Were You Raised to Be a Doormat?

Yesterday a difficult acquaintance caught me at the grocery store and cried on my shoulder about a big problem she was having. I was surprised because her problem was really personal and we don’t know each other well, but she was distressed so I listened and made sympathetic noises. When I saw a decent opening, I bolted.

Later, I told Mom that I hadn’t wanted to hear about the woman’s problems because it made me feel obligated, but more than that, I wondered why she’d dumped that load on me.

“She probably feels comfortable with you,” said Mom. “Maybe she doesn’t have anybody else. It’s a compliment.”

A light went off in my brain as I recognized the sound of old, familiar propaganda.

Like many of you, I was taught to sacrifice my own interests in service to others. If a person who everybody else avoids reaches out to us, we feel honored to be singled out. Because we’re special – stronger, more patient, more broad-minded than those wimpy others who would simply give up.

I was taught to think, “I must really have something, that this person needs me.” What I didn’t see was that normal people avoided the abusers. Normal people valued themselves enough to protect their time and energy, whereas I labored to help the crackpots change and do better. When I first got hired in human resources, I was practically codependent.

I had the look of a victim. 

I understand that my parents thought they were teaching me compassion, but they went too far toward love and not enough in the direction of self-defense. It would have been good if they’d taught me to squint, Clint Eastwood-style, when I encountered potential users.

I once read a book called The Sociopath Next Door (yep, that’s what floats my boat) by Martha Stout. Toward the end she said, now that you know everything about a sociopath, you’ll want me to tell you how to protect yourself. How to see them coming. And the answer is, you can’t, not really, because they look for people who are nice, because those people are more easily manipulated.

Well, isn’t that great.

Even if you never meet a sociopath, you still have to have some filters, because even good people can tend to take, take, and take some more. Here’s an article by Dr. Judith Orloff about maintaining balance in a vampire relationship.

Now that I’m older I consciously resist looking like an easy mark or sending out signals that say, “Use me! Use me!” After many years in HR, two failed marriages, and countless one-sided relationships, I have developed a strategy. I offer it to you.

At first you take a little chance on a person, without making an irrevocable commitment. Then you look for reciprocity – does the person give you something ethical in return? Time, effort, repayment, career help, etc.?

Or instead of looking for reciprocity, observe and track the person’s behaviors. Discount any talk of big dreams or undeserved heartache; watch the patterns. If you see a track record of selfish behavior, lack of follow-through, or narcissism, arm yourself. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Act accordingly.

I understand that there’s a risk in taking this hard-line approach. You can’t shut down or become a recluse. Compassion is good! We need more of it. Also, this rule gets a little wobbly when you’re dealing with children or young people because they’re not fully formed. I cut them more slack than mature adults.

Here’s a weird outcome of my new thinking: I don’t feel quite so special. I’m average, not heroic. I no longer have bragging rights. (More about that in a previous post, The Courage to Be Average.)

Although it’s good to be heroic, I’d reserve that for pulling kitties out of trees. In the meantime, I implore you to teach your kids or grandkids the squinty-eye. It just might save them from being drained and manipulated by the weirdos, narcissists and slackers who depend on a friendly face and big heart for all their energy needs.


  1. says

    Love this for 3 reasons: 1) you used the word crackpots LOL 2) you recognize (and help others) identify when you’re being used and 3) you said compassion is good. Now I consider myself a very compassionate person but over the years I’ve had to leave the “energy sucking vampires” and “crackpots” alone because they were taking my compassion and kindness for granted. Nowadays, I’m like you and can filter those people out of my life as much as possible while still feeling compassion for them and seeing them as “sick,” especially the sociopaths.

    I’m loving your style Lynne and so glad we’ve crossed paths!

  2. says

    My mother always told me: “don’t be a pleaser.” Somehow she knew that you can’t let people use you– and that you can’t let the energy vampires take over your life. At the time I thought that she was talking about middle school & high school dramas, but over the years I’ve come to realize that she was talking about all of life. Interesting topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • says

      Hi Ally, my mom told me the same thing but her words didn’t match her actions. She is such a good person, can’t stand to say no, but it wasn’t a great message to us kids.

  3. says

    I think “Balance” is what’s needed, Lynne. On the one hand, we shouldn’t feel leery of opening ourselves to others in need — one day, we might be on the needy end; however, we have to be careful who’s doing the needing. If it’s a stranger, we have to question why we’re the one selected to hear their problems. If we don’t have specialization in such problems, we ought to own up to that in the first place and advise them to seek professional care. You’re a nicer person than I am in being so approachable — but then, nobody ever said I was nice, haha!

    • says

      But Deb, see, you can laugh about it! If somebody thought I wasn’t nice, it used to kill me. I had to outgrow that foolishness. You are absolutely right about the balance, Sis, and you have it.

  4. says

    I think for me it came from being a nurturer/fixer …. everyone came to me with their problems … until one day I had an epiphany (as I sat in the corner of the entry hall crying and feeling completely overwhelmed) that I no longer could be “everybody’s mother” … I had to be my own mother and take care of my needs first … and it was ok to say no thank you and walk away. There were too many “takers” in my life at that time (because I let them be there/couldn’t say no – I might hurt someone’s feelings) … hard lesson finally learned …

    No more doormatting!

      • says

        Lynne, I was 40 at the time – and felt like I was drowning – mostly because the situation that created the epiphany was putting me in the middle of “family battles” in addition to the normal demands of raising two teenagers and work demands. The ability to finally stand up to them and say NO … I can’t fix the problems between you all … made me realize I could also consider whether I really needed to unnecessarily take on demands at work and in other areas of my life and allow some time for me (which was non existant at the time).

