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Fortifying the Wounded SELF with Hostile Relations: Skills and Strategies for Surviving the Family and Work Battlefronts

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

The Stress Doc examines how a "Wounded SELF - Sensitivity, Envy, Loyalty and Fairness - may leave one vulnerable or disarmed when dealing with an aggressive antagonist. Have no fear, though. The Doc is here with four tips for disarming a hostile encounter.

Whether at home, with extended relations or in work setting that, for better and worse, feels like family, the Stress Doc axiom appliesFamily members: "You can't live with them, you can't be alive without them." Dealing with consistently hostile individuals, that is, immature, invasive and potentially injurious individuals in a healthy manner means:
1) not hiding from or pridefully denying the pain when attacked,
2) having the conviction of facing the hurtful and humiliating feelings evoked, as opposed to saying you were provoked. (By judging the feelings as being "provoked," then it becomes easy to blame the other party for making you feel a certain way.),
3) recognizing the importance of and learning to establish psychological and interpersonal boundaries ("You can't live with them") and
4) viewing hostile antagonists as a spur to developing integrity and realizing a capacity for courage ("You can't be alive without them"). Each time you constructively stand up or consciously choose to walk away or "let go" in the face of dysfunctional family dynamics, you are building emotional stamina, emotional muscle and your own psychological identity!

Integrity and courage means confronting pain - both from without and within. And certainly, engaging hostile family members in a non-dysfunctional manner can be scary, because you are choosing to be real, open and vulnerable. There's no denying the potential for rejection and retaliation - further insult to injury.

The first step in healthy confrontation, of course, is doing a self-inventory. To take on a hostile family member first embrace and challenge these four dimensions of your own "Wounded SELF": Sensitivity, Envy, Loyalty and Fairness

1. Sensitivity. Those most reactive to a venomous sting often are folks with an acutely tender skin. This tenderness is often a product of both a genetic predisposition to sensitivity and of life experiences that left one feeling injured or devalued and invisible or misunderstood. Perhaps this is why creative types frequently have so much source material and raw material to work with.

Having a sensitive nature is definitely double-edged. Such a person, for example, often is attuned to both verbal and non-verbal messages laced with attacking or passive-aggressive elements. And, equally likely, the sender of such barbs claims unawareness or denies such hostile intentions. (Which of course can be infuriating for the wounded party. Then again, remember, there's more than one wounded party here.) So a sensitive individual has a harder time overlooking the breadth and depth of the communication: Message sent is often not message received, and not simply because of distortion on the receiving end.

Reflecting this double-edged reality, a more sensitive psychic antennae is frequently paired with a less hard and less well-defended psychic shell. The snake bite may have toxicity and the venom has struck a hot-reactor host. Once stung, such a person may as quickly implode, that is, become hurt and depressed, or ashamed and suffer in silence as to explode in rage, that is, to cover up the hurt and perceived humiliation.

2. Envy. Another person susceptible to others' hostile ways is the individual quick to feel envious of others - for achievements and financial class to good looks or winning personality. (Of course, societal blocks to opportunity - whether because of racism, sexism or ageism, etc., need to generate less envy and more vital anger and individual/social activism.) And when an envious person is also envied by hostile others, the torment may be doubled and be doubly confusing.

Not surprisingly, a person who must compulsively and indiscriminately compare himself or herself with others is often not able to recognize or value his or her own distinct attributes and aptitudes.. This person may well have had to bottle up or cover up genuine energy and essence from an early age. Not only does this diminish confidence, but also the envious person is often impaired when dealing with conflict. He does not know how to stand up to antagonists in a non-dysfunctional manner. He too urgently needs their approval. In general, he is too focused on others or preoccupied with what others do to him, i.e., how others make him feel. This fairly tortured soul is not able to or is afraid to connect with his or her own genuine emotions and real sense of self - the good, the bad and the ugly. Of course, being genuine usually means connecting to the often murky, if not unspeakable, pain of early childhood interaction.

