How to Defend Against Emotional Muggers

1334964_21004106My client Francine’s husband had started behaving oddly. “I’ll do something ordinary, like offer to check his e-mail for him, and he’ll react as if I’ve killed a child,” she said. Another client, Selma, was a sunny optimist—except when her sister Eve called to complain about life; by the time they hung up, Selma was always exhausted and depressed. Meanwhile, my friend Pamela was getting blindsided at a public-speaking workshop. “I gave a speech that went really well,” she told me, “and then this other woman got up and spent her whole speech mocking everything I’d done wrong.”

Let’s call it emotional mugging: You’re going along minding your own business, and suddenly, when you least expect it, you’re faced with a shocking attack on your mood or peace of mind. Being emotionally mugged can be crippling, but because the damage is so often invisible, few of us are ever taught self-defense. Time to change that. You’re probably aware that the Asian martial arts, with their deft approach to handling attack, are popular practices for warding off physical muggers. Well, karate-do (“the way of the empty hand”) and bushi-do(“the way of the warrior”) have a psychological equivalent I call emo-do (pronounced “ee-moh-doh”): the way of the emotional master. 

An Ounce of Prevention… 

Like all opportunistic criminals, emotional muggers target people who wander around bad neighborhoods. The best way to become a victim is to turn your own mind into such a place—a place filled with self-hatred, unfair criticism, and gloomy predictions. This kind of setting not only attracts muggers but can leave you so emotionally tapped out that you turn to psychological crime yourself. 

By contrast, those who follow emo-do create an inner space of clean, clear self-confidence. To cultivate such an environment, you must keep three brave commitments. First, vow never to deliberately create suffering for yourself or others. (If you can’t do this, count on being mugged frequently. There’s no honor among thieves.) Second, always own your mistakes and do your best to correct them. Third, forgive yourself when your best isn’t good enough. Keeping these commitments creates deep strength that scares off most emotional muggers. And should some misguided thug ambush you anyway, emo-do will help you launch a powerful defense.

If You Are Attacked 

My former karate teacher, Jay Cool (yes! really!), used to study muggers’ patterns to help develop counterattack strategies for the Phoenix police. “There are only so many ways to assault someone,” Jay says. “Every mugger uses some version of a few basic approaches.” This is also true of emotional attackers, and knowing their strategy helps you thwart them. Here are six types of emotional mugger—and, for each, the commensurate emo-do response.

1. Puppy Kickers 

The term sounds brutal, but most of us can understand it—because most of us have been perpetrators ourselves. Picture: The cat’s sick, your husband’s away, you didn’t sleep all night, and as you rush to get your 6-year-old ready for school, she tries to tell you something about her imaginary koala using whispered pig Latin, in which she is not remotely fluent. After five minutes of unintelligible babble, you hear yourself shout, “For God’s sake, talk like a normal person!” You’ve just emotionally mugged your own offspring. It feels, as Anne Lamott writes, like bitch-slapping ET. 

I’m not saying puppy kicking is okay because it’s common. But seeing it from the mugger’s perspective helps you mount an effective defense when you’re the kickee. 

Emo-Do Defense: Start by recognizing that the mugging isn’t about you; you just happened to be standing there, wagging your tail, when someone went temporarily insane. Try puppyish responses: Trot off and find another friend, or (if the mugger is a loved one) offer kindness. Say, “You seem really stressed. Can I help?” This can actually turn puppy kicking into gratitude. 

2. Exploding Doormats 

Cora’s assistant, Angie, had been glum all day. Trying to lighten the mood, Cora said, “You should leave early—there’s traffic.” 

“Leave early?” Angie shouted. “That would mean I have to do everything in even less time!” Then she stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

Angie is an exploding doormat. She doesn’t stand up for herself until her emotions reach a critical limit—at which point she goes postal with virtually no provocation. Exploding doormats are more harmful than puppy kickers because they harbor festering hostility toward their targets. 

Emo-Do Defense: Cora’s attempt to soothe Angie’s anger by being extra nice was manipulative, so it made things worse. The next day, she switched to open, frank discussion, which is all that’s necessary to keep doormats from detonating. “You seem so angry,” Cora said. “What’s really on your mind?” When Angie admitted she felt overworked, Cora realized she’d been taking the young woman’s quiet diligence for granted. Together they came up with ways for Angie to let Cora know her limits. Conflict solved.

3. Deflators 

When Kimberly told her mother she’d been promoted, the older woman sighed. “Well,” she said, “you’re going to have to work harder to prove you’re worth it.” Kimberly’s mother is a deflator, a person who sees virtue in pessimism. With one well-placed jab, she can let the air out of any good time, and make a bad time feel even worse. 

