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Best Way To Be "Assertive": Fun Ways to Deal with Passive-Aggressive Bullies

Updated on May 7, 2020
Rosana Clarkson profile image

The following tips on emotional self-defense are not one-size-fits-all. Use only whatever works for you, and at your own discretion.

Creative Ways to Ward Off Negative People

I believe that haphephobic introverts like myself have long since learned to master state-wide/global quarantines into an art form; generally, I enjoy avoiding most people and being alone a lot anyway, since, as an empath, I find that most drain me, particularly in how much I constantly absorb the negative energies of others around me, and in how much responsibility I try to assume in carrying the burdens of those who are hurting, unable to bear seeing the pain of those who can't appear to bear such pain alone.

I believe it's a silver lining that has developed from my growing up as a battered child, which might have created my sensitivity to the feelings and pain that my fellow humans endure; it takes a toll on me to where I undergo frequent fainting spells and can sometimes barely even walk for days at a time; and so, keeping to myself as much as humanly possible is how I get my recharge energy...and, adding a quarter to my anger jar each time I want to punch my fist through somebody's Oscar the Grouch-looking face. I am sure if I keep this up, I might be able to retire by my 45th birthday.

So, I would say having empathetic ability for me has been both a blessing and a curse. This might be why in many ironic ways, and with all due respect to those negatively affected by the Corona crisis, I have found this weird situation a reprieve.

How Social Distancing Has Personally Benefited Me

Amongst the benefits I have enjoyed from our forced isolation appear to be cheap gas, my fave restaurants now deliver, and I can let my depression show without denying it during day-to-day interactions. It's nice to indulge in wallowing in self-pity sometimes.

I am also not expected to shake hands which I have always viewed as a pretty dumb social custom. Even worse, I have never been much of a huggy person so each time I see a "hugger" I tend to act as if I am busy/in a hurry, however I am pretty much okay with them waving at me or blowing me a "hug" instead of a kiss. I've taken quite a shine to this social distancing thing as I never liked being crowded by others anyway.

Being that schools are also closed and exams are being cancelled, I'm sure all this would have come in handy when I was still in college and failing all my subjects.

And the skies seem much clearer without anyone driving around. There seems to be about 50% less traffic on the road and most folks are no longer trying to stop for a quick chat with me, which I like. No religious evangelizers either, yippee.

Face masks also have finally provided me a way to hide a pimple on my nose without anyone thinking I'm even weirder than I am. And pre-C0VID-19, I always felt funny purchasing toilet paper in public, especially multiple rolls. ("Yeah, that's right everyone. I am going to wipe my BUTT with this stuff every time I POOP.") Now seeing how normal it is to see 'em flying off the shelves no longer makes me feel so weird about it.


Me, Running To the Toilet Paper Aisle:

I would say shorter lines and fewer customers at stores have been a great stress-reliever for me, courtesy of this strange new virus. As a female I always feel incredibly awkward about purchasing sanitary napkins if the clerk is male.

Additionally, I sometimes feel like I am insulting chickens when I buy eggs. If I buy chickens, well, they're already dead. No hard feelings there. But in buying eggs I feel like I'm preventing somebody's birth or something. It's why I'm relieved another Easter is behind me. And whenever I would buy junk food I always bought something healthy so it doesn't look like I have completely given up on life.

Not only groceries apply here, as some items are non-edible things I like; some of those things are hats and shirts with characters on them that are from a franchise aimed towards kids. When I was a teen, I would buy things like the novelized versions of X-Men and claim it was for my little cousin. When I bought classical music CD's I said they were for my grandmother. Whenever I purchase cheesy romantic novels from 1935 I try to compensate by hiding from behind a pair of sunglasses in the hopes that no one will recognize me and then when that doesn't work, I effect my best George Clooney or Tom Cruise impersonation, not realizing my goofy grin only belies my attempts at coolness. I then must resort to stating that I intend to read the books to residents at a retirement home in which I am performing mandatory community service.

Once, I was purchasing Pepto Bismol. I decided to buy other items I didn't need just so the medicine wasn't noticeable. When at the register, the bottle wouldn't scan. The clerk kept on yelling at me while holding it up for everyone to see, "Do you remember how much this was?" It was sooooooooo humiliating.

