Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the author’s blog. It appears here in an edited form with the author’s permission.
Readers of Third Factor often to want to engage the world. Unfortunately, engagement comes with the danger of attracting considerable negative attention.
I know a bit about this, because it’s happened to me. To make a long story short, one very angry individual sent my assistant a flurry of vicious emails expressing their disapproval of me and posted numerous critical comments on my blog (which have since been removed). That would be distressing enough, but it appears they have also made an effort to contact others they believe I am affiliated with to voice their opinion of me.
When something so negative occurs, the anxiety it induces is naturally quite distracting. “You have to find a way to become kind of Zen about it all,” my angel of a partner has told me more than once since I entered the public arena. This is great advice, but it’s easier said than done. The way my mind works, sometimes I need to map out the breadth and depth of numerous relevant concepts in order to make peace with distressing situations.
I present the concepts and principles that are helping me stay centered in the hopes they will be useful to others here, too.
Regulate Emotion by Knowing Your Priorities
“If it costs you your peace, it’s too expensive.”
Well-being is a hard-won top priority in my personal values hierarchy. Honoring my values therefore means I should attend to the needs of my physical and mental health; important relationships; and the resources that support my desired way of life.
When something throws off my sense of peace, well-being takes a blow, and my emotions become dysregulated. This has a cascading negative effect through all areas of my life. I cannot afford to let that happen, so I cultivate emotion regulation skills.
Emotion regulation requires an internal locus of control: a sense that I—not other people, not my external environment—am the one that determines how I feel, see the world, interpret and respond to events, and conduct my affairs.
Knowing how you want to approach life is like finding north on a compass and determining the direction of your destination. Along the way, you may encounter obstacles, detours, and interesting roadside attractions. You may get a flat tire, or a sprained ankle, or have to camp somewhere unexpected for the night. But you know where you’re going. You can approximate whether you’re heading in that direction and course-correct as necessary.
In dealing with my most recent obstacles, it has been helpful to remember that I want to feel at ease and to live my life with grace, dignity, and vitality. Knowing my general intentions helps guide my next steps to ensure I am continuing to move in the desired direction.
Establish and Follow Personal Rules of Engagement
In accordance with my value of dignity, I strive to avoid unscrupulous behaviors such as cognitive distortions, logical fallacies, verbal abuse, or manipulation tactics. I do not attack other people, name-call, make negative character over-generalizations, engage in smear campaigns, single people out, threaten, demand, blackmail, distort, hold hostage, shift goalposts, make veiled insinuations or accusations, rapidly escalate situations before I have all the information, or undermine anyone else’s aspirations. If there is something I need to accomplish interpersonally, there are more effective and gracious ways to go about attempting those changes, using insight, compassion, and nonviolent communication.
Sometimes, however, those dignified means don’t get me where I want to be. When that seems to be the case, I step away to consider whether the situation is beyond my control; if it is, then I focus my efforts where I can be effective. We can’t always have what we want or get others to do our bidding. Sometimes we have to just step away and move on, even if that means living with discomfort over what others might do or think of us.
I am not perfect. I’m sure I have strayed from each of these principles many times before—but I do try to self-correct and mature over time. If someone were to respectfully point out how I could have done something better, I would like to believe that I’d make a sincere effort to reflect on their feedback and apologize when it seems appropriate.
However, my willingness to consider criticism is not a guarantee that I will agree with it or do exactly what my critic asks of me. We may, in the end, simply have differing perspectives and priorities. Or I may not have the emotional capacity at that moment to subject myself to too much scrutiny. We all have our limits. Either way, we all need boundaries to protect ourselves. We cannot be open to all criticism regardless of its source or form. That would allow others to take advantage of us.
Know the Difference between Constructive and Nonconstructive Criticism
Applying those boundaries means it’s important to know the difference between constructive and nonconstructive criticism—and to have principles for dealing with each.
Constructive criticism is gracious and earnest, respecting the dignity and sovereignty of the subject being criticized. It is usually presented as an offering or as a request, not a demand or a threat.
The subject being criticized is allowed to consent to receiving the feedback, while the critic also has boundaries and can put forward reasonable consequences of not acting on her feedback. For instance, “This hurt me, and if you won’t take the time to hear me out, I might not want to be friends anymore.” Or, “You made a mistake that cost our company money, and the consequence of not correcting this mistake would be losing your job.”
Specifying appropriate consequences is different from making threats: “I’m going to tell everyone what a terrible friend you are,” or “You’ll never work in this town again.” Threats like these are manipulative and typically overblown.
