Martha Beck shows how to handle passive-aggressive friends.
Illustration: Adam Simpson
"Don't worry, hon," said Theresa's husband, Guy, when she failed to extinguish all her birthday candles in one breath. "A woman your age has to be in shape to make wishes come true. You just don't have the lung capacity." Guy chortled. Theresa's face turned scarlet. The rest of us chuckled nervously. We were used to Guy, to the jocular way he planted and twisted stilettos between his wife's ribs. Like most of Theresa's friends, I'd always found him just charming enough to be tolerable. But as I watched him serve Theresa's cake, something dawned on me: Guy was a mean person. He'd intentionally humiliated his wife, and he did such things often. It was like that moment in a horror movie when you understand that the rogue car, rather than simply straying off course, is actively pursuing children and puppies.

I recall an urge to kick Guy in the throat, which I controlled by reminding myself that it was both illegal and difficult to pull off in heels. I was studying karate at the time, and though it didn't occur to me then, I would eventually realize that the basic principles taught at my dojo could be used to fight evil not just in action but in conversation as well. I think of it as martial arts of the mind, and if you're subject to subtle stabs, deliberate snubs, or cutting remarks, you might find these techniques an effective defense against the Guys of your world.

Principle 1: Find Your Fighting Stance
Every form of martial arts requires a fighting stance that's fluid, flexible, and centered. Standing this way makes you much less likely to lose your balance, and if someone jumps you, you can quickly duck or dodge in any direction without falling.

Physical fighting stances involve balance, alignment, weight distribution, and posture. A psychological fighting stance is all about emotional balance: self-acceptance, abiding by your own moral code (something you're probably doing anyway), forgiving yourself for failing to reach perfection (this is rarer), and, finally, offering yourself as much compassion as you'd give a beloved friend (I suspect some of us need work in this department). Simply put, you must never be mean to yourself.

This works because cruelty, to be effective, has to land on a welcoming spot in the victim's belief system. Guy mocked Theresa's age and lack of physical fitness because he knew she hated those things about herself. If she hadn't already believed his insults, they would have left her feeling puzzled but not devastated—the way I was when I learned that calling someone a "turtle's egg" is a horrific insult in China. She would have seen Guy as the pathetic head case he was. And that may have led her to our second principle.

Principle 2: Practice the Art of Invisibility
I once purchased a book that promised to teach the ninja's fabled "art of invisibility." I was crestfallen to read that the first step in a technique called vanishing was "Wait until your opponent is asleep." The whole book was like that: Get your enemy drunk, throw dust in his eyes, thump him on the head with a wok, then tiptoe away, forever. Well, I could've told you that.

Nevertheless, I recommend these ninja techniques for dealing with mean people. Get away from them, full stop. Sound extreme? It's not. Cruelty, whether physical or emotional, isn't normal. It may signal what psychologists call the dark triad of psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian personality disorders. One out of about every 25 individuals has an antisocial personality disorder. Their prognosis for recovery is zero, their potential for hurting you about 100 percent. So don't assume that a vicious person just had a difficult childhood or a terrible day; most people with awful childhoods end up being empathetic, and most people, even on their worst days, don't seek satisfaction by inflicting pain. When you witness evil, if only the tawdry evil of a conversational stiletto twist, use your ninjutsu. Wait for a distraction, then disappear.

"But," you may be thinking, "what if you're stuck with a mean family member, co-worker, or neighbor? What's poor Theresa supposed to do?" Well, Grasshopper, that's when the martial arts of the mind really come in handy.