It's funny when I need just TP but then add something like ice cream on the way to check-out. Then I would realize what this looks like...TP + ice cream = lactose intolerant and irresponsible about it.

Of course, don't get me wrong. I know everyone is mostly too engrossed with their own shopping lists, that they don't really notice what other people are buying, unless you're an elderly lady getting 2-fifths of Jack Daniel's and then an LDS bishop walks by.

Logically, I know nobody cares, but anxiety doesn't care about shame. I might shop at 3 a.m. and use the self-checkout but feel like the person monitoring them is thinking, "Why is she buying all that stuff? Isn't her caboose already huge enough?" I then tie my jacket around my waist even in zero degree weather to hide my elephantine posterior but by the time I can hold my hand still enough to put my card in the chip reader, I've already realized too late that doing so only makes my butt appear even more gargantuan. All I can do is wish I lived where grocery delivery is an option. ("Why is that dude aiming his smartphone at me? I bet he is taking a photo and typing, 'Check out this magnificent photo of the Grand Canyon bro!'")

That aside, I've decided to get in the right frame of mind, set some goals and attack the week. So I play supermarket games by trying to pop the most mortifying items into my cart like incontinence pants, pregnancy test kits, head lice shampoo, personal lubricant, feminine itch cream, or OTT sweets or anchovies in marmite. Live dangerously people. And enjoy everybody's reactions.

Why Victims of Abuse are Never at Fault

Part of me is bored, of course, and missing my former bullies because of how much they remind me of cartoon characters and how much color and comedy their immaturity has added to my life. So if we ever get out of the woods here, I've come prepared with some strategies to deal with 'em next time around.

Self-defense classes often have this philosophy that in order to successfully deal with bullies/aggressive people, or to avoid becoming victimized, we need to look, act, and be tough to begin with; even though I believe there might be some merit to this belief, I am not entirely comfortable with the connotations behind it.

There is another myth going around that no one will love or respect you unless you love or respect yourself first. The often damaging fallacy behind this popular saying is that those who never had loving families, or who never had their basic emotional needs met as children, often struggle with self-acceptance, or have a more difficult time seeing themselves as lovable...and then having this type of a cliche thrown at them only gives them even more reasons to feel unwantable and unworthy. (The folks who say such things, and, possibly, whoever originated such a phrase, no doubt grew up in loving, nurturing homes).

Instinctively, I feel that the types of folks who judge you based on whether or not you like yourself are really just superficial and not people you want in your life anyway.

I recall back when I had formerly written for Canyon News, I had posted an article about a robbery victim, and then asked a spokesman for the police department in the area in which the incident occurred if he had suggestions/tips I could add to the article about avoiding becoming a robbery victim that might be helpful to readers.

"Passive people are much more often statistically victimized than assertive people are," he had stated.

Although the gentleman had other tips that I thought would benefit readers, and I did include them in the article, I decided, with all due respect to him, not to include his latter statement; even though I was certain he meant well, I was not comfortable with what was being implied. Subtle though it seemed, I felt that even though it is likely true that victims who appear to be passive are more often targeted, I still felt that to hint at anything that blames the victim is an idea that I would be irresponsible for supporting.

When it comes to victim-shaming theories, I've just about heard it all:

"Well, if you didn't go to that ATM machine so late at night..."

"Well, you knew better than to enter into a relationship with a known troublemaker."

"And it's your fault for staying with a known troublemaker..."

"If only you would walk, dress, and act like you have more confidence, then maybe people wouldn't pick on you so much."

"You knew better than to get into a car/apartment/hotel room with someone you barely know."

I am sure you can add to the list; and if you yourself may have been told such things after you were a victim of a serious crime, I well know your devastation, because I had been delivered such stupidity too. It is especially traumatic if the remarks are coming from someone you know well and trust.

The pressure society often imposes upon one needing to be the type no one can mess with has always felt a little overrated and disingenuous to me. It is often tricky to find that happy medium between brutal honesty and staying quiet/lying in order to spare feelings or to keep the peace, often at one's own expense. Especially on the spur of the moment.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to adopt an assertive persona to discourage bullies, only that having a less than confident demeanor is still no excuse for anyone to bully you.

