It comes out of the blue—a catty remark, a veiled put-down, a blatant backstab. So, what's the best defense against wolves in sheep's clothing?
Near the top of my list of annoyances—right there under people who leave really long voice mails but don't give a callback number—is a mega-peeve: Engaging in catfights. I don't even like to think about them, so please allow me to boil my last near-rumble-in-the-ring down to short scenes. First: I find myself utterly bored, so I start a book club with friends. After three sessions of patchy participation, I throw out provocative questions just to crank up the debate. A week later, reports hit the girl-gossip chain that I'm a know-it-all who should be "dethroned." I realize whose campaign this is (she and I have history) and chuck it in the bin marked: Ignore This. Until the meeting when, as I'm exiting my living room to refill the bowl of stale popcorn, Suspect Number One says (she thinks out of earshot), "Yes, please go—we could use one less smart-ass in the world." I turn back and am greeted by silence and a row of red faces. Later—remember, I'll do anything to ward off a Thrilla in Manila—I corner the attacker with a kill-'em-with-kindness question: "Is my sense right that there's an issue between us?" After 23 seconds of squirming, she comes close to an apology. She never shows up in the club—or my life—again.

An attack by any other name would smell as putrid: a backstab, a dis, a verbal snipe, an outright attempt by an enemy to remove your head. Whatever its label, the aim is quick and dirty; you look down to discover a slow leak of blood forming a red pool at your feet. You may know the assailant well. You may not. She could be a longtime pal who is suddenly threatened by your recent weight loss, a colleague who is sure you've duped her out of a lucrative promotion, or a parent who is envious of how well your hubby communicates with you (who wouldn't be jealous of that?). The insults can be forthright or veiled: an eye roll when your head is turned, a "joke" that bites you in the butt, a word of humiliation in front of your boss. You know, you know: It's not personal—it's the attacker's problem. But understanding that your foe never made therapy her priority doesn't mean you shouldn't draw up a plan of defense, and fast.

Next: What's driving all that hostility?


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