3. Loyalty. Speaking of dysfunction, this is one of the most overused and abused concepts on the family battlefield. Too often family members equate loyalty with conforming to and promoting an image and story of family strengths (one big happy clan) while disguising or denying harsh realities (spousal or child abuse, mental illness, financial status, etc.). There's often a poor sense of physical or psychological boundaries; individuality and loyalty are contradiction in terms. Ah yes, an opportunity to use one of my favorite psychobabble terms: the family is an "undifferentiated ego mass"! (Boy, if that doesn't revolt and motivate a person caught in this big muddy nothing will.)

These families or, at least, the "powerful" members are often quick to feel humiliated or abandoned when their belief system, intentions or actions are questioned. Might and/or fright makes right. (I recall a bayou grandma, the matriarch, and her method of controlling extended family behavior, especially any individual attempts at real emotional and physical emancipation. Her tools of destruction: guilt-inducing threats and bouts of depression, that is, taking to bed for extended periods.)

These loyalty driven families often ignore two communication axioms:

a) "Difference and Disagreement =/= Disapproval and Disloyalty" and

b) The difference between "acknowledgment" (demonstrating to a sender know that his or her message has been received) and "agreement" (affirming points of connection, understanding and mutual solidarity). And, of course, in healthy families, members can agree to disagree. Let me close this section with the Stress Doc's "Loyalty Catch": Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer!"

4. Fairness. Alas, being raised in a rigidly loyal or "there's one right way" family doesn't only produce rebels or social deviants. More likely, it yields a person for whom fairness is the "11th Commandment." Often when anger expression is automatically labeled as "mad or bad," there are few role models regarding the healthy communication of anger and working through of conflict. This can lead to overresponsible, self-sacrificing individuals who don't genuinely state their needs and wishes or concerns and frustrations. In turn, these "too good," too responsible - doing everything for everybody - family members often feel injured and enraged when others don't take note of or appreciate all their altruism and sacrifice. "After all I've done for you"("you ungrateful" or "you selfish") is the overt or covert battle cry. Life is black and white, right and wrong, good and bad and these caretakers, if not martyrs extol playing by sacred rules. And, ironically, these rules often are not clearly articulated. Talk about being "unfair," you wind up discovering the rules after being chastised for breaking them.

As my brother likes to say, "I've given up having any expectations (of people) and I'm still usually disappointed." Beyond the cynical humor, there can be a silently judgmental point of view that can too easily bypass raising questions and negotiating expectations.

Hopefully, with a better understanding of "The Wounded SELF" - both of your antagonist's wounds and your own wounds within - you can overcome being mystified by another person's outrageous behavior and can learn to set swift and sure limits on rage and hostility. By accepting vulnerability you also affirm integrity. Consider "The Stress Doc's Four Steps for Disarming a Hostile Encounter":

1. Get Real. The immediate task is to confront your disorientation, if not shock: "How can anyone be so insensitive or hostile?" Get over it. Some folks are cruel while other folks just don't have a clue. These types are emotionally shallow, extremely self-absorbed and/or empathetically-deprived. (And please forgive any redundancy.) Others have become bullies by habit and success: they intimidate both to get their way and in order not to be intimate or open with their own anxieties or other vulnerable feelings. (Hmmm, I just noticed that if you remove the "id" from intimidate you get intimate.)

Whether your hostile antagonist evokes shock, fear or outrage getting cognitively clear and emotionally centered is critical for planning your strategic, boundary setting response.

2. Stay Silent, Go Deep. For an adult response to provocation as opposed to a childish reaction, you must get centered and current. This means doing an inner survey: are any prior hurtful encounters with antagonists exaggerating the readings on your psychic Richter Scale? For example, not withstanding Shakespeare's admonition about lawyers, a former client, a law firm administrator, when dealing with those aggravating "Type A"s (in DC, "A" is for attorney) had to dig deeper to explain his hair trigger reactivity. This manager had to gut that years of verbal and emotional taunting by his father too often reflexively triggered hyperreactive mode in the face of word to word combat. And gutting literally meant reexperiencing in his gut the shame, fear and rage of his childhood and adolescence.

