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First, though, a peek under the hood: What drives this kind of hostility? And what makes it escalate? Aaron Beck, MD, a psychiatrist and the author of Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, believes that people who are prone to attacking others—whether verbally or physically—regard life as a battle, often as a result of overcontrolling parents or other authority figures. They're continually mobilized to fight because of a pattern of perceiving belligerence in others' behavior, Beck writes. In essence, the antagonist concludes that everyone is seeking to oust or joust her—which is why she jumps for another's jugular before this "enemy" can take her down.

Jay Carter, the author of Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Stooping to Their Level, calls such attacks invalidations—a term he uses to describe any attempt to injure. "The invalidator has to control you because she sees you as superior," Carter says. "If someone is invalidating you, she has probably been invalidated in the past." About 1 percent of invalidators are complete psychopaths who might eventually resort to a violent rampage, he says, but far more typical is the person who uses verbal attacks to score ego points.

Let's say you have a pal who has seen you through weddings and divorces, Birkenstocks and Manolo Blahniks. For years, you've been trying to start a home business that finally jolts off the ground. She seems thrilled. Actually, she seems overly impressed: At every gathering, she feels compelled to announce you as "my friend, the brilliant entrepreneur" while slapping you on the back a tad too hard. You force a grin and thank her. A year later, as your venture continues to crank, you notice her daily phone calls drop to once a month—so you get in her face about it. "With your new business," she stammers, "I figure you're too busy to talk." You assure her you're not. You even hit the speed dial more often yourself, but when you get her on the line, she seems brusque and offers subtle criticism of your business. You finally point this out, and she retorts, "Everyone knows you've always been so full of yourself." Splat.

Carter explains this shot in the forehead is your friend's way of leveling the power in the friendship. Never mind her own remarkable career; you now have something she's craved since the day she became a single mother—a flexible schedule and more face time with the kids. Her bullet of choice: an unfair judgment meant to knock you back down to size. In doing this, she attacks your self-esteem instead of addressing what's really bothering her—or going after what she wants.

Carter says put-downs also come in the form of:
  • Cutting off communication (a friend asks how you're doing but interrupts before you can say)
  • Manipulation (a colleague "forgets" to inform you of an important new policy)
  • Rude comments that mask feelings the attacker is afraid to own ("After the meeting yesterday, everyone was saying how unprepared you sounded")

The smartest approach is to bring the conflict out into the open.

Next: How to confront the problem

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