The Comeback Kid: How to Handle Verbal Attacks

“Don’t worry, hon,” said Theresa’s husband, Guy, when she failed to extinguish all her birthday candles in one breath. “A woman your age has to be in shape to make wishes come true. You just don’t have the lung capacity.” Guy chortled. Theresa’s face turned scarlet. The rest of us chuckled nervously. We were used to Guy, to the jocular way he planted and twisted stilettos between his wife’s ribs. Like most of Theresa’s friends, I’d always found him just charming enough to be tolerable. But as I watched him serve Theresa’s cake, something dawned on me: Guy was a mean person. He’d intentionally humiliated his wife, and he did such things often. It was like that moment in a horror movie when you understand that the rogue car, rather than simply straying off course, is actively pursuing children and puppies.

I recall an urge to kick Guy in the throat, which I controlled by reminding myself that it was both illegal and difficult to pull off in heels. I was studying karate at the time, and though it didn’t occur to me then, I would eventually realize that the basic principles taught at my dojo could be used to fight evil not just in action but in conversation as well. I think of it as martial arts of the mind, and if you’re subject to subtle stabs, deliberate snubs, or cutting remarks, you might find these techniques an effective defense against the Guys of your world.

Principle 1: Find Your Fighting Stance

Every form of martial arts requires a fighting stance that’s fluid, flexible, and centered. Standing this way makes you much less likely to lose your balance, and if someone jumps you, you can quickly duck or dodge in any direction without falling.

Physical fighting stances involve balance, alignment, weight distribution, and posture. A psychological fighting stance is all about emotional balance: self-acceptance, abiding by your own moral code (something you’re probably doing anyway), forgiving yourself for failing to reach perfection (this is rarer), and, finally, offering yourself as much compassion as you’d give a beloved friend (I suspect some of us need work in this department). Simply put, you must never be mean to yourself.

This works because cruelty, to be effective, has to land on a welcoming spot in the victim’s belief system. Guy mocked Theresa’s age and lack of physical fitness because he knew she hated those things about herself. If she hadn’t already believed his insults, they would have left her feeling puzzled but not devastated—the way I was when I learned that calling someone a “turtle’s egg” is a horrific insult in China. She would have seen Guy as the pathetic head case he was. And that may have led her to our second principle.

Principle 2: Practice the Art of Invisibility

I once purchased a book that promised to teach the ninja’s fabled “art of invisibility.” I was crestfallen to read that the first step in a technique called vanishing was “Wait until your opponent is asleep.” The whole book was like that: Get your enemy drunk, throw dust in his eyes, thump him on the head with a wok, then tiptoe away, forever. Well, I could’ve told you that.

Nevertheless, I recommend these ninja techniques for dealing with mean people. Get away from them, full stop. Sound extreme? It’s not. Cruelty, whether physical or emotional, isn’t normal. It may signal what psychologists call the dark triad of psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian personality disorders. One out of about every 25 individuals has an antisocial personality disorder. Their prognosis for recovery is zero, their potential for hurting you about 100 percent. So don’t assume that a vicious person just had a difficult childhood or a terrible day; most people with awful childhoods end up being empathetic, and most people, even on their worst days, don’t seek satisfaction by inflicting pain. When you witness evil, if only the tawdry evil of a conversational stiletto twist, use your ninjutsu. Wait for a distraction, then disappear.

“But,” you may be thinking, “what if you’re stuck with a mean family member, co-worker, or neighbor? What’s poor Theresa supposed to do?” Well, Grasshopper, that’s when the martial arts of the mind really come in handy.

Principle 3: Master Defensive Techniques

All martial arts teach strategies to deflect different attacks. For instance, I was taught to defend against a lapel grab with a punching combination called Crouching Falcon, follow that with a multiple-kick series known as Returning Viper, and finish with the charmingly titled technique Die Forever. (I prefer my own techniques, such as Silent Sea Slug, which entails lying down and hoping things improve, or Disgruntled Panda, which is mostly curling up and refusing to mate.)