A constructive critic seeks to understand the subject’s behavior and what might be driving it. The criticism is charitable, avoiding assumptions or over-generalizations about the subject’s motives or character. Rather, it is built on the assumption that others mean well and are capable of improving.
Constructive criticism is specific, addressing the subject’s actions in a particular context and proposing solutions that would more effectively meet their aims. It is therefore manageable, digestible, and actionable.
Nonconstructive criticism lacks grace, earnestness, and respect. It is not a request, but a demand. It does not seek to understand, nor does it offer the benefit of the doubt; instead, it casts the subject’s entire character and motives in a negative light.
Nonconstructive criticism is not concrete, specific, actionable, or solution-oriented. The critic neglects to offer any vision of a mutually agreeable resolution, and in fact may be deliberately or unintentionally impossible to please. His aim may be to vent his anger, or to hurt, frighten, or diminish the other person.
A mature response to constructive criticism involves openness and willingness to contemplate, whereas an appropriate response to non-constructive criticism is to establish boundaries and distance oneself from the critic.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
When being attacked, it’s natural to get defensive, but that just adds fuel to the fire. Getting defensive consumes a lot of emotional energy. It also plays into the idea that there is indeed something we have to prove, thus diminishing our confidence and resolve. It’s better to remember this: To the best of my knowledge at this time, I have done nothing wrong, I am not on trial, and I have nothing to prove.
Reacting is a sign we have lost our balance. When we are centered, strong, and peaceful, we are proactive—focusing our efforts on what we want to create, not on what someone else is doing.
At times like this, it can help to have ways to revisit our goals. Remember the compass we discussed above. People who know and love us can help us along this path by reflecting who we are, what matters to us, and how insignificant these distractions are in the context of our goals—no matter how much anxiety they may provoke in us.
Many good-hearted people are afraid of being judgmental, but discernment is a friend. People’s behaviors can provide us a lot of information as to whether we share similar values, goals, and approaches. Verbal abuse and emotional manipulation indicate that our values are not in alignment, and any attempts to communicate are likely to be fruitless if not altogether counterproductive.
Sometimes it helps to ask, “Would I ever treat someone that way?” Or, “Have I ever seen someone act that way toward someone else and thought they were right to do so?” Or, “What would someone have to do in order to justifiably warrant this kind of reaction from a reasonable person? Have I done something that bad? Would people I trust and respect agree that this treatment of me is appropriate?” Or, “If I had an issue with someone that was similar to the issue this person is having with me, how would I approach her about it?”
While it’s important to be cautious about diagnosing others, some behaviors are nearly dead give-aways that we are dealing with someone with a personality disorder. For instance, the person who targeted me recently showed numerous warning signs of borderline personality disorder (BPD), including splitting and rapid swings from idealization to devaluation. While people with BPD deserve understanding and support, when they lash out cruelly without insight, we have to protect ourselves first—and that usually means stepping away.
Make Peace With Being Disliked
When I engage publicly via blogging and social media, I am here to play a role in solving problems we face collectively, alongside a vast number of allies who all have their own roles to play. We come together as kindred spirits around shared values and principles to debate which strategies will be most productive toward our goals.
As I engage this way, I find myself developing a genuine fondness for some of these fellow humans. I’ve befriended people from around the world, staying up late into the evening engaged in riveting conversations.
But we all find some personalities more likable than others. Were I to actually meet my online mutuals in some different “real world” context, some of us might not get along. Perhaps we can philosophize swimmingly on adolescent development over group audio calls at 10 p.m. But would we enjoy the same music on a long car ride or keep pace with each other on a hike? (Do they even enjoy hiking? What kind of monster doesn’t enjoy hiking?!) Who knows? The point is that it’s not important. We’re here to connect around what brings us together—and leave the rest alone.
When it comes to making friends, interpersonal chemistry is important. But when it comes to collaboratively discussing ideas and attempting to solve problems collaboratively, my baseline for personality compatibility is low. We don’t need to enjoy each other, only to tolerate each other. While there may be rare cases where extreme incompatibility keeps people from working effectively together, most of the time, it will be enough for us to respect and cooperate with one another.
The recent attacks on my character came not from an ideological opponent, but from someone I thought was an ally working to a shared goal. To that end, they come across as a distraction from real problem solving. On the receiving end of this situation, it was important for me to remember that I do not claim to be perfect, and I don’t need everyone to like me. I have the love and support I need to get by. We would all do best to accept that some people are bound to find our unique quirks, vibe, or tone unappealing. This is inevitable and beyond our control, and therefore shouldn’t consume too much of our attention. The way I see it, people who dislike me just aren’t meant to be my friends, clients, or audience. They’re meant to connect with others who are more their style. When we have to cross paths, we will keep it brief and polite. That’s what adults do.
