Martin Lyden, Ph.D.
The Center for the Disabled
This is the third installment in a series of articles. People who work with challenging persons are often the targets of verbal abuse. If staff are too thin-skinned their job performance and peace of mind will be impaired. It is useful to learn how to be thick-skinned in response to verbal abuse. Two strategies for dealing with verbal abuse are presented in detail: meditation and disputing self-defeating thoughts.
Strategies for dealing with verbal nastiness
Meditation involves intentional attention to a selected focus (Borysenko & Borysenko, 1994). Possibilities for the selected focus include the breath, a sound or mantra, and a visual image. The description of meditation herein will utilize the breath as the focus.
An important question to consider is "why meditate?". In brief, the long term use of daily meditation can enable a person to increasingly come to terms with what life presents. One of the most challenging things that life presents to us is anguish or suffering. Anguish can be a reaction to verbal nastiness. Therefore meditation can help a person maintain an emotional even keel when targeted by abuse. Meditation fosters steadfastness, equanimity, and peace of mind in the face of whatever comes one's way. The ability of the mind to focus attention is strengthened through meditation.
Despite what some literature may suggest (Gampopa, 1998), very few people frequently experience bliss, or concentration that excludes most distractions, while meditating.
The word attention is preferable to the word concentration because concentration implies something rigid and excluding. When one concentrates one fixes one's mind rigidly and exclusively on one thing, and disregards anything else that may be going on. After a while this gets tiring and difficult to maintain. Attention is lighter and more panoramic than concentration. When one attends to something there is no effort to hold the mind only on that and exclude all else (Nairn, 2000).
Meditation is not aversive. Daily meditation can be compared to daily jogging. Both require discipline and effort. Neither is inherently pleasurable. Meditation fosters mental health and jogging can enhance physical health.
Meditation promotes increased awareness of thoughts and feelings. It also develops increased ability to be a witness of thoughts and feelings, along with awareness of their ephemeral and insubstantial nature. Four valuable experiential learnings available through meditation are that: 1. one is not his thoughts; 2. thoughts have no objective reality, and some thoughts may not be valid; 3. thoughts are neither bad nor good; and 4. one has a choice about how to react to thoughts. Failure to accept the validity of any of these four learnings can result in anguish. For example, if a person erroneously thinks and believes "I am thoroughly incompetent" he is likely to feel distress. A person who thinks "I am a bad person because I feel X (e.g., anger)" will be unhappy.
Through meditation a person can become a more non-judgmental observer of his own thoughts and feelings. As discussed in Part I of this series of articles, non-judgmental observing or witnessing of unpleasant thoughts and feelings makes them more tolerable and more transient.
Someone who is unaware of his thoughts will still be influenced by them. A thought may not be valid, yet it can affect emotions and decisions. A thought cannot be critically evaluated or disputed if its presence is not detected. Feelings that are repressed, or not acknowledged, cannot be dealt with in healthy ways. Meditation can clarify thoughts and feelings at increasingly deep levels; and the clarification enables a person to accept and deal with what is there. An analogy may be useful. A person who has sickness goes to a physician. If the physician does not accept the fact that the person has sickness he will not carefully examine a patient to identify what is wrong. Also, there probably will not be a correct diagnosis or effective treatment (Nairn, 2000).
Other potential benefits of long term use of daily meditation are improved physical health (e.g., reduction in stress-related disorders such as hypertension and irritable bowel syndrome), decreased suffering due to physical pain, decreased anxiety, and increased self acceptance (Borysenko & Borysenko, 1994).
During meditation one attends to what happens in the mind without altering the main focus of attention or evaluating or reacting to what else is noticed. If a deer is focused on searching for food, it also notices non-food stimuli (e.g., the odor or sight of other animals). Although the deer notices non-food stimuli, it maintains primary attention on the food search.
Meditation is not focused on self-improvement. It's about accepting who we are already. One of the valuable learnings available through meditation is noticing how we regularly flee from the present moment, how we avoid being present just as we are.
People who have regularly practiced meditation and mindfulness for years will usually agree that when things were at their worst, that they could not imagine what they would have done without the practice (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).
Through meditation one may see that he does all those things for which he criticizes others whom he dislikes, all those people that he judges. Basically, befriending one's self is befriending all those people too, because when one develops this kind of humility, gentleness, and benevolence, combined with clarity about
one's self, it is easier to feel loving-kindness for others as well. One's true nature is not an ideal to be lived up to. It is who is in the present, and that is who one can make friends with and celebrate (Chödrön, 1996). Although it can be unpleasant, it is very beneficial to stop fooling, or hiding from, one's self. It is healing to know the ways that one is self-deceptive, the ways that one hides from self, the ways that one denies, closes off, and criticizes others. One can know all that with some humor and compassion for self. Compassion for others starts with kindness to one's self.