I also learned this closely guarded martial arts secret: Although there are countless techniques, most fighters need only a few. For instance, judo star Ronda Rousey has clobbered numberless opponents using the Arm Bar technique. Her opponents know she’s going to do it, but that doesn’t keep her from snapping their elbows like dry spaghetti. Each good technique goes a long, long way. The following are a few that I highly recommend, in order of degree of difficulty.

Yellow Belt Technique: Trumpet Melodiously

I’m a lifelong fan of “Japlish,” English prose translated from the Japanese by someone whose sole qualification is owning a Japanese-to-English dictionary. One classic Japlish instruction, which I picked up from a car rental company, advised: “When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.”

I borrowed the phrase “trumpet him melodiously” for your first anti-meanness technique. It’s meant to nip hurtful behavior in the bud. Use it when someone—say a small child or an engineer—makes a remark that may or may not be intentionally cruel: “You smell like medicine,” “I can see through your pants,” “Why don’t you have a neck?”… You can trumpet him melodiously by saying, “Hey, dude, that’s kind of mean. Back off, okay?” If the behavior continues, tootle him with vigor by saying, “I’m serious. You’re out of line. Stop it.”

Practice these lines until you’re saying them in your sleep, with clear delivery, calm energy. Then, when you use them in real life, a normal person will react by immediately ceasing all hurtful behavior, and even mean people will be taken aback by your directness. They may even begin to behave themselves. Mission accomplished.

Brown Belt Technique: Zig-Zig

As a martial artist, you’ll need to get used to doing the opposite of whatever your enemies expect. For example, if someone were to push you backward, you might push back for a few seconds, then abruptly reverse, and pull your assailant in the direction he’s pushing. He’d be toppled by his own momentum.

This is zig-zigging. It works beautifully on mean people. They expect a fight-or-flight reaction from their victims—either angry pushback or slinking away. The one thing they don’t anticipate is relaxed discernment. Scuttle their plans by zigging instead of zagging, cheerfully accepting any accurate statement they might make while ignoring their malicious energy.

You can observe this technique in the movie Spanglish, when a young wife, played by Téa Leoni, lashes out at her mother, “You were an alcoholic and wildly promiscuous woman during my formative years, so I’m in this fix because of you!” As the mother, Cloris Leachman nods and says pleasantly, “You have a solid point, dear. But right now the lessons of my life are coming in handy for you.” This response stops the daughter cold, partly because it’s true and partly because it contains not a whiff of pushback. The mother zigs when the daughter expects her to zag. The result is peace.

Black Belt Anti-Meanness Technique: Wicked-Kind Parent

If you keep a balanced stance and surround yourself with normal people, you’ll eventually master the black belt skill I’ve named Wicked-Kind Parent. Mean people are adept at adopting the tone of a critical parent, making others unconsciously regress into weak, worried children. To use this defense, refuse to be infantilized. Instead, use the only thing that trumps the emotional power of a bad parent: the emotional power of a good one. This is what happened at Theresa’s birthday party. As Guy served cake and cruelty, Theresa’s older sister Wendy spoke up.

“Now, Guy,” she said, in precisely the tone Supernanny uses with kids on TV, “that kind of petty meanness doesn’t become you. Show us all you can do better.” Guy tried to laugh, but a glance around the room silenced him. Wendy had called on her good-parent energy to tap a great resource: normal people. Kind people. Outplayed and outnumbered, Guy slunk away, leaving Theresa to enjoy her birthday. This is virtually always the outcome when a mental martial artist encounters a Mean Guy. If you choose the way of the warrior, it will happen for you.

Principle 4: Walk the Way of the Warrior

Being a martial artist is a way of life. You can’t use your skills in an emergency unless you practice them every day. And such daily practice may lead to unexpected adventures. You’ll no longer watch helplessly as some Mean Guy emotionally abuses his wife—even if you happen to be the wife in question. Where your prewarrior self would’ve simply wilted, your warrior self will speak up or, if you’re the wife, walk away.

