The world is full of people hoping to rob you of your good mood. Here’s how to perfect the fine art of psychological self-defense.
My client Francine’s husband had started behaving oddly. “I’ll do something ordinary, like offer to check his e-mail for him, and he’ll react as if I’ve killed a child,” she said. Another client, Selma, was a sunny optimist—except when her sister Eve called to complain about life; by the time they hung up, Selma was always exhausted and depressed. Meanwhile, my friend Pamela was getting blindsided at a public-speaking workshop. “I gave a speech that went really well,” she told me, “and then this other woman got up and spent her whole speech mocking everything I’d done wrong.”
Let’s call it emotional mugging: You’re going along minding your own business, and suddenly, when you least expect it, you’re faced with a shocking attack on your mood or peace of mind. Being emotionally mugged can be crippling, but because the damage is so often invisible, few of us are ever taught self-defense. Time to change that. You’re probably aware that the Asian martial arts, with their deft approach to handling attack, are popular practices for warding off physical muggers. Well, karate-do (“the way of the empty hand”) and bushi-do (“the way of the warrior”) have a psychological equivalent I call emo-do (pronounced “ee-moh-doh”): the way of the emotional master.
An Ounce of Prevention…
Like all opportunistic criminals, emotional muggers target people who wander around bad neighborhoods. The best way to become a victim is to turn your own mind into such a place—a place filled with self-hatred, unfair criticism, and gloomy predictions. This kind of setting not only attracts muggers but can leave you so emotionally tapped out that you turn to psychological crime yourself.
By contrast, those who follow emo-do create an inner space of clean, clear self-confidence. To cultivate such an environment, you must keep three brave commitments. First, vow never to deliberately create suffering for yourself or others. (If you can’t do this, count on being mugged frequently. There’s no honor among thieves.) Second, always own your mistakes and do your best to correct them. Third, forgive yourself when your best isn’t good enough. Keeping these commitments creates deep strength that scares off most emotional muggers. And should some misguided thug ambush you anyway, emo-do will help you launch a powerful defense.
If You Are Attacked
My former karate teacher, Jay Cool (yes! really!), used to study muggers’ patterns to help develop counterattack strategies for the Phoenix police. “There are only so many ways to assault someone,” Jay says. “Every mugger uses some version of a few basic approaches.” This is also true of emotional attackers, and knowing their strategy helps you thwart them. Here are six types of emotional mugger—and, for each, the commensurate emo-do response.
1. Puppy Kickers
The term sounds brutal, but most of us can understand it—because most of us have been perpetrators ourselves. Picture: The cat’s sick, your husband’s away, you didn’t sleep all night, and as you rush to get your 6-year-old ready for school, she tries to tell you something about her imaginary koala using whispered pig Latin, in which she is not remotely fluent. After five minutes of unintelligible babble, you hear yourself shout, “For God’s sake, talk like a normal person!” You’ve just emotionally mugged your own offspring. It feels, as Anne Lamott writes, like bitch-slapping ET.
I’m not saying puppy kicking is okay because it’s common. But seeing it from the mugger’s perspective helps you mount an effective defense when you’re the kickee.
Emo-Do Defense: Start by recognizing that the mugging isn’t about you; you just happened to be standing there, wagging your tail, when someone went temporarily insane. Try puppyish responses: Trot off and find another friend, or (if the mugger is a loved one) offer kindness. Say, “You seem really stressed. Can I help?” This can actually turn puppy kicking into gratitude.
2. Exploding Doormats
Cora’s assistant, Angie, had been glum all day. Trying to lighten the mood, Cora said, “You should leave early—there’s traffic.”
“Leave early?” Angie shouted. “That would mean I have to do everything in even less time!” Then she stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
Angie is an exploding doormat. She doesn’t stand up for herself until her emotions reach a critical limit—at which point she goes postal with virtually no provocation. Exploding doormats are more harmful than puppy kickers because they harbor festering hostility toward their targets.
Emo-Do Defense: Cora’s attempt to soothe Angie’s anger by being extra nice was manipulative, so it made things worse. The next day, she switched to open, frank discussion, which is all that’s necessary to keep doormats from detonating. “You seem so angry,” Cora said. “What’s really on your mind?” When Angie admitted she felt overworked, Cora realized she’d been taking the young woman’s quiet diligence for granted. Together they came up with ways for Angie to let Cora know her limits. Conflict solved.
