The How Are You, Really, Checkup
Symptoms: You feel unworthy and inept, unequal to the tasks before you.
Cause: Someone who constantly chips away at your self-esteem.
Remedy: Defuse the "invalidator."
"Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre observed. Whether he was feeling particularly dyspeptic that day or had just been to a dreadful dinner party, history does not record. But perhaps he'd have enjoyed talking to Jay Carter.
Carter has spent much of his career helping people deal with what he calls invalidators—the relatives, lovers, bosses, and so-called friends who put us down or intimidate us. Like any good philosopher, Carter knows that the real problems—and solutions—lie within. "You can't change the other person," he says. "You can only change yourself, and you can also change the relationship. Sometimes when you change the relationship, the other person changes."
If you can't simply walk away from the invalidator, Carter has a few techniques worth a shot. Confronting your antagonist is one option—and you don't have to be all that aggressive. "A long pause or a knowing smile, resting your chin in your hand or leaning forward slightly, can let her know she'd better not mess with you," he writes in Nasty People. Or you can refuse to play along with hardball tactics. If your husband says, "Choose between your career and me," try saying, "I'm not choosing." The choice then becomes his, and the game is over.
The most surprising technique that Carter touts is nurturing the other person. This is best used in a nonintimate relationship that neither of you can avoid—say, with a hostile coworker or a querulous in-law. Show affinity, he advises, acknowledge the other person's feelings, and find something to admire. "It's the very thing you don't feel like doing," Carter says, but studies show abusive people were usually abused or neglected themselves. Sometimes they soak up any sign of caring. "It goes against the grain, but it does work." You need to use this approach judiciously, though. While it's okay to nurture, you don't want to reward bad behavior.
Condition #5: Blah