Abuse is a willful decision on the part of the abuser and there is never an excuse for it. You are never responsible for what another person consciously chooses to say or do to you.

And then, there are my favorite types of bullies, the less overt ones; there are those instances in which you feel your abuser is simply being covertly hostile, by which I mean, happy-go-lucky to your face, while pushing your buttons and back-stabbing you all at the same time. At times, it can be difficult to discern if someone is giving you "constructive criticism" or being negative and rude in order to get a reaction from you. Sometimes, the person can be very manipulative and subtle with the language. They might seem like they want to be "helpful" but it just might not feel that way. They may call it constructive but you know it isn't and so do they.

But if they do it well, you can't really tell. This is called "passive-aggression". It usually shows up in the after-affects of a person's influence. Generally, it can be worse than simply being aggressively mean since it contains just as much negativity while also being shockingly unexpected because of the nice "mask" it wears, first disarming its intended victims before stabbing them in the back.

And then, of course, there is another alternative: posturing. It might not be "constructive" criticism or an attempt to demean you. Perhaps the critic is seeking admiration and standing from others in the room and you're just the unwitting basis for it.

To get an idea about the motives, look to what was said. Does it ring true? Is the critic authoritative, meaning, do they have the experience or the credentials to make the comments?

Again though, if they are really good at it, you might not be able to tell.

If it seems rude, it probably is. It is best not to ignore your instincts because how you feel is how you feel and it is for a reason. You cannot always tell, but how it makes you feel afterwards is always a good indication of the intent behind their words, along with whether they treat you the majority of the time is respectful or not.

In this article, I will address those situations in which a person is being more low-key about their bullying.

Examples of Passive-Aggression

At differing points in my life, I have encountered bullies, from my family, exes, co-workers, even from those in highly respected, responsible positions, such as therapists, religious leaders, police officers, etc. People bully on many varying levels, ranging from gaslighting to cover over a past wrongdoing or to get something needed from you, to even downright physical abuse.

Case in point: I am one of these folks whose parents verbally and physically abused me during my entire growing up. As soon as I was old enough to move out of the home, I told them, "'Bye-bye,' and never spoke to them ever again. Although few can pretend to know anything about being brought up under conditions as horrendous as the ones I was subjected to throughout my formative years, I will only say how great and self-empowering it feels to have successfully escaped the orbit of their influence.

However, for a long time, I myself often struggled with self-love until I met those rare gems who loved me until I learned to love myself, and began to recognize my own value; the ones who insinuated to me that I would never be seen as worthy until I acted like I was aware of my own worth are no longer in my life.

Regarding less flagrant forms of bullying, I usually just deal with it by completely distancing myself from the individual in question. The Internet, for example, can be a haven for all types of trolls; each time I might receive a hater comment, I find that the most powerful response I can give that person is simply no response. Ignoring bullies deflates them of power. Nothing seems to kill these losers more than for them to know that they are not getting to me.

However, there are also those instances in which ignoring someone is not an option, (at work, on a bus, waiting in a long line, in a stuck elevator).

As a long-standing Los Angeles resident, I think I am one of the folks who stick out like a sore thumb here, and because of that, don't really fit in anywhere; as I am Filipino on my mother's side and Caucasian on my father's, my ethnicity is never immediately discernible, and I have been believed to be pretty much everything under the sun; I don't know if anyone else of a mixed race can relate to this sort of thing or not, but I frequently get strangers cheerfully asking me, "What race/ethnicity/nationality are you?" like I am their bestest friend in the whole wide world.

It's one of the cons to looking racially ambiguous. It's hard to mingle. At the same time, different folks can relate to you if they mistake you for something else. If folks approach me speaking to me in Spanish, Italian, etc., when I tell them what I am they then move on to ask me why I am so tall, light-skinned, with lips even more grievously huge than my rear end, and so on. I gather folks are trying to make sure I am not an alien masquerading as a human. Maybe if they figure me out I might need to zap them with my lazer gun.

