Declining Toxic Invitations

I’ve been wanting to write this piece for quite some time.  That’s because I get hundreds of emails from folks who tell me things like: “My spouse always makes me feel like such a fool,” or “they always make me doubt myself or feel bad about myself.”  And every time I hear such things I’m reminded of the wonderful quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt:  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Such wisdom in a few choice words!  Eleanor is testifying to the fact that no one really has the power to “make” you feel or think a particular way.  Only you have that power.  But sometimes people can send us pretty powerful “invitations” – invitations that are toxic but are also, for various reasons, hard to dismiss or decline.   And the more skilled they are in the tactics of manipulation and the more confident they appear in their convictions when they send us their toxic invitations, the greater the chance we might actually “consent” or accept their interpretations of reality.  That’s why in my many years working with individuals in troubled relationships, I urged them to focus not so much on the many “invitations” they received from others (especially the negative and destructive invitations of their abusive relationship partner) but rather on what it is about them that makes them so prone to accepting such an invitation.

In my clinical work, I’ve always like to keep things simple and straightforward.  That’s because people often come into therapy with multiple issues and agendas.  And you can get pretty tangled up and go nowhere fast in treatment if you try to address everything at once.  Sometimes it’s really helpful to clear the air and separate out only a few really important issues and focus on them like a laser beam.  And I’ve known many persons who were struggling in dysfunctional relationships who chronically accepted many negative invitations from their partners.  So I’d make things simple:  every time you hear that little knock on the door in your head where someone’s inviting you to the most dreadful self-image-destroying party you can imagine, simply decline the invitation.  As 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 pat-on-the-back.  Reinforcement is always key to strengthening a behavior.  And saying “no” to negative invitations is definitely one behavior pattern you want to strengthen.

This is probably one of the shortest articles I’ve written, and it’s message is one of the simplest.  But it advances a most important principle, and one that really requires no embellishment.  Self-affirmation is not really rocket science.  But for various reasons, getting into the habit is not easy.  But I can’t tell you how many folks I know who’ve turned around some really bad situations just remembering the simple little rule of recognizing an politely declining toxic invitations.  Try it sometime.  In fact, do it as often as you can.  I’m certain you’ll find it a reliable and powerful tool.  And don’t discount the importance of the internal self-reinforcement for turning down the toxic invitation.  Reinforcement is the crucial behavioral component of cognitive-behavioral therapy – a component many therapists who claim to practice CBT often forget or ignore.  And it’s the key ingredient to developing a habit of declining negative invitations.  In time, with proper self-endorsement, your new habit will become second nature.  And inevitably you’ll come to realize how little power someone else has over you until you consent to let their perspective dominate.  For as Eleanor Roosevelt might well have agreed, you have to “consent” to someone taking the dominant position, and ultimately, that’s how you end up feeling inferior.

13 thoughts on “Declining Toxic Invitations

  1. Very timely for me.The party invitation analogy is helpful. I am going to use this on my neanderthal lady boss and some other throwbacks! Thank you.

  2. But But But!!! Wait a minute ! If someone you love speaks to you or treats you in an uncaring way, a hurtful abusive way, How can you just decline the invitation to feel hurt by hurtful behavior from someone you think you love? I’ve never understood this “no one can make you feel anything” concept.

    1. It’s simple. YOU own the feeling. That doesn’t exculpate the person doing the nasty thing from their part in the dynamic. It just means that you hurt because you love and want to believe and trust and when that yearning is betrayed or trampled upon, you hurt. That’s why it’s so important not only to OWN and RESPECT your feelings, but also to do something to appropriately care for yourself. While you may love the person doing the hurtful behavior, your first obligation is to love yourself. So when repeated toxic “invitations” are sent, you owe it to yourself to decline and take steps to ensure you’re better safeguarded in the future.

      1. Wow Dr. Simon………this could be a break through moment for me. I’ve never understood this. One question,,,,,,,in my personal situation, I believed him when he said he was sorry and I also believed that things would work out eventually, that there were misunderstandings that just needed to be worked through. I did now KNOW that he had nefarious intentions and that he only had ill will towards me and never meant the things he said to string me along.

        1. Next week’s post, which has already been written and is scheduled for publication this coming Friday will shed some additional light on this. It’s one thing to say you’re sorry, another thing to actually be sorrowful, and still a majorly different thing (and a rare but critical indication of character) when someone’s sorrow prompts them to take remedial action. Stay tuned!

          1. Well, I’m thinking, and forgot to include in my previous post, that the three most important words regarding all of this are from my favorite articles of yours……contrition, contrition, contrition! And all that Spathx did was pay lip service. NEVER once did he pull himself up by his own boot straps ON HIS OWN accord and actually Do something to remedy the mess that his destructive twisted self sowed in our relationshit. Of course now I strongly suspect that THAT was his intention for a good long time. LOOSER! Sick and twisted.

  3. J, Im reading the “Stalking The Soul” book right now and it’s dishearteningly familiar. I’m sorry that Dr. Simon is not familiar with it because i would love to hear his opinion. The one issue i have with it is that it is translated from French so small parts of it are a little strange to read but i strongly recommend it.

  4. I’m giving myself a big pat on the back right now. I’ve just maintained a lengthy dialogue with my husband where I constantly said to myself “I decline that invitation to …”(feel sorry for you, take the blame, feel guilty, get distracted etc). Well done me!

    I think we are making progress cos I keep throwing the ball back into his court as far as attitude and behaviour change is concerned. He now realises he has to listen and make long term changes if he wants our relationship to grow. I’ve said I’m not willing to live with a stagnant relationship where the only way for me to survive is to protect myself all the time. I want LIFE in all its fullness – love, respect, compassion, equality, space for both of us to grow. I’m saying that a lot so he’s having to take me seriously now.

