I wrote a piece a little while back about transcending the fear of “having nothing to say” that often plagues us when relating with people. A similar fear, which I’ll discuss in this article, is the worry that we might not “have a comeback” when someone puts us down—that we’ll be unable to defend ourselves against verbal attacks. Someone may insult us, accuse us of a mistake, or dismiss us, and we won’t have a snappy reply ready.
Many people seem to harbor the unconscious fear that, if they don’t have a quick and witty enough reply when someone criticizes them, they’re actually going to be physically injured or die. Either they’ll be so humiliated that they’ll disintegrate, or they’ll lose face, be socially ostracized and perish from starvation or loneliness. This kind of anxiety has some people shy away from meeting people and avoid conflict, for fear that they’ll be challenged to a “war of words” they can’t win.
Some of us even experience this anxiety in situations where someone isn’t criticizing us, but is merely expecting a response. For instance, when a waiter at a restaurant asks for our order, and we don’t know what we want yet, some of us start to get anxious, as if failing to think of what we want quickly enough, or telling the waiter something he doesn’t want to hear, will actually put us in danger. Or we start to feel defensive and resentful, as if he’s insulting or challenging us.
Why We Have This Fear Of “Losing A Verbal Battle”
Why do we experience this fear? It doesn’t seem to make sense rationally. If someone, say, told me I was ugly and I didn’t reply, it’s not as if I’d suddenly shatter into a thousand pieces. Some psychologists say this fear is an automatic response ingrained into us in childhood. As young children, when our parents demanded an explanation for something we did, many of us probably did worry that our parents would withdraw their love for us if we didn’t respond quickly and convincingly.
From our perspective at the time, because we couldn’t take care of ourselves, our parents’ withdrawal of their affection really would have meant the end of us. As psychologist Gillian Butler writes in Manage Your Mind, “if you are vulnerable to being hurt by a particular person, or inexplicably go to great lengths to please someone else, it is probably because that person speaks to the child within you with the authority of the parent.”
Three Approaches To Managing This Anxiety
How do we overcome this fear and regain a sense of composure and control in our interactions? I’ll describe three approaches I’ve used myself and in working with others. If you find yourself dreading some interactions because you’re afraid you’ll be unable to defend yourself against verbal attacks, these techniques will likely give you some comfort.
1. Observe Yourself In The Moment. Watch for the thoughts and feelings that come up for you in those “clutch moments” where you feel the need to have a fast and witty retort. Are you concerned that you’re going to be hurt or destroyed? Are other people going to dislike or ridicule you? Are you going to inconvenience people or waste their time if you don’t say something quickly enough?
Or perhaps no particular thoughts come to mind when you’re experiencing this compulsion to respond, but you just feel uncomfortable sensations in your body. For example, maybe your face starts to feel hot, or your shoulders tighten up. You feel the overwhelming desire to reply quickly because you want to dissipate that tension or nervous energy.
If you pay close attention, and notice what arises in moments where you feel the urge to respond as quickly as possible, you can start putting those thoughts and feelings in perspective, and becoming aware of how little sense they make. For example, I used to frequently get anxious when someone asked me for a piece of information, such as directions to some place or a summary of a document I prepared at work. I’d worry that the other person might get angry or impatient. Because I didn’t want to experience this anxiety, I’d try to give a fast response.
When I actually trained my attention on this concern that the other person would lose patience with me, I finally recognized I was taking that concern way too seriously. I was treating the other person’s possible disapproval as if it were life-threatening. When I realized I had this perspective, I couldn’t help but laugh, and I gradually started feeling less anxiety and more freedom in all my interactions with people.
2. Breathe Into Your Back. Some of us, when we feel like someone else is challenging or criticizing us, are in the habit of surrendering—of frantically trying to please the other person, submitting to their will, or falling into sullen silence. We lose consciousness of our strength and dignity as human beings, and regress into childhood behaviors designed to pacify our parents.
One way we can counter this tendency to automatically surrender is to focus our attention on our spine—particularly the base of the spine, known in some spiritual traditions as the root chakra, or the source of our groundedness and solidity. You can do this by focusing your attention on your back, and any sensations, whether it’s tingling, tightness, or something else, you may experience in that area.
Breathe deeply as you hold your attention on your back. If you’ve done yoga, you’ll probably be familiar with the idea of “breathing into” part of your body—breathing as you focus your attention on some part of yourself—and this is what I’m talking about here. If you have trouble focusing your awareness as you breathe, put your hand on your lower back and concentrate on the pressure of your hand against your spine.
When you breathe into your spine, you’ll likely start to feel more solid and grounded, and less easily affected by others’ judgments and negativity. In fact, you may even start to recognize that many of the comments by others you may have been interpreting as critical actually weren’t intended that way at all. Most importantly, when you’re fully feeling the back of your body, you’re less likely to regress into trying to please others or escape in a confronting situation.
3. Practice Slowing Down. This is probably the most obvious solution I’ll talk about here, but it’s one few of us are actually willing to try. When someone says something to you, and you feel the urge to respond quickly and perhaps defend yourself, practice pausing, taking a breath, consciously choosing whether to answer, and—if you decide to reply—choosing what you’re going to say.
In the past, when you’ve felt this need to respond as quickly as possible, you may have been—at least unconsciously—afraid that you’d be physically hurt in some way if you didn’t reply, or replied too slowly. By consciously delaying your response, breathing, and choosing how to react, you can prove to yourself that you’ll survive unharmed if you don’t give into that urge. When you know this on a deep, visceral level, the urgent need to reply will fade away and be replaced by peace.
This can help you overcome the anxieties you may have around interacting with people and have you feel more comfortable and in control. As psychologist Richard H. Pfeiffer writes in the Real Solution Assertiveness Workbook, “the urgency to fix a problem too quickly is usually the result of anxiety. You don’t need to respond immediately to every problem or have an instant answer whenever your partner raises an issue.”
If trying this technique feels too scary, or you find it hard to remember to apply it during your conversations, I’d recommend starting small by practicing “slowing down” in interactions where the stakes don’t feel so high to you. For example, you might practice taking a breath and collecting your thoughts when a waiter asks what you want to order, or when a clerk at a store asks what you want to buy. Over time, you can start using this technique in situations that may feel less comfortable for you, such as when a loved one is accusing you of making a mistake.
Once I’d used these techniques for a while, I started noticing an interesting paradox. We tend to assume, consciously or otherwise, that we have to be constantly prepared to defend ourselves to make sure we can “hold our own” in a confronting situation. However, the more I let go of my fear of being unable to defend myself in a verbal confrontation, the easier communication with others became, even in what most people would see as “difficult” conversations. The more we let our guard down, the less hostile and threatening, and the more welcoming, the world appears.
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