There is a common self-defeating belief that it is always best to try to avoid discomfort and pursue comfort. If one is committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as one meets the least beginning of discomfort, he will flee; and he will never know what may be beyond that particular obstacle or feared thing (Chödrön, 1996). Without awareness of irritation, of self-absorption, or boredom, or any other self-defeating mind state that can arise and take over, one strengthens those neural pathways in the central nervous system that underlie one's conditioning and mindlessness. Without meditation it is difficult to disentangle one's self from such self-defeating patterns (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).
Meditation is not achievement oriented. Efforts to gain or change something will result in inner conflict and tension. Instead it is a process of letting the mind's busy thinking and agitation come to rest, or slow down, of its own accord. It is important to accept all thoughts and feelings without trying to react to what is there.
Proper posture is the first step when doing sitting meditation. There are two elements to posture, physical and mental.
The correct physical posture is sitting with the spine relatively straight and the body erect and comfortable. Correct any slouching by imagining the sense of being suspended by a string. If possible sit in the full lotus posture, a position that few people know about and even fewer can do, on a thick cushion positioned on a mat. Sitting on a thick cushion minimizes or eliminates a need to exert effort to avoid falling backwards. Depending on one's physical limitations, there are alternative postures that may be used. For example, sit on a thick cushion with legs folded and knees on a mat or sit in a chair leaning against the back. Place the hands bent into soft and gentle fists with palms down on the knees and the arms straight. While keeping the head erect, gaze in an unfocused manner down to an area a few feet out from the legs. The tongue should rest against the upper palate; and pull the chin back slightly, as if to make a double chin. Breathe normally. (Karthar, 1992).
In meditation one notices the air entering through the nostrils and filling the lungs. The temperature sensations of the outer parts of the nostrils during in-breaths can be compared to those during out-breaths. During the out-breath the sensations of air leaving the lungs and exiting through the nostrils are warmer than those of air entering nostrils during the in-breath. Other things that the meditator can become aware of are the pauses between the in- and out-breaths and the movements of the chest and abdomen. A variation on this technique is to only focus on the out-breath; and to count the out-breaths in groups of four - "4 - 3 - 2 - 1" (Borysenko & Borysenko, 1994). .
Distracting thoughts and feelings are an inevitable and important part of the meditation experience. When the meditator becomes aware of a distracting thought a useful response is to label it "thinking" and return the attention to the breath. If a meditator becomes lost in a daydream he is no longer meditating because he does not know what is happening. In contrast a meditator who is aware of being drawn toward a daydream, but consciously refocuses on the breath, is still meditating. Labeling the distracting thought as "thinking" increases the precision of self-awareness that meditation develops. Even if the distraction involves awareness of physical discomfort, the sensations of discomfort are worth observing and not reacting to immediately. The tendency to be reactive, whereby one loses balance, is a useful ally and teacher as one observes the tendency and thereby becomes more self-aware. Distractions, even in the form of physical discomfort, help one to develop increased concentration and calmness. It is not necessary to allow the physical discomfort to escalate into pain; but it is useful to observe the discomfort beyond the point where one would ordinarily react to it.
The distractions in meditation can be compared to a puppy that repeatedly tries to walk away from where its master wants it to be. The master gently pulls the puppy back to the desired location every time it wanders off. If the puppy tries to wander off 1,000 times, the master gently pulls it back 1,000 times. In meditation one observes the impulses and thoughts that come into the mind. Instead of letting the mind flit uncontrollably from one thought to another, the meditator gently brings attention back to watching the breath. Bringing the attention back is not a struggle or an exercise in self-criticism; but it does require patience as well as a non-judgmental posture. The meditator practices accepting each moment as it is rather than reacting to how it is (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). The mind thereby learns to be less reactive and more stable.
A common misunderstanding is that a meditation is "bad" if there are a lot of distractions and "good" if there are few. Actually a "good" meditation is one in which the meditator is aware of his thoughts and feelings and responds to them with awareness and acceptance; and in response repeatedly returns attention to the breath.
It is best to routinely schedule a set time for meditation. In the beginning the total time in meditation could be fifteen to twenty minutes. This could be broken up into sessions of five or ten minutes. The total time in meditation should be extended gradually, e.g., by five minutes per week, until a full hour is reached.
Most major cities in the U.S.A. have Buddhist Centers or other resources for teaching people to meditate. Often there is no cost involved.
