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.