Someone in your life who’s too critical or confrontational can undermine your self-worth and enjoyment of life. Psychologist Lynn Monteiro suggests four ways you can take care of yourself.
Jason’s team manager at work was someone who frequently “lost it” and publicly chastised him. When Jason attempted to speak to her about this, she brushed off his concerns, claiming she was just trying to motivate Jason, who obviously was “too sensitive.” Quitting was not an option for him, but staying seemed harder every day. He was afraid he’d eventually react angrily to his boss’ abuse and be fired.
There are many people who suffer, as Jason does, because they have a colleague, life partner, or friend who engages in demeaning criticism and aggressive, accusatory, or sarcastic speech. Dealing effectively with such confrontational people requires self-care, understanding the situation, and taking skillful action.
Confrontational situations can involve direct or subtle aggressions. Direct confrontational speech includes someone diminishing your ideas, questioning your experiences, negating your emotions, or belittling your needs. Managing a relationship with someone who frequently uses these tactics can be exhausting, even frightening. When someone is constantly calling into question the validity of your actions, thoughts, or speech, it can leave you feeling unsure of yourself and unsafe in the relationship.
Not all who use confrontational strategies engage as stereotypical raging monsters. Their approach can be subtle.
Take Sami. She was a doctoral intern who returned to university when her youngest child started school full time. Her partner, who was a successful professional highly respected in the community, began to shame and blame her. Speaking in slow, quiet tones, he’d explain that Sami was not doing her share at home and that her stressed appearance damaged their reputation.
Sami felt confused. She questioned her ability to care for her family and finish the internship. On one hand, she was confident she was contributing to the family, but on the other she felt that she was perhaps fooling herself and letting them down.
As we can see in the case of Sami’s partner, not all persons who use confrontational strategies engage as stereotypical raging monsters. Their approach can be subtle: their speech can seem supportive and their actions can appear to be helpful.
Yet exchanges with them are similar to exchanges with people who are more overtly aggressively confrontational. They too sow seeds of self-doubt, shame, and inadequacy. Regardless of what is stated in interchanges and how it’s said, if you have a nagging feeling that a person’s approach is eroding your self-confidence, then you need to consider their deeper intention.
What can people like Jason and Sami—and many of us—do to shift their role in a relationship with a confrontational person? If you are dealing with a confrontational person, here are four practices that can help you create a feeling of safeness if ending the painful relationship is not an immediate option.
1. Establish boundaries.
Like life itself, relationships have times of suffering. It’s natural to want our relationships to feel safe, and when they fail to meet our expectations, we react. Being confrontational in return, withdrawing, or shutting down are all common reactions. However, they are unskillful because they escalate the cycle.
A more skillful, helpful strategy is to establish boundaries in the relationship and be clear about how you want to be treated. Setting limits can include telling the person you will not engage at this time because you are feeling too upset.
Learn to recognize the internal signals that you are shutting down. In the midst of a confrontation, use breathing and grounding practices until you feel you can leave the situation.
Practice mindful consumption: you do not have to consume messages of your supposed unworthiness or stick with an interaction that is impossible to process in the moment. So set exposure limits when discussions become hurtful. Suggesting a time out to settle your emotional states and agreeing to discuss the matter later is often helpful. If the other person persists, it is best to leave the situation.
More severe or chronic confrontational interactions can be a true threat, in which case you need to create an even stronger boundary. If you find yourself unable to engage in your life or have thoughts of self-harm, please do not delay in finding support and a safe space for yourself.
2. You are not the cause.
Confrontational exchanges do not define you. They arise from myriad causes and conditions, very few of which are in your direct control.
One way to think of aggression, whether verbal or physical, is that it’s a way for people to try to get ahead of aggression that they’re expecting to come their way. It’s an attempt to create their safety at the expense of yours. Confrontational people see the world as a threatening place and wait to be attacked. They create safety for themselves by using a “better safe than sorry” approach. They attack to prevent attacks.
3. Don’t feed confrontation.
Remember: “no fuel, no fire.” We feed a confrontation by debating the points made about us. Even offering sober facts can feed the fire because, for the confrontational person, it is about displacing feelings, not addressing issues. See confrontations as waves in someone else’s storm.
4. Give yourself the compassion you deserve.
Buddhist teachings advocate not responding to hurtful experiences by also being hurtful; however, this can be misinterpreted as passively accepting abuse. Being compassionate about the confrontational person’s suffering is not about suppressing your feelings of hurt and fear. Self-compassion is crucial, and these practices may help:
- Mindfulness: Observe your feelings; they are valid.
- Common humanity: Know that it is normal to feel the way you do. You are not alone in feeling anger, fear, or any other emotion.
- Self-kindness: What do you need to see a way through this situation? Who can help you walk this path?