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Standing Up For Oneself

Question:

Do you have any suggestions for how to deal with public social slights and criticisms? I am in my thirties. When I was a child, I would not say anything when I was insulted or slighted publicly because I didn’t know what to say. I never had much confidence. I don’t want to be walked on anymore.

I am regularly around a group of women for an ongoing social event. I used to be a valued part of the group but it seems to have been collectively decided that I am not good enough for them because I am not longer greeted warmly, I no longer receive social invitations and my invitations are rejected, etc. I get the sense that “the group” now considers me beneath them. No obvious event caused this but my best guess is that this new attitude toward me came about after one social event when I (emotionally) disclosed to three of the women feelings of insecurity because of a difficult childhood. (I think this was too much information for them.) I can’t avoid them entirely and when I see one of them I am subtly criticized or made fun of in front of the others. Any thoughts of how I can handle this? Directly addressing public slights seems so confrontational and it makes others in a group feel uncomfortable. For example, say I make a mistake and get the date wrong of an event and get a contemptuous correction from one member of the group in front of the others. What kinds of ways can I react to stand up for myself? Is there anything to do except take it or announce that I don’t appreciate being treated with contempt for any mistakes I might make and if my presence is unwelcome I will happily leave? (I imagine this is a good way to burn bridges.) Any thoughts would be appreciated.

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Answer:

You would appear to be a perfect candidate for what is known as assertiveness training. We’ve written about this topic in some detail in our self-help book, so I will refer you there for more detail. I will also encourage you to do some reading (“Your Perfect Right”, by Michael Emmons Ph.D. and Robert Alberti is a classic resource but there are many good alternatives), and perhaps to work with a therapist on this issue.

In a nutshell, assertiveness training involves learning to discriminate between three communications postures (or styles): passive, aggressive, and assertive.

Historically, your own style of communication would be best classified as passive. When insulted, your default response has been to take it; to remain quiet and not protest. To be passive is to allow yourself to be undefended; open to invasion. On a bad day, an aggressive person might insult or otherwise attack you. However, even on a good day you may not get to have something your way, because the group you’re eating with decides (e.g., some group leader decides) to do that thing differently, and you didn’t have the skills to assertively lobby for your case and influence what the group would do.

The aggressive style is the opposite of the passive style. If to be passive means to be willing to take abuse, to be aggressive means to be willing to dish it out. Aggressive people are willing to invade other people’s space, territory and opinions. In the name of self-righteousness they are willing to impose their will and desire on group agendas, and do not mind harming group members in the process.

Assertiveness lives as a sort of middle ground between passivity and assertiveness. Assertive people defend themselves when they are attacked. However, they do not attack other people in a preemptive manner so as to impose their own will on those people.

From a passive point of view, assertiveness is very difficult to appreciate, because it seems so very close to aggressiveness that the two can appear indistinguishable. The difference may be subtle, but it is very real. Assertive people act so as to respect other people’s boundaries even as they defend their own boundaries. Aggressive people act as though the only boundaries that matter are their own. The difference boils down to respect. People who have been passive their entire lives appreciate respect, because they never had any before. They don’t want to become aggressive, because they want to be respectful to others, and they want others to respect them. Assertiveness enables these recovering passive types to remain respectful of themselves and others, while still learning how to defend themselves. I encourage you to read up on assertiveness training, so that you can learn to adapt your essentially passive style of relating to these women (and to others in your life) to a more assertive style.

I’ll provide one example, based on the scenario you’ve described above. You make a mistake in the context of this group of women you’re involved with, and you get a public contemptuous correction from some member. The insult, when it is delivered, is an invasion of your dignity. It is delivered publicly as a dominance thing (to determine pecking order). If you were all doggies, the woman insulting you would be mounting you (not for sex, but to establish who is alpha). Your options are: 1) to take it, 2) to (disrespectfully) insult back, or 3) to defend yourself in a respectful manner. You already know about option 1; it doesn’t work for you anymore. Option 2 has some merit, but there are a lot of downsides to such a strategy. Going off on someone in a public way will make you look unbalanced, and will further erode your credibility. Instead of yelling, or lunging at the woman who has insulted you, you might look her in the eye and calmly say, “Hey – what you just said is unfair and hurts my feelings. I know I made a mistake; I’m sorry for that. However, your insult was uncalled for. I would like your apology”. You might get some silence when you deliver this sort of message, but the silence would be there mostly because you’ve done something unexpected. It would not be there because you’ve done something wrong. Note that the message is respectful in tone, it does not attack the person who has attacked, but instead only asks for fair treatment; something that should be due all group members. At the same time, it is firm. If you can deliver this message without backing down, you are likely to get your apology.

Keep in mind that there are some people who have a need to dominate others. When faced with a fair request such as the one I’m suggesting for your circumstance, such people will attack further. Depending on how aligned the other group members are with the attacker, you may find yourself ostracized and driven out of the group. If this occurs, dust yourself off and consider yourself lucky to be out of that group. What will have been driven home under that eventuality is that your only option for retaining membership was as the group’s whipping boy. Life is too short to hang around with nasty bullying people whom you might otherwise avoid.

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