This may require drastic changes in your life. Are you ready for that? Well, you are if meanness has pushed you to the point of anger or despair. You are if you want to be the change you wish to see in the world. You can begin today. Adopt the stance of dauntless self-acceptance, avoid combat when possible, and practice your techniques until they become second nature. Though it might be helpful to remember that it really does help to wait until your opponent is asleep.

29 replies
  1. Cecilia
    Cecilia says:

    Thank you for this Martha! The term gaslighting has shown up several times today and this post seems to fit right in. There’s a good Huffington Post article about it where the author describes gaslighting as:

    “a term often used by mental health professionals (I am not one) to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.”

    As women we always think we can change men so to read these words of yours, “One out of about every 25 individuals has an antisocial personality disorder. Their prognosis for recovery is zero, their potential for hurting you about 100 percent.”, was quite eye opening.

    I can see that to really master these techniques you need to be really strong in your belly, just like in real martial arts. 😉


    • Jane Lee Logan
      Jane Lee Logan says:

      Cecillia, I can’t belieeeve you’re commenting about gaslighting! You must have been writing your comment at the same time I was as I didn’t see any other comments when I first read this post but felt moved to check back just now. ( Read my comment below.) “Gaslighting” is an unfortunate new term in my vocabulary as it is a technique often associated with sociopaths.

      • Marcia H. Harkins
        Marcia H. Harkins says:

        Astonishingly helpful. Wish I had mastered these concepts before my elder daughter’s last visit. I still feel thrown under the bus.

  2. Jane Lee Logan
    Jane Lee Logan says:

    Great post! Suddenly there are all these martial arts metaphors in my life…hmmm.

    I had to recently karate chop a relationship that, unbeknownst to me was with a sociopath. In retrospect, I see that I had no reference point for sociopaths (otherwise know as very talented con artist’s, completely lacking in empathy, and pathological liars, or for short, major sleazebags) so I didn’t see it coming. I knew nothing of their unconscionable ways prior to this and after trying everything, I eventually landed on the “art of invisibility” tactic and chopped my way outta there.

    I will tell you one thing: being around a pathological liar who is very intelligent and charming and that you don’t KNOW is a pathological liar, is like being in the “Trust Your Intuition” Olympics! I wouldn’t recommend this form of training but I wouldn’t trade the result! It truly brought me psychic levels!

  3. Mary
    Mary says:

    This is soooooooo helpful. Difficult to communicate without stooping to their level so i don’t say a word. Reading Finding Your North Star is refreshing in many ways. I totally relate to the starving crocodile mother. I do feel so bad for her since she’s apparently totally unconscious. She’s completely blocked everything out and even had electric shock treatments due to SEVERE depression several years ago. (when i’ve tried to talk about her childhood she says it was wonderful, but everyone of the questions in book shows extreme resultant problems for both of us) My brother told me (I was in Alaska fortunately during that grueling time of the depression) they actually remove emotional experiences from her brain through shock treatment. So in a case like that, of course i really can’t hold her responsible but it sure is difficult to deal with. These are tools that will at least let her know the rules have changed! THANK YOU you’re brilliant! She’s living in such pain but doesn’t admit it or even realize that she is or the effect she’s had on my sisters and me. (Both of her remaining sons are of course perfectly perfect – the middle son has been gone for years; now i’m even more in the role of black sheep) you are a blessing to humanity.

  4. LouAnn Clark
    LouAnn Clark says:

    Thank you for posting this in time for me to get back into fighting form before the family holiday jousting matches begin. I do practice, regularly, but it is always good to get a refresher course. The disarming technique of zig-zig should prove particularly useful.

