Some time ago, I experienced a personal attack. It arrived in the form of a letter written by another psychologist. The psychologist believed I had spoken badly of them and their letter contained accusations and judgements about my character and professionalism. My hand trembled with shock as I read the letter. Why would someone send me such an aggressive letter?
One of the upsides of being a clinical psychologist is that you learn from helping others how to deal with similar situations that may crop up in your own life. I knew from clinical experience, that even though the attack shook me, this letter said more about the letter writers emotional needs than it said about me as a person. I also knew that the letter required a careful and considered response. I wanted my response to be a reflection of my values, rather than a reaction to the attack.
When we feel attacked, we often experience an instinct to attack back to defend ourselves. However, attacking back generally does little more than solidifying the attackers view of us as a person. It can also lead to regret if you behave in a way which is inconsistent with your values.
Another common response is to ignore the attack and refuse to dignify the accusations. At times this is the best course of action, however, it can leadyou to wonder if the attacker may think that your silenceacknowledgesguilt or the truth of the allegation.
These tips can help you calmly respond to a personal attack:
Try not take the attack personally. Try to detach yourself, recognizing the attack as more about the attackers emotional needs and communication skills. The attack is not a reflection on you.
Detach from the need to have everyones positive regard. Accepting that not everyone will like or value you all the time is helpful as it will free you from needing the attacker to think well of you. This helps if you know who you are and can see yourself and your values clearly.
Accept that it is normal to be angry when you are personally attacked. Its what you do with your anger that counts and it will be the anger that will allow you to act and move forward.
Acknowledge any feelings of shame the attack may have created. Feelings of shame can occur even if there is no truth in the attackers claims. Shame can make you want to hide and avoid dealing with the personal attack whether the attackers words are true or not.
Ask yourself why you feel so bad about what the attacker is saying about you if underneath the hurtful communication lies some truths, is it something you can live with or something you would like to change not for their benefit, but for yours. If its not true either let it go or work out a plan to move forward. Either way, by taking the shame head on, you will learn that it does not need to control you.
Check in with Your Values. Personal attacks may cause you to question your values. You may feel shame, pain, anxiety and rejection. Reacting in this space may see you take actions that are not consistent with your values, and end up confirming the perspective of the attacker. Instead, use this experience to solidify your values and recommit yourself, to become that much stronger in what you believe. This will ultimately make it much less likely to be shaken from your values
Review values-guided actions you regularly undertake. Connecting your values to concrete acts that you can point to as evidence for yourself when needed, and for everyone else. Its the difference between saying, Im a helpful person, and actually being helpful by assisting others, helping a neighbour out etc. So when someone attacks you, you can find all the things that you have done and will continue to do and you wont need to fight back because your actions speak for you, and you have nothing to prove.
How did I respond to the personal attack? I showed the letter and discussed my shocked response with trusted colleagues. I reviewed what I knew about my general character and demeanour. I then wrote a short and kindly worded letter in response indicating that I felt there was another explanation possible andoffered to meet and discuss further.
Did I hope the letter writer would retract their accusations or even apologize? Yes. Did it happen? No. To this day I don’t understand why the person chose to send me the letter. I am at peace with that though because I know I responded in a way which was consistent with my values.
The personal attack made me stronger and to my surprise, I am now grateful that it happened. Something I could never imagine the day the letter showed up on my desk.
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