If I can tolerate someone’s personality, and have no reason to assume they are not acting in good faith, I will treat them with basic courtesy and engage with them about ideas that matter to us, until doing so ceases to be productive, at which point we will respectfully part ways. This is how I expect to be treated as well. If I am not, I have a right to enforce a boundary with that person.
Anyone who engages in ad hominem attacks is playing by a different set of rules than I am. As most of us learned by the end of elementary school, if you can’t agree on a shared set of rules, then you shouldn’t play together.
Learn to Recognize Common Manipulation Tactics
An ad hominem attack is a logical fallacy—and logical fallacies can serve as manipulation tactics. In the situation with my detractor, I also observed several others:
Straw-manning: The person misrepresented my views and misquoted me
Projection: They made inaccurate assumptions about my motives
Black-and-white thinking: Their way = right, my way = wrong
Fortune telling and catastrophizing: My way = bound to fail horrendously
Triangulation and splitting: Me = evil, some other party = good
It can be helpful for the sake of our own sanity to be able to recognize these tactics and fallacies for what they are. I like these resources on cognitive biases from YourBias.is, and this article by Shahida Arabi on manipulation tactics.
Recognizing these tactics and fallacies at work doesn’t mean we diagnose, label, or accuse others. We certainly don’t use these labels to fight back, insult, or gain the upper hand. We simply make mental notes, observe, proceed with caution, and disengage when necessary.
Don’t Get Lost in the FOG (Fear, Obligation, and Guilt)
Fear, obligation, and guilt are emotions that can powerfully drive behavior. As such, they are excellent tools for manipulating people. When someone is trying to trigger these feelings in you, it’s fair to ask whether that’s what’s happening.
This person who attacked me attempted to trigger fear by making veiled threats and insinuations and projecting a heap of accusations at me. They were looking for any possible insecurity I might have about myself, like throwing spaghetti at the wall in the hope that some of the mess would stick. They had no way of knowing whether there was truth in any of it, but if there were, their words would have really hurt.
Skilled manipulators learn to seek out people’s deepest insecurities beneath their greatest strengths. This seems counter-intuitive to a naive observer: who would try to make an attractive person feel ugly, an intelligent person feel stupid, a hard-working person feel lazy, or a generous person feel selfish? Why not go for people’s actual weaknesses? But manipulative people understand that we often work hardest at the things we are most insecure about, and that what we care deeply about indicates where we are most vulnerable. So they tell their targets they’re bad at the thing they excel at, and even if anyone else would see that the opposite is true, their victims might actually believe them—and feel far more deeply hurt than they would if their attackers had pointed out a flaw that troubles them less.
In my own case, my recent attacker focused their insults on my talent as a writer, my ability to help people with useful advice, my concern for protecting youth, the legitimacy of my intellect, and the earnestness of my motives. Presumably, they saw that these are life domains into which I pour a lot of effort—and that I may therefore harbor some deep-seated insecurities about them, whatever praise I may have received for them from others. They then used the fear-spaghetti-throwing tactic, insulting anything they had reason to believe I cared about.
My critic also attempted to trigger obligation, baiting me to engage but proving impossible to please. This sets up a trap that—if I fell for it—would leave me endlessly at their disposal, working harder and harder as they kept shifting the goalposts. They insinuated that I wasn’t doing enough to help, my strategies were off, my motives were corrupt, or worst of all, that I was actively harming people.
They also attempted to trigger guilt by bringing up money. For many people, this subject is laden with guilt. While their assumptions about my financial means and motives were too wildly off-base to have any power, that’s beside the point. The real response you should remember if you’re in a similar situation is that each of us has as much of a right to make a living and pursue our dreams as anyone else. So, too, do we all have our rights to privacy, dignity, and sovereignty. No matter how my finances evolve over time, I will never owe an explanation about them to someone with a vendetta against me.
If someone tries these techniques on you, ask yourself if you have really done anything to warrant feeling so fearful, obligated, or guilty. Seek outside perspectives from trusted sources if needed. Perfectionism, a history of abuse, and a strong inner critic can leave a person especially vulnerable to being manipulated this way. I have all those traits, and I’ve been lost in the FOG plenty of times before. Fortunately, I learned to see my way out of it, and now I help others find their way out, too.
Don’t Respond to Straw-Man Arguments
Straw-manning is a common emotional abuse tactic in which the manipulator deliberately misrepresents their target’s point of view so as to make it easier to tear down.
