Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Feel Attacked? The Most Powerful Defense You'll Ever Have

In situations of conflict, what's the best question to ask yourself?

Whenever someone turns on you, there’s one thing you can do that, almost immediately, will emotionally protect you. If, that is, you can do it immediately. And this little recognized mode of self-defense should work whether your hair-trigger reaction is feeling hurt, guilty, devalued, distrusted, disrespected, rejected, offended, insulted—or whatever. But this remarkable defense—which, finally, isn’t really a “defense” at all—is extremely elusive. For when you get your buttons pushed, it’s doubtful that responding in the way I’ll be describing would ever occur to you. If you’re like most people, in the moment of psychological upset you’re far more likely to succumb to the urge either to directly defend yourself or to counterattack your “assailant.”

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This post is about training yourself—in the very second you realize you’re beginning to lose your cool—to ask yourself a question: A question that almost no one even considers posing to themselves. And it’s not about yourself at all, but about the one who provoked you. Here it is:

“Before this person pushed my button, which one of their buttons might I have pushed?”

What makes this self-query so stunningly powerful is that it instantaneously enables you to detach from your internal distress and refocus your attention on what’s going on outside yourself. If you view, say, the criticism or cutting remark as primarily reflecting something about the other person, you don’t have to remain nervous, angry, or feel bad about yourself—in short, “take on” the negativity apparently aimed at you.

Shifting from the role of reactive “emotionalist” to that of scientist, you’re actually training your brain to stay with the more adult, rational, part of your self in order not to let the present situation get the better of you. By depersonalizing the “drama” of the moment, you maintain the authority to be the sole judge of your actions—rather than allowing the other person’s comments to add to any doubts you may still harbor about yourself. Obviously, if these doubts were non-existent, you’d be pretty much immune to their criticism’s sting, and so not experience their unfavorable evaluation as threatening.

As regards the other person, odds are that they turned on you in the first place because—however indirectly (and it might be far more circuitous than you could ever imagine!)—what you said or did felt threatening to them. So endeavoring to grasp where they might be coming from can help you begin to formulate new insights into the psychological dynamic that motivated their “retaliatory” behavior. And there are questions you can ask them that, if asked in the right way, might reveal why they were provoked—before, in turn, they provoked you.

I realize that so far this exposition may well seem overly abstract. So let me provide a concrete example to illustrate what such averting or rechanneling of someone’s verbal attack might look like. Still, I can hardly overemphasize that mastering the art and logic of this method is likely to take considerable practice. But if you’re sufficiently patient to develop this advanced communication skill, the end result will probably astound you.

The sample case below deals specifically with a couple. But the approach depicted could readily be adapted for use with one’s children, parents, employees, co-workers, etc.:

Frank glances at the latest credit card statement, which is much higher than usual, and blows up—angrily accusing his wife, Sue, of being a selfish spendthrift and squandering the family’s resources. Ordinarily, Sue would get angry herself (her “not-being-trusted” button having been pushed) and protest that none of her purchases were unnecessary or exorbitant. And that if Frank would take the time to carefully review the charges, he’d see that every single expenditure was justified—given that their three children have desperately needed new clothes, as well as supplies, for the upcoming school year.

Instead, however, Sue turns to Frank and says: “If you look at the charges on the bill, I think you’ll see they reflect expenses we’d already discussed. . . . But, frankly, I wonder if whether what’s really bothering you is that you can’t stop thinking about the fact that your company has been laying off people because of the terrible economy we’re in. Just the other day you told me you were beginning to feel insecure about your position and worrying whether you could be the next to go. Is this what’s coming up for you now? Do we maybe need to talk some more about this? . . ."

The next part of this retort is optional—but in certain instances it could further modify Frank's blaming perspective: “. . . and I’m also thinking about what you told me in the past about your parents’ being so critical of you whenever you bought anything they thought you didn’t really have to have. Did you maybe feel that I was being indulgent in a way that—had it been you—would definitely have made your parents come down on you like a ton of bricks? Could that be coming up for you, too?—almost needing to get mad at me to separate yourself from me, ‘cause what you thought I did running up the bill might somehow have reminded you of how your parents always got on your case for spending too much money?"

Note that in this example, the wife simply doesn’t permit her husband’s anger to center on her. On the contrary, she offers only a brief explanation of her credit card expenditure and then redirects the interaction to focus on him and which of his buttons might have gotten pushed when he eyed the statement’s bottom line (i.e., pressing his “I'm out-of-control-of-our-finances” button). As a result, the husband, feeling understood and sympathized with, would be unlikely to continue in the same accusatory vein. In fact, he’s even being invited to ventilate more about his work-related anxieties—probably at the very core of his present upset and what he needs most to be talking about. 

Remember, just because your partner is being emotionally reactive doesn't mean you have to be, too. (As in, "It takes two to tango.")

Space limitations prevent me from offering additional examples here. But hopefully, this single representation will suggest the manifold benefits of responding to another’s provocation by immediately asking yourself which of their buttons, however unintentionally, may have just gotten pushed. Might it be an “I-have-to-be-perfect” button (for they can’t allow themselves to make a mistake, so you can’t either); an “everything-must-be-in-its-place” button (for in growing up, parental approval pivoted on being neat and orderly); an “I-can’t-take-risks” button (for being daring and adventurous got associated with putting oneself in serious jeopardy); and so on.

To conclude, if you can get yourself to quickly change course in confrontational situations—and play detective rather than defendant—I think you’ll find that conflicts which previously were extremely discomfiting are much easier to deal with. They’ll also offer you a truly intriguing challenge: one that can be as creative as it is constructive. Not that this method will work with everyone, for those with really serious anger problems—or with a Ph.D. in Denial and Stonewalling!—may simply be unreachable. And that’s why, in certain cases, calling a “Time Out” may be your only recourse. But in more “normal” instances, the approach I’ve delineated should work just fine.

NOTE 1: I've written many posts that relate to this one. Here are the links: On effectively dealing with criticism: #s 1   2   3   4   6   On getting your buttons pushed: #s 7   8   9   10   11   12    And on resolving couples conflict: #s 13   14    15   16   17  

NOTE 2: If you think this post might in some way be useful to others, please consider sending them the link And to check out my writings for Psychology Today on a broad variety of topics, click here.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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