It always hurts when it happens, and often, it comes out of the blue. We are going along with our lives and then suddenly, someone interprets something we’ve done or said — and sometimes who we are — as wrong, and goes on the attack. And out come the wolves. Our character may be questioned, our intelligence, professionalism, credibility, and intentions, may all be called into question and subjected to harsh — and often quite hurtful — scrutiny.
Attacks like this often cause feelings of shame, inadequacy, anger, and even the desire to attack back and defend ourselves. But ultimately, those who do the attacking, blaming, and criticizing are behaving badly — not us.
So just how do we respond when we are hit by other peoples’ bad behavior?
Recognize the behavior as bad. The first step is recognize that although being blamed, attacked and criticized often results in feeling bad, you are not the one who is behaving badly. By it’s very nature, slandering another person’s character — no matter how justified the other person believes it to be — is bad behavior. It’s a sign of poor character to go after another person viciously. So while the attacks of another may hurt, and you may feel shame, remember, you are not the one behaving badly.
Understand where bad behavior comes from. Attacking another person, pointing blame, and criticizing another harshly all come from the same place: the attacker’s attempt to dislodge some of their own bad feelings onto you. By putting the focus on to you, and what they think you did wrong, they can take the focus off of themselves, and their own defects of character. But they can also put you in a one down position, elevating themselves to a position of power. And people who attempt to gain power this way — through diminishing others — do so because they do not feel powerful in their own lives, and the only reconciliation is to attempt to control others. People who hurt others to feel better about themselves, may not know how to feel good any other way, and may also have very fragile and primitive ego structures. What this means is that their sense of self is underdeveloped and defined through their ability to control others. And what people who attack don’t have control over is their own sense of self — because attacks come from unresolved material, an unconscious need to regain power, and are justified by a perceived feeling of being wronged or hurt somewhere in their lives.
Use empathic confrontation. Being attacked, blamed, and criticized puts us all on the defensive, and we may want to throw our own daggers, yet, attacking back simply signifies battle. And while you may feel as if it’s wrong that you were attacked and want to correct the behavior, it is never your job to correct anyone’s behavior but your own. Instead, when someone goes on the offense after you, your focus needs to be on setting boundaries to protect yourself. This is what is meant by empathic confrontation. Empathic confrontation essentially means recognizing that bad behavior comes from a place of pain and confusion, and then setting limits. An example of this would be saying, “Look I don’t think you meant to hurt me, or that you are a bad person, but it what you said did hurt, and I am not going to respond to you when you speak to me that way.” While empathic confrontation protects you, it also does something else — it calls on a person’s better character. Ultimately, the message to the person doing the attacking is: I wont let myself be treated poorly because I think you can behave better than that.
Reaffirm your value. The object of a person blaming, criticizing or attacking you is to make you feel bad, and it usually does. Attacks hurt everyone, after all. So instead of defending yourself to the person attacking — which will only cause war — reaffirm your value to yourself. Use the attack to take a look at your life, do an honest assessment, and recognize the good things you do, and the value you bring. If you feel you could do better, make a plan to change what you think needs changing. And if you feel you are doing everything in your power to be the person you want to be, then remind yourself of that. But make it your choice to decide how you are doing and if you need to change — not anyone else’s. After all, it’s your life.
Attacks, criticisms and accusations hurt, but they are also examples of bad behavior. And while the invitation is always there to fire back, the opportunity is also there to use these things to strengthen your own good behavior, to not fall prey to the temptation to also behave badly, and to remind yourself of why being nice matters.