  5. Amanda Taylor
    Amanda Taylor says:

    Today at work a male colleague made a nasty comment to me, it wasnt the first time this had happened. The irony is we work in a school and he is a head of a year group, having to deal with bullying and bad behaviour from the students but does not examine his own behaviour. I was sat here deciding how to deal with this as I feel that I cannot let it go, when quite by chance I stumbled upon Martha’s words of wisdom! I was supposed to see this and be reminded, to thy self be true! I now know what to say and to not feel intimidated or bullied thank-you Martha

  6. Leah*+*
    Leah*+* says:

    Hi Martha: )

    What a funny & fantastic article specially time for me! Love it when that happens. I teach at an all girls private school (sometimes I feel like I’m Julia Robert’s character in Mona Lisa Smile) when Tamar, a 12 grade “genius” in my class sighs or reminds me: “Your the teacher!” when I ask what kind of classroom culture are we wanting to co-create? Thank you Tamar, you’re right; still I’d appreciate your input. That’s important to me. )

    Love you Martha*!* : )

  7. Mariam
    Mariam says:

    This is a great post. Simply wonderful. This is by far the best piece of advice to implement. Thank you Martha. I am currently reading “Steering by Starlight”. A joy to read. Truly a book that has the ability to change lives!!! Thank you!

  8. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Hi Martha,
    All correlates back to using your true instinct to act & do like you said the “opposite of what they expect”
    That tug of war match they want to indulge you in.
    Just let go!! ;oD
    Thank you for the refresher

  9. Anne Lawlor
    Anne Lawlor says:

    …mmm…the Dalai Lama reputedly has said that he thinks that ‘western women will save the world’. Am guessing here that the vast majority of martha’s followers are women…mmm…translating into a vast army of emotionally spiritual warriors?

  10. C.Wrenn
    C.Wrenn says:

    Timely and wise! Wow. Thank you. Angelically sent to me for Christmas, in fact. Never doubt your connection to the Great Spirit, my friend.

  11. Marina
    Marina says:

    Martha, I’ve been reading your books and articles for years and by now I am used to your genius insights. But what still takes me by surprise and amazes me over and over again is your brilliant humor, that unmistakably causes that real hearty, deep, long and loud laughter – it feels like a real medicine, an amazing release. I am so thankful to have experienced it now! Thank you and Love You,

  12. Sylvia
    Sylvia says:

    Like Jane Lee, I too am often startled by pathological sociopaths as I don’t have a lot of experience with them (not to be confused with Chronic Abusers or Nutjob Fakers, both with which I am entirely too familiar).

    I work in higher ed, a relative bastion of absurdity, and work with a pathological liar with nasty tendencies. A bit higher on the food chain than I, she shrinks like a thirsty flower in the sun when I refuse to engage her.

    You know you’re doing something right when gently letting go of a passive-aggressive interaction makes the perpetrator seethe. Is that zigging or zagging, do ya’ think? 🙂

  13. elizbeth mwale pemba
    elizbeth mwale pemba says:

    Dear Martha Iam glad for your insight and counsel regarding passive and aggressive interaction.I learnt some thing from your guidance,because being an honest and humble character by nature I sometimes get shocked at the conduct of such charachters,that I shut down and present with itchy pins and needles under my feet.A sure sign that I cannot cope with nasty people.For example I cannot stand a manipulator nor a sarcastic person who regularly put others down.Does it mean I give people permission to abuse me.

  14. R Reed
    R Reed says:

    Boy I got blindsided by this a couple of days ago…a stinging criticism that was like a slap across the face & sent me back to feelings I had in kindergarten when another girl chastised me for saying something…simply SAYING something in fun. I was FIVE and she stung me enough that I still remember the feeling. It came zinging right back and I cowered…then felt shaky all day. AND this was not something of an important nature…dust on baseboards..literally and I was leveled. I have faced so many larger and complex problems in my life and to be reduced to jello over this was a wake-up call. Must learn to zag, on my feet and be prepared in case I get sucker punched again. And this person seems pretty facile with this ability…:// Thanks so much !

