Ready for a shot of self-analysis? If so, here goes. What feelings would you experience about yourself if someone said to you:
- Do I have to hold your hand to get anything done?- You don't wear shoes. They're gunboats.
- Where on earth did you get that hairbrained idea?
- I've never weighed this much in my life! I must weigh as much as you do.
- No wonder you won so many ribbons. You entered everything.
If you're on the receiving end of such a message, you might do any number of things - get defensive, return the "favor," put up your dukes, or, while reeling from shock, find yourself speechless and not even - on the outside - register the blow.
At the same time, you may be churning inside. If you're like many people, your self-esteem takes a bruising and you may even experience self-doubts: "Maybe, just maybe," you might think, "this person could have a point."
Responses that deliver a sudden hit out of nowhere are known as "zaps" or "zingers." And, if you're not prepared with armor to deflect them, they may go clear to your core! If you're thinking, "Hmmmmmm, I could use some more armor. What do you have in mind?," consider these possibilities, adapted from a book by Jennifer James, "You Know I Wouldn't Say This If I Didn't Love You" (Newmarket Press). The strategies listed below are designed to help you come through an attack unscathed:
- Agree with - and accentuate - the criticism inherent in the zap. For example:
"This house is a mess."
"Yes it is. It was even worse yesterday."
- Respond to the attack by asking a question about the zapper's assumptions - a tactic that allows you to stay detached from the victim role. For example:
"Even a woman should be able to understand this."
"When did you start thinking women were inferior?" Or:
"If you loved me, you would lose weight."
"How long have you thought I didn't love you?"
- Ignore the criticism. For example:
Aunt: "I can see your boyfriend bought you a very expensive watch for Christmas. You must be awfully good to him."
You: "I guess you could say that is one of my qualities. I see Uncle Bill bought you a Timex."
- Register the attack. Let the zapper know you noticed the remark but have decided not to respond to it directly. For example, just go "Ohhh. . . ." as if something surprised you or wipe an imaginary spot off your shirt or dress. If someone asks what you're doing, just comment that you thought something hit you but you must have been wrong.
Or, get out a notebook and write down the zap. Ask the zapper to repeat the remark so you can record it correctly. If he or she asks for an explanation, just say, "My therapist likes me to keep records" or choose another retort that fits.
- Ask the zapper to clarify. For example: "What did you mean by that?" or "I want to make sure I understand what you said."
- Use humor. For example: "You'll eat anything. You are the worst slob I've ever seen." "It's great to be number one" or "I'm a real pro."
- Resist. Set a limit on criticism. Talk to a zapper, informing him or her that you're not going to absorb any more zingers. If you're criticized anyway, deflect it, say, by asking the zapper why he or she wants to hurt you, by walking away, by closing your eyes or by yawning.
- Address the remark. For example: "Are you aware how that remark might sound to some people?" Or, say "Ouch!," "That hurts!," or "Direct hit!"
- Ignore the cut. Note the comment, realize it doesn't "belong" to you and simply let it go. The ability to forgive is one of the most important survival skills you can cultivate.
- Develop a thick skin. Try to accept some verbal assaults as the normal venting of frustrations we all encounter. Give others some room to make mistakes. It is often easier to assume people are doing the best they can and that many are simply unaware of the impact of their behavior.
- Look behind the zap. People who criticize have a lot of hurt to unload. If you can't figure out what's really bothering the zapper, ask.
And remember: Not every criticism has your name on it. So step back and consider the source. Says James, "The waitress isn't singling you out for trouble. Her boyfriend dumped her the night before. The driver who cuts you off isn't out to get you; he's rushing to the bedside of a sick child. Let him in, boost him on the way. When you give people the benefit of the doubt like this, you'll feel soothed by your grace."
The essence of James' approach is to choose not to give people power over you. The zingers they hurl reflect their problems - not yours - so keep emotional distance from the zapper, as is astutely illustrated in this story of a Buddha. After a man had verbally attacked him, Buddha responded, "Son, if someone declined to accept a present, to whom would it belong?" The man answered, "To him who offered it."
"And so," said Buddha, "I decline to accept your abuse."
- JoAnn Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.