Disputing self-defeating thoughts
In response to abusive treatment received from a consumer, a staff member may get stuck in self-defeating, brooding, awfulizing, and pessimistic obsessing (e.g., "I can't stand this", "I take this to heart and feel very bad", "This crap puts me over the edge and interferes with my duties"). These thought patterns often may contain elements of self-condemnation or self-berating (e.g., "I am worthless", "I don't have what it takes to handle this stuff", "I'm always the target of this kind of nastiness"). This preoccupation makes it difficult for a staff member to refocus on important and pressing matters.
It is important to realize that our thoughts influence our feelings. Therefore it is very valuable to be aware of our thoughts and feelings. Usually we become aware of an unpleasant feeling before we notice the thoughts that drive the feeling.
It is desirable for staff to be able to dispute or counter false beliefs or self-statements (Cooper, 2000). For example, the thought "I am worthless" could be countered by such self-talk as "What is the evidence that I am worthless?". The thought "I can't stand this." can be disputed with "I have been standing it; and there probably are ways I can learn to tolerate it better." Shifting attention elsewhere, ignoring certain images, and focusing on emotionally neutral or emotionally pleasant images can also be very useful (Sharoff, 2002). Rather than dwelling and ruminating on another's nasty behavior one can re-deploy attention to more important issues and tasks.
Common types of self-defeating thinking
There are some common types of self-defeating thinking that staff may get caught up in. Self-defeating thinking can lead to such unpleasant emotions as anger, resentment, discouragement, and frustration. Five categories of self-defeating thinking are blaming, demanding approval, equating incompetence with lack of self-worth, catastrophizing, and overgeneralizing. Details are contained in the paragraphs that follow.
1. Blaming: It is not useful to believe that one should blame himself or others for wrongdoing. Examples of blaming self-talk follow: "It's all my fault", "It's all his fault", and "He was wrong to do that and should be punished". Blaming can result in irritability, depression, and inertia. Punishing self or others for mistakes does not help prevent future mistakes. After wrongdoing (e.g., verbal abuse) occurs the most important question to focus on is "What is the most practical thing to do now?" (Ellis, 1977).
2. Demanding approval: Believing that one must be approved of, or liked by, everyone is a mistake. One does not have to feel unhappy or worthless in the face of verbal abuse. Most unhappiness results from irrational beliefs (Ellis, 1977). It is not events that make one unhappy. Rather it is one's thoughts about the events that make one unhappy. Many a person erroneous thinks that another has "made me feel" upset. Misery that one experiences in response to another's nastiness is self-generated. It is probably due to believing that one's worth depends on receiving approval from the other person.
3. Equating incompetence with lack of self-worth: It is self-defeating to think that one is worthless if he is incompetent in any way. To demand perfection in self or another is a recipe for anxiety and unhappiness. By focusing on trivial details and missing the most important aspects of a situation, the perfectionist makes himself and those around him uncomfortable. An example of a perfectionistic thought is "People must behave in the exact manner specified or I will be very upset".
4. Catastrophizing: Believing that it is catastrophic when things are not as one wants is self-defeating. It is due to the tendency to try to control the uncontrollable, and to think that people and events "should be", "must be", or "have to be", certain ways. It is more useful to regard undesirable occurrences as unfortunate rather than unbearable, as inconvenient rather than terrible. Catastrophizing involves exaggerating how "terrible" or "awful" things are. Examples of self-defeating catastrophic thoughts follow: "this job is terrible" and "I can't stand this nastiness".
5. Overgeneralizing: Overgeneralizing, or extreme thinking, is another common self-defeating thought pattern. This includes labeling persons or situations in extreme and absolutistic ways. It is a tendency to go beyond the facts, and to make thinks worse than they are. Examples include: "He always treats me badly", "My supervisor is
never fair", "My whole day is messed up", "This job is terrible", "My supervisor is a jerk", and "These consumers are impossible to work with".
Ways to dispute self-defeating thinking
Some coping self-statements that help to counteract the various types of self-defeating thinking follow.
1. Instead of blaming be open to mitigating circumstances or to reframing. A common error is to attribute an unpleasant situation to another's motives without giving due consideration to external factors. The reverse situation of attributing responsibility to external factors alone, and disallowing factors internal to another person, can be a mistake. It is often a mistake to blame someone for causing an undesirable situation, without considering mitigating factors (Sharoff, 2002). For example, "maybe they didn't know any better", "I may not have all the facts", "what is the evidence that the other person deserves 100% of the blame?", "blaming does not contribute to resolving the difficulty", "what factors outside of me and the other person could have contributed to the unpleasant situation?", "what else and who else should share in the blame?", and "what can I do to make things better?".