Once, when I was in a group counseling situation, the topic being discussed was "Embracing Your Racial Origins" or something along such lines. Immediately, I was the first person the group facilitator asked, well, fairly screamed at, "Rosana, what nationality are you?"

I knew he was only using the group session to prove that he could get somebody to talk or maybe to get information from me that he was just personally curious about. So I decided to knock him for a loop by politely declining to reveal my ethnic background; instead of moving on to the next group member, however, the counselor joyously demanded that I "not be ashamed" of what I was and then ran a list of guesses in front of the entire group. Although he was wildly off on all of 'em, I still refused to give him and the other group members the satisfaction they wanted; so I guess I failed the class.

I regularly deal with aggressive panhandlers as well. I don't get why, as I doubt I look that rich, but it happens more often than not.

When I was younger and more naive and gullible I used to be generous with hand-outs, buying the homeless food at Del Taco and Popeye's and such. I believe the last time I did anything like that was more than 10 years ago, when I bought a woman a combo meal at McDonald's; instead of thanking me, she asked me if I could provide her the change I received after I completed the purchase, and then acted offended when I said no. Life pretty much changed me to where everyone knows how mean I am now.

As I live in a big city, I deal with this sort of thing all the time, virus or no virus. If I am paranoid I have good reason to be. I might get folks cutting in front of me in line or in lanes and whereas a past version of me would have gotten all ghetto/old school on 'em, I now know from experience that the psychotic individuals I am surrounded by carry deadly weapons (whether or not with a license I am not clear) and know these people just aren't worth going to jail or a hospital over, especially with children and elders nearby. I have long since figured that since it is the type of thing I have little to no control over, I might as well have some light-hearted fun with all this.

Counter-Trolling Passive-Aggressive Bullies/Trolls

I will now broaden these issues a bit to how one can use communication skills to keep control in a situation in which another person is trying to control you.

A good example of a situation I feel I have really solved is the telemarketing call. I know right from the start that they are trying to sell me something, and, as a former telemarketer, I know telemarketers are trained to establish rapport with you and get you in the groove of saying "Yes" as they deliver their pitch, so that when they get to the selling part, they will by that point have made it difficult for you to say, "No."

I honestly was never able to develop the pushiness, cold heart, and thick skin my supervisors always pressured me to come up with. Even though I was able to fake it for a while, I feared I was becoming a heartless sociopath like the big sellers around me. It is why I was relieved to have eventually left that position.

So, naturally, no skilled salesperson will come right out and say, "Will you buy this?" So they try to control the situation by asking questions that you can only say yes to ("Don't you think it's a shame that children go to bed hungry?") or by not asking questions at all, so that you don't have an opportunity to say no ("I just need to confirm your address so we can start your free trial subscription.")

My tried-and-true solution to these situations is to say, "I'm going to turn you down" as soon as it is clear that the caller is selling something even though they haven't explicitly said so. It's a great phrase; you don't have to answer the question they've asked and you don't have to wait for them to ask a question. If they ask you "why" you are turning them down (which we were also trained to do), you can just say (again), "I'm just turning you down." You can keep this up indefinitely until they choose to end the call. I like this approach because it avoids confrontation and I can say it all with a huge smile on my face; but my point, related to the scenarios I described, is that I keep control of my part of the conversation and don't let them control me. However: "I used to be a telemarketer too, so..." is a line I can always use to shut 'em down immediately.

None of this is easy, of course. It works for telemarketers because they almost always use the same approach (described above) to control the conversation. And, of course, there is always the option of simply hanging up if they won't back down. You don't always have the same advantages in the in-person, social situations I mentioned.

The following deals a little more with these types of situations, so unless you're a professional moron like me, don't try this at home.

Up Close and Personal

In my case, the "What nationality..." question is a recurring and predictable one that I've found could be tackled by constructing a canned response that closes that particular line of questioning. I usually say something like "That's a mystery for the ages!" or "That's a long story" or "Estrogen-American" or "What will you pay me if I tell you?" or "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours" or "I don't think you would believe me" or "You'll regret it if I tell you" etc., and so forth.