  15. Sarina Sorrenti
    Sarina Sorrenti says:

    Hi Martha
    As a fellow budding martial artist I agree with your wise words. Training and practice are core to martial arts and to life, the more we practice our self defence the better we will be able to unconsciously react in the moment to protect ourselves and minimise harm to others.

  16. Laura
    Laura says:

    While still in a thirty-plus years of an extremely toxic relationship, in 2009 I started to train in martial arts, American Jiu Jitsu, traditional japanese techniques applied to self-defense. The more I trained the more my husband would hate the good it would do to me, until he imposed that I stopped. I did for a while; and abuse intensified (not physical but nonetheless damaging) and escalated to a point where – finally – I packed my bags and left. It was either that or being crushed like the walls, floor and ceiling closing on to me. Now in the middle of a high conflict divorce, I have support from my family and friends, I have my work, but also from my training on the mat.
    Training helps me find my core, my ground, helps me face my fears; and as I am turning 55, it is also a healthy challenge. This is quite a journey. I know my training is one of the elements that help me get stronger, as I am now fighting for my children.

    • Carrie
      Carrie says:


      Thank you for sharing this. I have been married for 27 years and feel like dense puppet for not seeing my husband’s behavior for what it has been since the beginning. I always thought that if he “meant well,” I should still believe in him. My subconscious always knew I was dying, but I had convinced myself (with his help) I was flawed (having come from a dysfunctional family).

      Twenty-seven years! I’ve just this week made the move to 1) confront him and set my boundaries, and then 2) leave, after he would not respect them. He wants to “talk” and “share” about our process of healing for reconciliation. I want nothing to do with him.

      At 48 years old, I’m terrified of having to figure out how to support myself again all by myself. And I’m brokenhearted that my kids still at home can’t understand why I had to leave. To them, it appears I’m not “working on it.”

      What is funny about what you wrote is that I started cycling about six years ago–something he has done our whole marriage. He thought I’d finally found a way to wholly admire him and share his world. Ironically, as I conquered ever-increasingly difficult climbs and mileage, I felt empowered to accomplish more than I thought I could. I found my strength to leave doing what he loves most. I get a little sick satisfaction from that. 🙂

      All that to say, thank you for sharing a bit of your journey. CS

  17. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I am a karate mom of a 12 year old female brown belt, and a 15 year old male Shodon-Ho, a “half-black” belt on his final journey to his black belt.

    I love your analogy and will share this not only with my kids, but our Shihan as well!

    Thank you . . .

  18. Tara
    Tara says:

    I’m in a verbally and emotionally abusive marriage. My husband wants to leave me but is willing to go to some counseling first.

    I’m looking for ways to deal with his behavior and the way he treats me. I like what I’ve read here, but I’m not quite sure how to apply it to our interactions.

    I suspect he is a narcissist who doesn’t feel empathy for others. He routinely accuses me of bizarre things he makes up in his head, he denies yelling at me or blaming me, and he now expects me to be happy and calm soon after he’s emotionally shredded me and announced his intention to leave me.

    How do I use these techniques when I feel like turning into a puddle of tears every time I’m near him?

  19. Carol
    Carol says:

    “Smile, you’re on candid camera!” (to a verbally abusive bus driver caught on his own surveillance camera!)

  20. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    This is such great advice. I’m often caught off-guard when someone says something overtly or covertly cruel. Covert cruelty often takes me hours or even days to even identify…at the moment I just know I feel bad for some reason. On the other hand, overt cruelty , while easily identified, is so shocking I am often stunned…

    A challenge for me would be to practice being a verbal “martial artist” as advised here AND to be relaxed and open at the same time. If one is always on guard, it’s hard to be open and hence vulnerable.

    I think one has to learn who the toxic people are in your life, and find ways to minimize contact. Surround yourself with supportive people you can trust, and shun the others. You can be open and vulnerable with those you trust, forming real human connections.

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