Emo-Do Defense: Deflators almost always have a history of feeling crushed. As such, they’re simply upholding tradition. Unlike puppy kickers or exploding doormats, they rarely respond well to discussion, so don’t bother. Instead, simply and cheerfully reject their pessimism. To the prediction that she’d have to work harder, Kimberly calmly responded, “No, I won’t.” Her mother had no choice but to slouch off with her dagger.

4. Secret Keepers 

Remember Francine, whose husband blew up over ordinary behavior? She later learned that he was having not one but several online affairs. No wonder he freaked when she tried to check his messages; cheaters, addicts, and liars attack people who threaten to stumble onto their misdeeds. This kind of mugging feels crazy and surreal. If you’re questioning your sanity after a surprise argument, you may be dealing with a secret keeper.

Emo-Do Defense: A secret keeper’s mugging leaves you with an icky sense that something’s wrong. Don’t jump to conclusions, but don’t ignore your instincts. (An emo-do master never keeps secrets from herself—for example, by going into denial.) Hold firm to your reality. Ask questions. If more violent attacks ensue, revise your trust levels and watch for more evidence.

5. Cannibals 

To be happy, each of us must create meaning and joy from the raw material of everyday life. This isn’t easy, so some people become cannibals, devouring the positive energy of others. Selma’s sister Eve is an example. She made a habit of calling Selma whenever she was miserable, off-loading her misery and draining Selma’s joy.

Emo-Do Defense: Don’t feed cannibals the patient, sorrowful consolation they expect. Selma eventually redefined her responsibilities as a supportive sister and began answering Eve’s complaints by saying, “You’re so resourceful—I know you can solve that problem!” Eve gagged on this response and went off to hunt tastier snacks.

6. Dementors 

The woman who publicly shamed Pamela after her speech was the most destructive kind of emotional mugger, the equivalent of a rapist: someone who gets off on causing pain. In Harry Potter’s world, such beings are called dementors. They are endlessly unhappy, addicted to the sense of control they get from violating others. They don’t care whom they hurt, as long as they hurt someone.

Emo-Do Defense: If someone attacks with no provocation and seems intent on inflicting maximum harm, you may be dealing with a truly disturbed person. First, eat some chocolate (any Harry Potter fan can tell you that). Then distance yourself in any way you can. This wasn’t a problem for Pamela—she was easily able to avoid her attacker—but may be daunting if you’ve got a dementor in the family or at work. If you can’t remove yourself from the relationship, at least keep your emotional distance. Don’t trust a dementor with your private thoughts. 

Staying away from dementors allows them to socially self-destruct—and they always do. Though onlookers may at first be too horror-stricken to come to your rescue, most people are appalled by dementors’ behavior. This is why cruel conversationalists ultimately end up friendless, and—on a much larger scale—why evils like prejudice and discrimination have slowly but surely become less acceptable in almost every human society. 

After an Assault 

No matter how well prepared you are, an emotional mugger may still catch you before you can defend yourself. In the short run, you’ll feel violated. In the long run, you can use the experience to become a stronger emo-do practitioner.

To start, dispense with any lingering nasty energy by recognizing that it probably belongs to the mugger, not you. If the negativity won’t dissipate, there are two possibilities: Either you really did provoke the attack, or you’re operating under the misconception that you deserved it. Return immediately to basic emo-do code: Stop causing suffering for yourself by thinking you deserved victimization; correct any behaviors that might have triggered the mugging; and, finally, forgive yourself for the whole misadventure. 

The way of emo-do is rigorous—and hugely rewarding. The more you follow it, the more muggers will avoid you. Instead of a target, you’ll become a walking haven, a place where emotional criminals rarely strike—and if they do, are swiftly rendered harmless. Plan to welcome many of us to walk with you, because that’s just the kind of neighborhood where most people want to live. 

33 replies
  1. Melanie Rittler
    Melanie Rittler says:

    Hi Martha,

    This article put a smile on my face. I am currently looking for strategies for just such “assaults” as you described above. I have a mentor, sistah-friend that I see once every couple of weeks. She and I talk a great deal about standing in one’s truth. Once you are comfortable knowing the core of your being, or character or dare I say…spirit…then emotional muggers behavior, words, sometimes just looks…have not power. I’m hoping to reach the space someday where I can instantly recognize it when it happens, and simply give an emo-do smile 🙂

    Hugs Martha!

  2. Juliana
    Juliana says:

    Loved the post. I’m happy to say that I walk in safer neighbourhood, but had no idea why. After reading your post I realized that I had done all that you had listed and moved to a much nicer neighbourhood. Now even if I do encounter a (rare) emotional mugger, they often walk off scratching their heads 🙂

  3. Karen
    Karen says:

    This is so helpful. When these types of assaults happen to me, my default is to believe the attacker. Intellectually, I know it can’t always be me, but it takes me awhile to break it down and figure out exactly what’s happening.

    This categorizing of emotional muggers will help me break it down much faster. I can already picture a couple of dementors and secret-keepers in my life.

    Thanks for the Emo-Do Defense Tactics!

