.

If there's one thing people can't stand, it's being put on blast and outed for the bad things they've done.

People often need to feel like they are the good guy, even when they know what they did was pretty gross or bad. They need “positive press” or at least silence in order to keep living their lives in their own way.

This is why many narcissists will do preemptive damage control before a breakup.

2. Make a point of making them uncomfortable in your presence.

This can be easy to do with people who have morals and ethics, but harder to do if you're dealing with a narcissist.

The easiest way to make this happen is to give them a very cold shoulder when you're both in the presence of other people. Other people will wonder why, and that will make the narcissist very uncomfortable.

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3. Criticize them.

Narcissists want the world to revolve around the false pretense they believe to have, so what better way to make them suffer than to point out all the little things that are wrong or could be better with them?

Heck, even criticize the way they hurt you. Were they original or did they copy someone else's ways?

4. Tell them no.

These people believe they are entitled to everyone's care and attention, so get back at them and don't give them yours. They may turn this around and paint themselves as the victim, but does that matter if you want them to suffer for what they've done to you?

Instead of you being their victim, they are your victim now and they have to deal with that.

5. Live your best life.

A narcissist is obsessed with having the best of everything, so if you go out and start living a better life than they are, it will eat them up inside. Leave them behind and focus on yourself. Build your network, and gain some skills you've always wanted.

Be the best person you can be, and the narcissist will be fuming with jealousy in the corner blinded by your beautiful life.

"When you are feeling okay, you can reach out to the other person," recommends Tait. "At the moment, you might need to do diaphragmatic breathing to calm yourself down. It's like being in an airplane — if the cabin pressure changes and the airplane mask falls down, you must put it on yourself first. You are worth it! Look after yourself."

The bottom line is that some people need to get a kick in the teeth before they actually learn to stop acting this way. And, if you think about it, retaliating against those types is a good way to actually do right by making sure they think twice before they try that behavior again.

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Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer based out of Red Bank, New Jersey whose work has been featured in Yahoo, BRIDES, Your Daily Dish, New Theory Magazine, and others. Follow her on Twitter for more.