When Kimberly told her mother she’d been promoted, the older woman sighed. “Well,” she said, “you’re going to have to work harder to prove you’re worth it.” Kimberly’s mother is a deflator, a person who sees virtue in pessimism. With one well-placed jab, she can let the air out of any good time, and make a bad time feel even worse.
Emo-Do Defense: Deflators almost always have a history of feeling crushed. As such, they’re simply upholding tradition. Unlike puppy kickers or exploding doormats, they rarely respond well to discussion, so don’t bother. Instead, simply and cheerfully reject their pessimism. To the prediction that she’d have to work harder, Kimberly calmly responded, “No, I won’t.” Her mother had no choice but to slouch off with her dagger.
4. Secret Keepers
Remember Francine, whose husband blew up over ordinary behavior? She later learned that he was having not one but several online affairs. No wonder he freaked when she tried to check his messages; cheaters, addicts, and liars attack people who threaten to stumble onto their misdeeds. This kind of mugging feels crazy and surreal. If you’re questioning your sanity after a surprise argument, you may be dealing with a secret keeper.
Emo-Do Defense: A secret keeper’s mugging leaves you with an icky sense that something’s wrong. Don’t jump to conclusions, but don’t ignore your instincts. (An emo-do master never keeps secrets from herself—for example, by going into denial.) Hold firm to your reality. Ask questions. If more violent attacks ensue, revise your trust levels and watch for more evidence.
To be happy, each of us must create meaning and joy from the raw material of everyday life. This isn’t easy, so some people become cannibals, devouring the positive energy of others. Selma’s sister Eve is an example. She made a habit of calling Selma whenever she was miserable, off-loading her misery and draining Selma’s joy.
Emo-Do Defense: Don’t feed cannibals the patient, sorrowful consolation they expect. Selma eventually redefined her responsibilities as a supportive sister and began answering Eve’s complaints by saying, “You’re so resourceful—I know you can solve that problem!” Eve gagged on this response and went off to hunt tastier snacks.
The woman who publicly shamed Pamela after her speech was the most destructive kind of emotional mugger, the equivalent of a rapist: someone who gets off on causing pain. In Harry Potter’s world, such beings are called dementors. They are endlessly unhappy, addicted to the sense of control they get from violating others. They don’t care whom they hurt, as long as they hurt someone.
Emo-Do Defense: If someone attacks with no provocation and seems intent on inflicting maximum harm, you may be dealing with a truly disturbed person. First, eat some chocolate (any Harry Potter fan can tell you that). Then distance yourself in any way you can. This wasn’t a problem for Pamela—she was easily able to avoid her attacker—but may be daunting if you’ve got a dementor in the family or at work. If you can’t remove yourself from the relationship, at least keep your emotional distance. Don’t trust a dementor with your private thoughts.
Staying away from dementors allows them to socially self-destruct—and they always do. Though onlookers may at first be too horror-stricken to come to your rescue, most people are appalled by dementors’ behavior. This is why cruel conversationalists ultimately end up friendless, and—on a much larger scale—why evils like prejudice and discrimination have slowly but surely become less acceptable in almost every human society.
After an Assault
No matter how well prepared you are, an emotional mugger may still catch you before you can defend yourself. In the short run, you’ll feel violated. In the long run, you can use the experience to become a stronger emo-do practitioner.
To start, dispense with any lingering nasty energy by recognizing that it probably belongs to the mugger, not you. If the negativity won’t dissipate, there are two possibilities: Either you really did provoke the attack, or you’re operating under the misconception that you deserved it. Return immediately to basic emo-do code: Stop causing suffering for yourself by thinking you deserved victimization; correct any behaviors that might have triggered the mugging; and, finally, forgive yourself for the whole misadventure.
The way of emo-do is rigorous—and hugely rewarding. The more you follow it, the more muggers will avoid you. Instead of a target, you’ll become a walking haven, a place where emotional criminals rarely strike—and if they do, are swiftly rendered harmless. Plan to welcome many of us to walk with you, because that’s just the kind of neighborhood where most people want to live.
Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).