Other people can send us negative, hurtful, or demeaning “invitations” to feel badly about ourselves, but it’s up to us to decide whether or not we’ll accept those kinds of invitations.
In my career as a therapist, many people have told me how certain people in their lives made them feel badly about themselves — people who made them feel stupid; people who made them feel incompetent; and in the case of those manipulative types skilled in the art of “gaslighting,” people who even made them feel crazy. In counseling, I would strive to make the point that no one actually has the power to make you feel or believe anything. It’s like Eleanor Roosevelt once so wisely stated: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” By this she meant that we always play a role in taking toxic messages to heart. The principle is simple: while others certainly have the power to send us negative, hurtful, or demeaning “invitations,” it’s up to us to decide whether or not we’ll accept these invitations. There are some invitations we would certainly do better to respectfully decline. But just how to go about doing that is often a mystery.
Some toxic invitations are harder than others for many of us to reject or decline. Sometimes we may struggle with inner fears or insecurities that make it all too easy to believe the negative or demeaning messages someone sends our way, perhaps because we actually entertain some of the same thoughts ourselves. If the person we’re dealing with just happens to be skilled in manipulation or displays a certain confidence in their convictions, there’s an even greater chance we’ll too easily consent when they send us an invitation to demean or condemn ourselves. So I’ve always advised my clients not to focus so much on the invitations they’re sent or even on the person sending them, but rather on what’s going on inside them that makes them prone to accepting such an invitation. Knowing how you really feel about yourself is a major step toward gaining the strength to disregard or dismiss the toxic invitation of another.
I like to keep things simple and straightforward in my clinical work. That’s partly because people often come into therapy with multiple issues and agendas, and you can get pretty tangled up in a variety of concerns and go nowhere fast in treatment if you try to address everything all at once. It’s best to clear the air and separate out the really important issues and focus on them like a laser beam to start. And in sifting through the many issues of couples having relationship problems, it often becomes clear that one party is succumbing to what they perceive as the negative invitations of the other. So the advice is simple for the recipient of toxic invitations: every time you hear that little knock on the door to your heart and someone seems to be inviting you to the most dreadful self-image destroying party you can imagine, simply decline the invitation. As the late former first lady Nancy Reagan once advised young people offered drugs by their friends: just say “no.” And after you’ve declined the invitation to feel badly, give yourself one heck of an internal self-affirmation. Saying “no” to negative invitations is definitely one behavior pattern you want to strengthen, and no behavior is ever strengthened or made more likely to repeat unless it’s reinforced. A little self-affirmation for declining toxic invitations goes a long way.
I know the advice to decline toxic invitations seems trite and maybe overly simplistic. But the principle behind it is powerful and requires no embellishment. Recognize the the toxic invitation and respectfully decline it. Then, give yourself credit, a solid pat on the back for doing so. This is the principle of covert self-reinforcement, which I’ve written about before (see “Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement”). I can’t tell you how many folks I know who’ve turned around some really bad situations by just remembering and implementing the simple rule outlined above. Try it yourself some time. In fact, do it as often as you can. Don’t discount the importance of your self-affirmation for turning down a toxic invitation. Reinforcement is perhaps the most crucial component of cognitive-behavioral therapy — a component even therapists who claim to practice CBT sometimes forget. It’s also a key ingredient to developing and strengthening new, positive habits, such as the habit of declining negative invitations. Over time and with proper self-endorsement, your new habit will become second nature. Inevitably you’ll come to realize how little power someone else has over you until you consent to let their perspective dominate. As Roosevelt argued years ago, you have to consent to someone’s invitation to think less of yourself, and that’s precisely how you end up feeling inferior.
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