  4. Asha
    Asha says:

    A wonderful article…There’s so much wisdom and light in your writing…reading an article of yours is a bit like sitting under a large shady tree with the wind rustling the leaves or like stepping into a zen garden. Thank you.

  5. Jean Mc Lean
    Jean Mc Lean says:

    Dear Martha and team what a truely insightful piece of writing this is. Working in an industry where ego is king there are “puppy kickers” and “expoding doormats” and of course “dementors” everywhere. How nice it was to get an e-mail that basically understands where you are at and can serve as a “tool in my hand” to fix the necessary breakages (within myself) and preserve my true innserself from some of these sometimes earth shattering attacks, and at the end of it all keep on smiling. Have an awesome day and keep up the good work. Hi ho Hi ho its off to life I go. Regards Jean (South Africa)

  6. Marie D'Amato
    Marie D'Amato says:

    Thank you for putting into perspective something that some who strive to excel above the ordinary encounter from those who interject their pessimistic damper on other people’s happiness

  7. Julia
    Julia says:

    My husband (soon to be ex) is a Secret Keeper and his new girlfriend that he lives with is a Dementor.

    I’m hoping to use these tactics!! Thank you…

  8. Tisha
    Tisha says:

    Wow, this was so interesting to read. I know I’ve experienced a lot of these types of emotional mugging in my life – especially Demoters and Deflators. Usually I can see things for what they really are, and I am able to emotionally distance myself from that person or situation, but sometimes it still hurts a little. So, I thought the last part was interesting, “Either you really did provoke the attack, or you’re operating under the misconception that you deserved it.” That’s something to think about.

    Thank you for such a great post!

  9. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    Thank you Martha. This is just what I needed to know. My 43-year old daughter likes to “Vent” to me and when I told her that it wasn’t healthy for ME to listen to it, she accused me of being a bad mother. Now I see that she is both a puppy-kicker and a cannibal and I intend to use these techniques to stop the mugging and to stop blaming myself.

  10. Kay
    Kay says:

    Great Blog. It’s left me with a stomach ache producing question though: what does one do if they realize that they are both the emotional mugger AND muggee?

  11. Jane
    Jane says:

    I had a feeling I needed to read your blog today and viola! Just the answer I was looking for. Found my self in a situation at work where the emo-do defense would have been pivotal.

    Will keep sharpening my technologies of magic so those situations will be a thing of the past.

    Thank you always Martha Beck

    • Editor
      Editor says:

      Hi Virginia! What do you think the difference is? It seems like a different perspective on the same idea or concept to me, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  12. Christine
    Christine says:

    Thank you, Martha. Your posts are always so helpful and I especially enjoyed this one.

    I wonder if you would consider this “cannibalistic” behavior: People who just steal your energy because they want so much more attention from you than you can give – whether sharing positive or negative things.

  13. Jen
    Jen says:

    This article made me want to cry. How about let’s react with LOVE instead of defense? Find a place of heartfelt empathy for others who are having trouble on this upside down planet (and who isn’t in some way?). Reach out and hold their hands and help create healing. In all humbleness, I’m sure there are 100 labels for each of us (including Martha) and of course some will be less than desirable since we are all human. Personally for me labels are illusion – in the way of the spiritual being that everyone is. See and connect to the spirit of others and they cannot give you anything to be defensive about. Release the energy of defense and rise above it. ♥♥♥

    • Diana
      Diana says:

      Yes! We will always have the current and the wind, but if we can rise above it we will find the calmness. Thank you for sharing this valuable insight.

    • Caroline
      Caroline says:

      Overall, Jen, your response is a positive one. Unfortunately, many people do not have the havingness to accept the love you have to give because of how they feel about themselves. Keep doing what you know is right.

  14. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    I’ve tried to read every word you’ve published, you’re that poignant for me… This was an extra-special gift… I’m learning… And this coaching re-helped at the perfect moment
    God keep blessing your path!! 🙂

  15. Patty
    Patty says:

    I have always felt as if I were the muggee, but now I am thinking I am a mugger. Specifically a Deflator! How do I change my behavior? I don’t want to be a mugger any more.

  16. Marcia
    Marcia says:

    Hi Martha,
    I always find your insight timely and spot on.
    When I was about 10 years old I remember a friend’s mom saying to me that I looked tired and asked me if I was sick. I recognized her behavior for what it was, a deflator. I was feeling fine. Having the ability to recognize those types of people has stood me well over the years. Now I work with children who do not have that ability and consquencly get squashed and hurt. I would love to be able to interpret your teaching to kids. I adapt what I can but at times I am met with blank stares. To be able to prevent harm is what I want to do with young people. Instead many times I get the walking wounded.

  17. Francine
    Francine says:

    Hi Martha, thank you for sharing an eye-opener post. Your blogs is somewhat an oasis for my thirst of wisdom and witty humour.

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