When people misconstrue your perspective and then argue with the “straw men” they built just to burn down, it is best to stand back and let them expose themselves. This thing they are arguing with is, after all, not you, but a figment of their own imagination. This is especially true if their past behavior suggests they haven’t sincerely tried to understand what you really mean. Engaging with a bad faith argument will not lead toward the mutual understanding and respectful resolution you seek.
Remember this: as long as they misrepresent you, they have not yet touched you. They are only trying to gain access to you. Once you engage, you implicitly endorse their misrepresentation. Then you take on the projection and get wrapped up in the drama.
Instead, protect your inner sense of knowing your own mind. Conserve your energy for people who will make a good faith effort to understand you and to represent your viewpoints fairly.
Of course, even if you understand all of the above intellectually, it can be incredibly emotionally taxing to put this knowledge into practice. My last few pieces of advice are all out of the cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) toolkit, designed to help you manage anxiety as you handle these sorts of challenging situations.
Watch Out for the Negativity Bias
Our minds have a tendency to notice the bad more than the good. This negativity bias has helped us stay attuned to danger cues so as to further our survival, but at a cost to our mood.
I might receive words of encouragement from thirty different people and yet find myself fixating on the one person who said something unkind. I might have had many successes and yet catastrophize about one potential failure. The human mind just works that way, and for some of us more than others.
Neuroticism—the tendency toward anxiety and depression—tends to be a fairly stable personality trait across the lifespan, and is highly influenced by genetics and upbringing. The higher one’s level of neuroticism, the stronger the negativity bias.
With my family history and genetic predisposition to depression and anxiety, as well as a significant degree of trauma in my past, I do not take my hard-earned optimism for granted. It takes conscious effort to counterbalance the negativity bias by focusing on all there is to be grateful for, and recalling what gives us comfort and encouragement. Exercise, psychotherapy, mindfulness practices, gratitude journaling, healthy relationships, fulfilling hobbies, good nutrition, and for some people, antidepressants, can all aid neuroplasticity and support efforts to cultivate a more positive and relaxed disposition.
Beware the Spotlight Effect
You know that feeling like you’re under a spotlight, or perhaps a microscope? Perhaps you have felt a sense that all of your flaws are on display and exposed to scrutiny. You feel as though everyone is watching you. Perhaps it seems they even know what you are thinking.
The spotlight effect is another common cognitive distortion that we all experience to some degree or another from time to time—all the more for those who are higher in neuroticism, or who have a generalized or social anxiety disorder. Again, it’s a cognitive error, and we can correct for it.
Sometimes it’s enough just to observe the thought pattern and put a label on it: “Oh, that’s the spotlight effect again.” We might also reassure ourselves, “Everyone feels that way from time to time. But don’t worry, most people are too busy worrying about themselves to worry about you.” Or, “If anyone is that busy scrutinizing your every flaw, maybe they’re the one who’s got a problem; that’s a creepy thing for them to do.”
Sometimes it is appropriate turn toward a friend, loved one, therapist, or other trusted companion to help ground our sense of reality with an outside perspective. “Was that joke out of line? Did she look offended to you?” Or, “Do you think anyone noticed that I wore the same outfit two days in a row?” It’s important not to rely too much on outside perspectives, but we can approach trusted others with a humble request to engage their support in correcting for our negative mental filters.
When I am being attacked by one person, my natural neuroticism would compel me to believe that every possible onlooker has joined my critic in scrutinizing my character. Recognizing the spotlight effect for what it is helps me correct for that cognitive error. The truth is, most people spend far more time worrying about themselves and how they are seen than they could ever spend analyzing my flaws. And anyone who is spending that much energy identifying the worst ways they could possibly interpret my every move? Well, maybe she’s the one with the problem. I prefer to live and let live. When someone bothers or confuses me, I try to interpret his behavior charitably. I choose the company of those who would treat me similarly.
Practice Helpful Visualizations
One image I find useful is that of the projection screen. I am standing behind the screen, untouched, while a variety of words and images are projected onto the screen. Some of those words are my own; some are the messages people associate with me, which may be distorted by their own imperfect ways of thinking and remembering, or their assumptions about what I might have meant. Some of those images reflect parts of me, from various angles. Some of them are blurry, or dim, or distorted. And some are not actually me at all, but someone I remind the viewer of.
