Marsha braced herself for the next family gathering because the last one was a complete disaster. She had been away from her family for a couple of years due to her expanding business and wanted to reintegrate. She looked forward to seeing her family and having them see her as an adult and not the child who left. But the harder she tried, the worse things got. She left feeling inferior, defenseless, deflated, and angry from their cutting comments, rude remarks, and bullying behavior.
This year was going to be different. Marsha was determined to not let her family control how she responded. Last year, she failed miserably as she allowed her anger to get the best of her. She regretted her remarks spoken in frustration. So she picked the worse of their behaviors: silent treatment, biting sarcasm, talking over, name calling and twisting the truth, examined them, and came up with alternative responses.
- Silent Treatment: This is a particularity frustrating situation in which her uncle attempted to aggravate Marsha by not talking or giving one-word responses to her open-ended questions. It is a form of control done to force a negative reaction from Marsha. Last year, Marsha responded by filling in the silence with unnecessary chatter, becoming visibly angry, and eventually verbally attacking. Meanwhile, her uncle sat back with a smirk on his face saying, “What did I do, I was just minding myself and she came after me.”
- Alternative: A better solution is to become comfortable with the silence. Marsha decided to match the silence with silence and turn her attention towards others for more engaging conversation. If she was alone with him, she would use the alternative strategy of talking out loud in a conversational manner. When the silent treatment no longer has the desired effect, her uncle will stop doing it.
- Biting Sarcasm: Sarcasm is a form of passive-aggressive anger. Marsha’s brother, Tom, usually follows it up by saying, “I was only joking,” as if the hurtful comment is somehow made less painful by claiming that is was a joke. Then Marsha feels stuck. If she responds to the sarcasm and ignores the joking statement, then Marsha looks like they can’t take a joke. If instead, Marsha minimizes the pain of the comment, it grows like a mold and usually ends up in an explosion later on Tom later.
- Alternative: Since past behavior is indicative of future behavior, Marsha used Tom’s past insults as practice for what to say in response. Usually, a snappy response is a good way to deflect sarcasm especially when it is used as a form of bullying. An example after the joking comment is, “Oh, I glad you said it was a joke. Normally good humor doesn’t need an explanation.”
- Talking Over: Instead of waiting for Marsha to finish what she was saying, her mother interrupts. This is done for two reasons. When her mother completes Marsha’s thought, she is trying to get to the point first as a way to demonstrate that she is smarter or a better communicator. Or her mother might interrupt and change the topic of conversation. This is done to subtly send a message that Marsha’s comments are insignificant and not worthy of being discussed. In either case, Marsha shuts down, becomes frustrated, and storms off.
- Alternative: Marsha needed to stop believing the interruption is evidence that Marsha is not interesting or doing something wrong. Instead, Marsha viewed this as a problem for her mother. The next time it happened, Marsha paused when interrupted, then picked back up where she left off her mother was done speaking. Marsha did this often enough that her mother stopped interrupting because it doesn’t have the desired effect.
- Name Calling: Sadly, this tactic is not just reserved for children, adults do this as well. Marsha’s sister used an inflammatory name to marginalize Marsha. It is a basic bullying technique that is so childlike it often catches adults off guard. Marsha was so shocked by the name calling that she lost the point of the discussion, become defensive, and even struck back to even the score. This gave her sister the upper hand because she used the poor reaction to say that Marsha was too sensitive and takes things personally.
- Alternative: Again, Marsha used the past behavior of her sister as an indicator of the type of name calling that she might do in the future. Regardless of her sister’s charming nature, Marsha viewed her as a grown-up child who is going to say inappropriate things. This changes the shock factor. When Marsha is no longer shocked by her sister’s rude comment, it is much easier to deflect it by completely ignoring it or thanking her for the backhanded compliment. The goal is to not match name calling with more name calling.
- Twisting the Truth: In an effort to gain the attention of others, Marsha’s dad mixes a story with a bit of truth and a lot of exaggeration. This is done in front of Marsha who knows the accuracy of the story. When Marsha attempts to correct the errors, her dad says Marsha is ruining his good story and usually makes some type of defamatory remark. The grandiose nature of her dad’s comments are done to make him look superior and others appear inferior.
- Alternative: Instead of trying to correct the exaggerations, Marsha chose to focus on the big picture and not the details. “Wow, that’s a great piece of fiction you just spun, you should write it down, you could make money off that story.” This comment puts the entirety of the story into question and disarmed her dad.
These alternatives worked for Marsha as she felt more in control of her responses and less reactionary. This made the family gathering more enjoyable and far less confrontational.