For it to work, I deliver the line with an enormous smile and a friendly laugh, so that folks don't know that I am irritated and think that I "think" their question isn't serious. My communication task would be to make them think that they think they must have been joking, since they couldn't possibly have been serious in asking such a personal question of a total stranger, and so I am replying in a joking manner.

If I am feeling especially bored, I might just stuff something into my mouth and answer them but my response will become too muffled for them to understand. And then, after I have swallowed down whatever I am eating I might look away and add, as an afterthought, "Oh, [cough] and by the way [cough], did you know that your, [clears throat], fly is open?" Or something to that effect; and then if they demand in a fit of rage that I repeat what I said I might nonchalantly go, "I said my English is kinda broken. My original language makes it difficult for most to understand me." And then keep trolling along these lines. Even if they tell me my English sounds just perfectly fine. "Oh! my accent comes and goes." And the like.

I am not suggesting that these ideas are fully worked out or that I always think that I am going to be able to avoid all confrontation, but I figure the concept is worth a try. The goal here is to end the interaction on my terms, with the happy form of a simple situational joke between strangers, while I secretly and self-complacently know I have deflected an idiot question. And then, of course, I get to enjoy my private giggle-on at their expense later.

Aggressive panhandlers are tougher, and a similar situation in your locale might not be quite the same as in mine. I usually try (again, with a colossal smile), responding with a greeting suitable for casual acquaintances, such as in a simple "Hey there!" as I keep walking and flee away as if for dear life. (I thought of suggesting "Hey there; how's it going?" but if they actually decide to answer, that might not work. You could experiment).

If another panhandler might shout at me, "Excuse me!" I might deliberately and obviously misunderstand them by deeply and effusively apologizing to them for having the sheer audacity to be in their way, genuflecting, wishing blessings upon them, giving them a wide berth, and then, if I am in the mood for it, once again dashing away as if for dear life. Or, I might go, "Oh certainly Sir/Ma'am, you're excused, I am just so determined to be in your way today, aren't I? I apologize for having such deplorable manners, I didn't mean to keep you, you are certainly free to leave," etc., and so on, and then, once again, scrambling away as if legions of zombies are racing after me to devour my brain.

Your own bullying experiences might be different from mine. As I already mentioned, ignoring the bully whenever possible might be the most effective method, however, in those cases in which ignoring somebody is not feasible, you might try answering with something completely random and imbecilic in an attempt to baffle them, if you are in the mood to be a counter-troll, like I often am. Maybe they will leave you alone, or you will be the one who will scare them off, if they just think you are crazy:

"Did you remember to feed the horses today?"

"Why do people climb to the top of tall buildings and put money in binoculars to look at stuff on the freaking ground?"

"Grape fruit juice."

If you want to take it a step further with physical displays and demonstrations, try walking and talking backwards, reciting entire movie scripts, or leaving your smart phone off when you are using it, and then turning it back on when you are not.

For the situation of someone cutting in front of you, it strikes me that you don't need to say anything at all (assuming you are not going to pick a fight with a stranger over such a thing, that would be more relevant to the martial arts department, which we are not addressing here). But if others saw what happened, you could relieve your stress somewhat by catching the eye of the witness and smiling, shrugging, and rolling your eyes, as appropriate. One of my favorite lines for situations in which I might be caught up in heavy traffic in which a fellow motorist roars passed and zooms on ahead is, "Well, that's somebody I am glad to have in front of me where I am glad to keep an eye on him!"

Be Kind to Yourself First

It is essential to remind yourself that your feelings about yourself should not be derived primarily from the way you think you are dealing with obnoxious people. You need not try to beat others at their own game, especially abusers. Your best defense against toxic folks is to stay away from them and to allow yourself more opportunities, limited though they may be still, to meet kinder people. It took me some time to develop my own gracious style of defending myself. Perpetrators will never change their stripes, no matter how much more "aggressively" you defend yourself against them.

Good people are harder to find than bad people, but genuinely good-hearted people will not automatically tune into your weaknesses and immediately use them against you. I do not believe that everyone will bully or try to take advantage of you. It is just that sweet-natured ones are often shy and hold themselves back, too, which might be partly why they are somewhat harder to find.

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