What people see on the screen resembles me in myriad ways and to varying degrees, but it is not me. At best, it is a fairly accurate collection of aspects of my personality and public creative expression. At worst, it has very little to do with me at all. But none of it is me, and it does not touch me. The whole of who I am as a person is too complex to be known to more than a small handful of people, and I choose that handful carefully. I am fortunate to be known by people who see the best in me.
This visualization helps me remain centered and detached from what others might have to say about “me.”
Use Decatastrophizing Tools
When another person intimidates us, it is natural for the mind to spiral into a cascade of catastrophic worries. Decatastrophizing is a practical cognitive behavioral therapy tool that helps us break down our worries and address them in a rational manner, thereby soothing our anxiety.
When someone makes threats against things as important to me as my career and reputation, decatastrophizing helps me ask helpful questions. How likely is this to occur? If it did happen, how bad would it be? What would the worst possible outcome be, and could I live through that? What would be the next steps in dealing with the problem? Have I dealt with problems like this in the past? Who or what might help me get through it? What resources and knowledge would support me? What would a friend say to me, or what would I say to a friend in this situation?
In this case, the worst case scenarios I fear involve damage to my career and reputation, so it’s helpful for me to review what I know about that.
If this person were to complain to my licensing board, what do I know about the board’s processes for handling complaints? Have I broken any legal or ethical codes? How would I get through the investigation process? How likely is it that I would be found guilty of any violations? If I were found guilty of anything, what could it be, and what type of sanction might the board impose? How long might the whole process take, and how much money could it cost? Do I have the social and financial resources to get through those hurdles if it comes to it? Do I have tools for managing the stress and uncertainty?
In the end, the answers to these questions can be roughly summarized as: nothing is likely to happen, but if something does happen, it will take several months or years in court and a few thousand dollars. If there are any sanctions, they might be things such as working with a supervisor or taking a course, which I could get through with minor inconvenience and perhaps some frustration or chagrin. But I have love, support, money, and psychological resources to see me through those problems if I do have to face them.
As far as threats to my reputation go, again, I can assess the likeliness and severity of any threats. How much power could one person have to destroy my reputation? Who would listen and take those attacks on my character seriously, siding with the attacker? Is their vicious word salad more powerful than my entire body of work? If my attacker misquotes and misrepresents me, are people who are already familiar with my work likely to believe that I said and did those things? Would people who don’t know who I am care enough to pay attention to the allegations? If there are any people who would lose respect for me, how important are those people to me? Can I get by without them? Can I tolerate being disliked by some people? Have I faced this before, and will I face this again? Are there people I respect who have survived similar attacks on their reputation? How likely is it that intelligent people I know and respect, and entire institutions dedicated to common causes, could be swayed into avoiding or slandering me by one angry stranger sending them letters out of the blue? Am I likely to be able to maintain at least some important professional connections? Can I make do with those and achieve impacts that I care about even if I am not affiliated with every single institution that I share a common cause with?
In the end, the likelihood is quite small that every single individual and institution I seek professional alliance with will turn against me because of one angry person they do not know. Some people may indeed think less of me; others may be wary of becoming involved with me. Some people may not choose to investigate the issue further, look at what I actually said, or confront me directly. I may feel disappointed, frustrated, or embarrassed by the loss of their respect and affiliation, but in the end, it is beyond my control, and it only has the power to ruin my life if I hand over that power. I can continue to allow my actions to speak for themselves, and respect individuals’ sovereign freedom to make up their own minds.
Finally, if it ever does happen that an entire community of people wholeheartedly rejects me, that may just be a sign from the Universe that I am meant to be somewhere else.
When All Else Fails, Use the Legal System
At the end of the day, my critic’s behavior constitutes harassment and slander, which are illegal. If I feel I must do so, I can send a cease and desist letter. If they ignore that, there are further steps I can take to use the legal system to protect myself. While I would rather not have to go that route, it’s a comfort to know that it’s there.
One final principle that I think applies here is to focus on the silent majority and speak to the onlookers, rather than giving more fuel to those causing chaos. I did not write this article as a reaction to one loud person who doesn’t want to play by the same set of rules I do. I wrote it for myself, and for the larger audience that isn’t making so much noise but whose eyes and ears are open. And I am republishing it here in Third Factor at the invitation of the magazine’s editor in chief, understanding that readers of this magazine may find my experience useful. I hope I can be one of your sources to check in when you’re faced with FOG and all the rest of this.
Enjoy this article? Check out Stephanie’s podcast, You Must Be Some Kind of Therapist, which launches May 15, 2022. In an upcoming episode, she talks to Third Factor’s editor in chief, Jessie Mannisto, about positive disintegration and what it means to have courage.
Header image by fizkes / Shutterstock