    I’m also drawing his attention to my feelings as he tends to get caught up in his.

    I was even able to affirm his changes and encourage him to keep them up. I resisted being put on the defensive and kept things factual.

    ‘Fighting fair’ is something I’m concentrating on just now. There is a list in the ‘Character Disturbance’ book about fair vs aggressive fighting. That is helpful as my husband gives the impression all fighting is the same – he’s doing the same as me or I’m just joining him in fighting back. I’m realising our fighting motives and methods aren’t the same. I am now willing to fight (and not feel guilty about it) as I strive to fight fairly, for a just cause and healthy outcome, not just to win.

    I always feel wobbly after I’ve practiced some new way of relating, particularly with my husband. So I come to this site to remind myself what is reasonable and healthy and good.

    Thank you Dr Simon and all who post comments. And … “well done me!”


  5. Thanks for this blog post. One of my struggles for the last few years has been that I place a VERY high value on being open and listening to criticism of myself, and being self-critical. Part of my own definition of ‘good character’, if you will!
    And one of my pet hates is people who – even if not CD – are self-blind, don’t want to acknowledge faults and weaknesses and strive to overcome them.

    I learned the hard way that this in effect painted ‘SOFT TARGET’ on my forehead in invisible ink that probably every CD in a 25-mile radius could read. One of my very obvious vulnerabilities to manipulation then is for the CD to ‘give me feedback’…politely-phrased aggression, getting one-up, trying to undermine my confidence or authority (etc etc)in a manner that I was self-disabled from repudiating.

    I still struggle though because I place an even higher value now on self-critique and self-examination — for survival reasons! (Like being self-critical about my own vulnerabilities.)

    Any more light you want to shed would be most welcome, Dr. Simon and all of you great comment-buddies, on this paradox. Remaining appropriately self-protected to the ‘feedback’ or criticism from CDs while open and un-defensive about useful criticism. (Or: quickly spotting the difference between helpful feedback; unthinking criticism [the merely thoughtless person, not CD]; and sabotage!)

    Where I’ve got so far is — it’s about maintaining an ‘internal locus’ – an ‘internal locus of purpose’ (I have my own moral compass and mission-compass – not to be derailed); my own ‘internal locus of judgment’ – (I exercise my own judgment; does what they say chime with what I already know about my weaknesses, and give new insights? Does it ring true? — but this is not too reliable if I might ‘be in denial’ on that very point.)

    The problem is if you’re sensitive or indeed highly sensitive (I am) and have a background of high standards and perfectionism, even the gentlest, most well-meaning criticism never feels good so i’m less willing to trust my gut feeling ‘good or bad?’.

    If anyone else has some handy diagnostic tests I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience.

    Since I have a faith perspective, and a strong people-pleasing compulsion, I have two slogans in the meantime — ‘Who needs approval when I have unconditional love?’ and ‘If you need people, you can’t lead people.’

    1. I too am struggling with how do I trust my gut feelings. Though it’s more a case of when is it a gut instinct and when is it something else?

      It seems there can be two different reasons for feeling/thinking “I don’t feel comfortable with this”

      It seems it can be a ‘gut reaction – red flag, you’re in danger here’

      which needs to be treated differently from:

      “this feels very challenging and I don’t like what’s happening” sort of reaction which can happen simply when being challenged or when something I’m not confident of coping with is going on.

      I suppose realising there can different reasons behind feeling/thinking this is a start.

      I suppose we each need to develop for ourselves our own barometer or test. But, as Been There Often says, we may be defending ourselves from challenge and therefore blind to the true nature of the feeling/thought.

      If we are all capable of deceiving ourselves, how can we test ourselves reliably?!


    2. Hello, I have been working on this very thing for some time now. I think it’s all about boundaries. I look to Karla Mclaren for help here, also I got Somatic Experiencing treatment for my childhood trauma. I highly recommend you check out Karla’s website and/or fb page, and also look into Dr. Peter Levine’s trauma healing books, especially “In An Unspoken Voice”

      Anyhow, I view CD people as dangerous animals in the ecosystem of life, so I need to wear appropriate protective gear and establish a vermin-free perimeter. I don’t try to exterminate them, I just won’t invite them in. They are like vampires, they can only come in if you invite them. And once invited, they WILL suck your lifeblood. Vampires are very sexy and very idolized today, but I consider them to be nothing but vermin like fleas. I suppose they fulfill some karmic role in the cosmic ecosystem, but they’re not welcome in my house.

      Karla Mclaren wrote a very useful book called “Your Auras and Chakras: An Owner’s Manual”. She has since moved away from such new age terminology, but I found her “Gifts of Flowers” meditation incredibly potent.

    3. Been There Often… are almost painting a mirror image of me….in describing yourself. And your experience/s of being a self critical, perfectionist type personality is exactly that of mine. In conversation on this same subject, my mother recently reminded me that as far back as being a young boy (I have now almost reached my half century), I have fitted this personality type. I would add that I can mostly take well meaning criticism but can in the process tend to often over-analyse whether the critique was offered in the way I have interpreted…..or perhaps less or more so. Also, I do experience disappointment in not spotting the critique before noticed and/or communicated before AN Other individual (because I do not like letting people down – the archetypal ‘team’ player).

      Forgive me as I am unable to offer any solutions, other than for me personally, I try very hard not to take myself and my personal angst too overly-seriously. This helps me in that I will treat the comments of others, about me, hopefully in their rightful place – a sense of perspective…..if you see what I mean.

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