2. Coping thoughts can be antidotes to thinking that disapproval is terrible. Examples follow: "I did what was right; and he has a right to a different opinion.", "that is the old me. I know that I don't need everyone's approval.", "this is a self-defeating thought.", "that is irrational.", "I have to tolerate disapproval because that's part of life", "I can't please everyone", "disapproval feels unpleasant, but I can handle it", "get my mind elsewhere; and don't obsess about the disapproval", and "disagreement does not equal rejection."
3. Recognize that perfectionism is a recipe for unhappiness. Realize that it is more important to focus on the big goals for which there is social consensus rather than on arbitrary and nit-picking little stuff. Be satisfied with your best efforts. The serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous contains a lot of wisdom. It is better to accept what is beyond one's control and to focus one's efforts where they can make a difference. Examples of anti-perfectionist self-statements include "it's OK to be imperfect ", "that thinking is just a bad habit", "I'm making problems for myself", "there are lots of good things about me", "every person fails to achieve some goals he wants - that's life", "look at how I succeeded in other situations", etc.
4. Few situations warrant catastrophic thinking and the consequent emotional dyscontrol. After taking a dispassionate stance about what is viewed as "catastrophic", data can be examined to determine the likelihood of the feared consequence. Evidence can be gathered to evaluate whether the feared consequence is as bad as it first seemed to be. Solutions can be generated to prevent, or to deal with, the feared difficulty (Sharoff, 2002). It can be helpful to de-catastrophize with such self-statements as "I'm catastrophizing", "I'm being overly dramatic; and it is self-defeating", "I'm getting myself needlessly upset by thinking in this way", "exaggeration only makes me feel worse", "what's so terrible about this situation?", "it's better to view this as a problem to be solved, rather than a personal threat" (Meichenbaum, 2003), and "thinking in this way hinders me from acting effectively".
5. Rather than black-white /either-or thinking recognize that most situations are somewhere between extremes. Avoid exaggerated or overly pessimistic thinking. Increase objectivity by pretending to be a neutral person viewing the situation. Evaluate the available information as a jury member who gets evidence about both sides of an issue. De-emphasize making judgments, or being hypercritical, about a situation in favor of focusing on empirical observations. Examples include "there are parts of this job that I like, and some parts I dislike", "at times my supervisor is difficult", "it's rarely accurate to label things 'always' or 'never'", "focus on how to prevent this from reoccurring", "jumping to conclusions is usually a mistake", and "the consumers are unpleasant to work with at some times, but easy to work with at other times".
In the three installments of the How to be emotionally-thick skinned series a number of techniques and strategies were presented. It is a truism that no technique or strategy will work for everyone. A given person may find one or more specific techniques helpful; and different techniques may work better for another person. Also, an individual may get more benefit from a technique after adapting or modifying it in a particular way.
Any or all of the techniques and strategies that were presented require a gradual learning process in order to yield benefits. As in most learning processes there will be mistakes and clumsiness, particularly in the early stages of learning, as a person tries to use a technique. If the mistakes and clumsiness are framed as expected and desirable stepping stones along the path of acquiring valuable skills, the efforts to continue learning may not be abandoned.
There are many resources for building on the knowledge and skills identified in this series of articles. In addition to further readings, there are workshops, seminars, and hands-on training opportunities that can be accessed. There are local and national organizations (e.g., NADD, AAMR) that regularly sponsor conferences with training opportunities.
Borysenko, J. & Borysenko, M. (1994). The power of the mind to heal, Carson, CA: Hay House.
Chödrön, P. (1996). Awakening loving-kindness, Boston: Shambhala.
Chödrön, P. (1994). Start where you are, Boston: Shambhala.
Cooper, S. (2000). Sticks and stones, New York: Times Books.
Ellis, A. (1977). How to live with - and without - anger, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Gampopa ( 1998). The jewel ornament of liberation, Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living, New York: Dell Publishing.
Kabat-Zinn, J.(2005). Coming to our senses, New York: Hyperion.
Karthar, Khenpo. (1992). Dharma paths, Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion.
Meichenbaum, D. (2003). A clinical handbook/practical therapist manual, Clearwater, FL: Institute Press.
Nairn, R. (2000). What is meditation, Boston: Shambhala.
For further information:
Martin Lyden, Ph.D.
Director of the Psychology Department
The Center for the Disabled
3 Cedar Street Extension
Cohoes, NY 12047
Phone (518) 880 1860