Many people are not aware that the source of their current problem is the long-term effects from bullying. Eby is a perfect example. She came to counseling because of panic attacks that were often triggered in social situations and she worried constantly about what people might think about her. She had a particularly bad time recently when her mother-in-law insisted on seeing her grand children. This woman had told Edy in the past that she did not like her and that she wasn’t good enough for her son.
When Eby recalled the recent visit, the thoughts she had about herself were, I’m trapped and, No one cares about my feelings. But her turmoil went deeper. An inner voice was telling her she was unlikable and that she deserved to be judged. Eby was asked when this “inner bully” might have set up housekeeping in her mind. The logical assumption was during a difficult marriage to her first husband who physically abused her, but further probing led to a memory of being bullied on the bus. Three girls taunted her non-stop for the entire ride back and forth to school every day. She was told she was stupid, ugly and wore rotten clothes. They threatened to beat her up if they ran into her away from school. How did Eby respond? She sat in her seat passively looking out the bus window, enduring every word. Her inner bully now told her that those girls must have been right.
Inner bullies can goad non-stop with ruthless monologues, but they cannot run away. When Eby silently asked this picky part of her why the other kids on the bus or in school didn’t call her names, it was silent and the power shifted. I suggested she ask the inner bully if it wanted her to believe these school bus terrorists to keep her from getting angry and to avoid putting herself in danger. There was immediate agreement within. Eby could now think about the being bullied on the bus with zero distress. But the incident that caused the breach between her and her husband’s family produced visible angst.
It’s Never Too Late for a Cool Comeback
Eby’s husband and family were planning a visit to relatives up north. A non-refundable plane ticket had been purchased for her husband. Eby said, unfortunately, he could not go because she was about to give birth to her third child and have her tubes tied. Her husband would need to be at home to help with his newborn and the older children while she was recovering from surgery. She was promptly told she was a whiny controlling *itch who couldn’t even wipe her own bottom. Eby had two conflicting thoughts: (1) I was in the right for wanting my husband to be home, and (2) There must be something wrong with me because people are again calling me names. The disturbing scenario was replayed with Eby in the role of her sister-in-law (SIL) and the counselor portraying Eby:
SIL: You’re a whiny controlling *itch who can’t even wipe your own you-know-what!
Eby1: You’re a really tight family, so, of course, you’re disappointed that … your brother needs to be here with his kids.
SIL: He does NOT need to be here with you! You’re just a helpless female who cannot manage on her own.
Eby1: It would be wonderful if I were one of those pre-historic women who could deliver her own child in a field while her husband was off hunting the woolly mammoth and then find herbs to prevent future births. It’s a shame what modern medicine does to people.
Eby beamed at this re-write of the event and pulled off a stunning performance of her new persona. She was eager and confident to learn to handle her challenging in-laws. For those who want a more thorough explanation of how cool comebacks work, the following is offered.
EXPLAINATION: Eby’s first response actively listens and names (vulnerable) feelings of disappointment that underly her sister-in-law’s display of anger. In addition, she validates that these feelings are to be expected in a “tight family.” The hidden suggestion that her husband needs to be with his kids is slightly provocative. The next salvo is handled by acting-as-if-it’s-all-good. A comedic fantasy is created to agree with the charge that Eby is a helpless female.
Earlier in the session, cool comebacks were also used with Eby’s inner bully. Her picky part was asked a question that created silent confusion: If the school bus terrorists are right, why don’t the other kids call Eby names. The next question used sympathy to change the picky part from a bully to a misguided helper: Did you want Eby to believe she was ugly and stupid to keep her from getting angry and to avoid putting her at the mercy of violent threats. Whether dealing with bullies in the brain or street thugs, the AAAH steps are used:
- Act-as-if- it’s-all-good—admit, agree, compliment, gratitude.
- Asks questions—curious or hidden.
- Actively listen—rephrase, name feelings or behavior, sympathizing, validate.
- Hide suggestions—truism, false choice, underlying assumptions, reverse psychology, power words, random or unclear responses. Hidden suggestions are set off by ellipses and underscored.
Eby can use all the support she can get and would love to hear from others who are dealing with difficult in-laws.
~ Kate Cohen-Posey, MS LMHC LMFT
Remember to send verbatim Cruel Comments to me at
and I will post them here with suggested Cool Comebacks!
For more information, please check out my books listed on this site: HOW TO HANDLE BULLIES TEASERS AND OTHER MEANIES; MAKING HOSTILE WORDS HARMLESS, and EMPOWERING DIALOGUES WITHIN (for the bullies in your brain).