With practice sitting quietly and sorting out the historic from the immediate hurt and hostility, you will dramatically shorten this tuning in, integration and constructive assertion process. Sometimes you need to call a time out to space out - to do the requisite head work, heart work and homework. Or you may need to check in with a stress buddy or stress coach for emotional reequilibration.

Of course, it's frustrating when you can't come back with the perfect parry to some hostile remark. Don't worryYou'll be able to nail the bozo later. No, just kidding. ;-) But French author, Andre Gide's psychic salve (for a wounded ego) and salvo (for deflating the same) comes in handy: "One must allow other's to be rightit consoles them for not being anything else!"

3. Defuse "You"s with Wise "I"s. Frequently, hostile communicators attack with "acc-'you'-sations": "What's wrong with you?," "You're making me crazy," or "You screwed up!" Is it a one-time mishap? Of course not. "You screwed up once again." Or, even better: "You always screw up" and "You never do what you're supposed to."

Sometimes it's an intrusive or invasive comment that needs to be stopped at your self-integrity border to prevent any significant toxic impact. For example, with my five-year younger brother, I recently mentioned being a bit down. The demands of syndication and too much work/not enough play syndrome were contributing factors. Larry, an analytic type, suddenly opined, "Maybe you should up your Prozac dosage." Startled, I blurted out, "No." He then cooly stated, "It sounds like a 'Yes.'" (That is, he implied my "No" was defensive thus providing further evidence of a need to consider meds readjustment.)

Initially, I told him, "I found the comment flip." He disagreed. After a temporary nonverbal cessation of sibling thrusts and parries, I returned to our unfinished engagement. First, I acknowledged that he didn't feel he was being "flip." I also emphasized my sensitivity and our different styles of communication. (He's cerebral, I'm definitely more emotional.) I also affirmed that on a complex and very personal subject like depression and medication, I'd prefer him to ask questions than just shoot from the lip. Actually, I said, "When you just throw out an answer, it sure feels flip to me. And I'm not getting the support that I need." And maybe a little breakthrough in mutual understanding was achieved.

So being able to affirm: a) who you are, b) what does or doesn't feel comfortable, functional or healthy, and c) what you want, need or prefer enables you to set boundaries and enhances the chance for a negotiated settlement.

4. Take a Risk. Based on a history of some emotionally charged sibling encounters, I felt somewhat vulnerable being open with Larry. My fear was that if I shared my sensitivity, my feelings of being attacked or devalued he would deny it. Even worse, Larry could make fun of me or make some clever, self-gratifying retort. (Historically, wit has been his frequently unsheathed sword.)

So while a bit apprehensive, I took strength from using those "I" messages - what felt comfortable or hurtful for me. The key, perhaps, is not feeling so ashamed to acknowledge that his comments could sting. Not needing him to agree with my perception and belief was another critical step. It wasn't essential that Larry recognize our interactional dynamics or what motivates his behavior. Yet, when he did stop and consider what I was saying (acknowledging my own "sensitivity" appeared to be a face-saving "quid pro quo") I expressed my appreciation.

Closing Summary

As outlined, dealing with hostility requires setting boundaries and affirming integrity. First, you must tend to a "Wounded SELF." Psychological and interpersonal dynamics around "Sensitivity," "Envy,' "Loyalty" and "Fairness" if not effectively managed can lead to a range of dysfunctional behavior - from passively tearful to the righteously vengeful. Then put these problem-solving steps into action: 1) Get Real, 2) Stay Silent, Run Deep, 3) Defuse "You's" with Wise "I"s and 4) Take a Risk. Now you are in position to both disarm an antagonist and affirm a commitment toPractice Safe Stress!