  5. says

    Totally agree Lynne – thanks for the post! I always wondered why the high school drop-outs, drug addicts, abusers, freeloaders, and ‘poor-me’ types would stick to me like flies. I was the over-achieveing, nice-to-anyone person in high school/college/early adulthood. I think also when you are over-achieving, there’s another type that is attracted to you as well ….jealous people who want to ‘knock you off your pedestal/knock you down’.

    Years later as an adult I was talking to my dad and he proudly admitted his parenthood rule was to make sure his kids ‘didn’t get too big for your britches”. Then it all made sense. HE was the one that instilled in me that the harder I worked to reach a goal/make a positive difference/get the good grades, the more I should allow others to tear me down ‘for my own good’. Hearing his twisted logic spelled out made it easier for me to make the changes in my own life to prevent further abuse.

    It was an eye opening admission on his part (and backed up years of abuse to his wife and children).

    I am a much happier, healthier person now. I continue to work hard to make a positive difference and reach goals…but I expect and accept that my friends and family will encourage and support me now, instead of tear me down ‘to keep me in my place and my feet on the ground’. The people who were looking to hurt me I’ve either re-educated on how to treat me, and if that didn’t work I’ve weeded them out of my life.

    • says

      Barb, I get what your dad was thinking. He was proud of you but also afraid you’d turn into a selfish, entitled thing, right? Here’s my story: I felt – I swear I really believe this – that GOD had picked me to be successful because He trusted me with the cash. He knew I would spread it around, whereas somebody else would have kept it all for herself! And baby, I did. I supported two layabout husbands before finding my sweet Bill. I paid for everything and everybody, because it was an honor, no, a DIVINE responsibility. When I now read about successful members of certain minority groups feeling obligated to support their less-fortunate (and less motivated) family, friends, and old neighborhood, I really identify.

  6. says

    Ah, nuts. I was just settling in to enjoying the repetitive behavioral notion that I am an unlimited resource, even as my head aches, I’m running out of antacids, and my amygdala twins are squeaking “not again!” Brilliant post, Lynne. I just made a couple of serial decisions that I need to amend straightaway. Sticky stuff, that imprinting!

    • says

      It is sticky, Linda, because you feel like a bad person when you recognize where it comes from – your beloved parents usually. Were they wrong? No, but what were they, then? Dumb? Well-meaning but … okay, you get the idea.

  7. says

    I understand completely what you’re saying, Lynne. There is such a thing as being too nice! I’m happy to be “so approachable” as most people say I am, but like you, I feel drained after those types of conversations and when other people find a way to bolt, I’m usually still there trying to figure out what to do it help solve their probs. There has to be a happy medium and I’m still trying to find it.

    I know it’s important to reach out to others, especially if they may not have other friends, BUT, I often find out later that these same people will grab on to anybody will listen. That’s usually why they don’t have many friends!

    Yes, we have to be able to listen, but the people who latch on to somebody they barely know and pour out their problems are usually the same ones who wouldn’t listen to your problems for over a minute. I’m not saying you should always be rewarded with the give and take thing, but people like us need to have a bigger antenna than others.

    (Can you tell I’ve been through this? haha)

    Thanks for the post!!

  8. says

    Ah yes, Lynne, the fine art of the squinty-eye. As women, conditioned to care, we often get caught in this web. Thanks for sharing this enlightening piece, which also encourages us to beware of the sociopath energy drainers, who prey on our goodness! So come on out with a smile, but keep those elbow swinging (in basketball terms it called a block out! ha ha)

  9. says

    Excellent post and discussion ,Lynne. Joyce has a good point about the value of listening to one another. But your point addresses the “energy vampires”. I think we can usually trust our feelings when someone is truly in need of a good listener vs someone who drains the life blood out of us because they are seeking answers outside themselves when they should be looking at taking ownership of the problem and the solution. You are so right, we cannot be everything to everybody and sometimes the best we can do for others is to take care of ourselves first. Amen!

  10. Marilyn Patrick says

    Nah – I don’t buy it. As I reach Senior Citizenship (read: Medicare) I find myself more and more wanting to leave this world a better place for having been here. Each night I pray, among other things, for the Lord to give each of my beloved family an opportunity to show some kindness to someone who needs it. If that had been a neighbor of mine, as she walked away, I would have been, like, “Whoa, God, you really took me up on that!” If it became a regular habit with this woman I would have looked her square in the eye and opined that she really would benefit from professional advice. But I look at that as the Christian thing to do. Who can determine just how much good you did for that neighbor!

    • says

      Sure, the neighbor, no problem. It was a one-time deal. (See above reply to Joyce). But Marilyn, I’m talking about the people who’ve slaved to make the world a better place since they were old enough to get the message that that was more important than their own happiness (5? 6?). Some of us are only just now realizing we’re kind of important too, at least as much as the rest of the planet. I was about 40 when I started to ask for reciprocity in long-term relationships, so that’s why I feel strongly about this.

  11. says

    That kind of thing also happens to me, though I’ve never considered it being used. I also tend to not let myself get sucked into their drama. But people need people, and I’ve considered those confiders people who must not feel loved by people they love. It makes me not want to turn my back on them too. Listening is different from getting sucked in. Listening might just be offering some compassion to someone in need.

    • says

      Good point about listening, if that’s all it is. And if you’re not late for your meeting.

      But I think it’s smart to occasionally listen with two minds. With one, you’re in the moment, responding to the conversation. With the other, you look for balance: is the conversation always about them, them, them? Do they ever ask about you in a way that seems sincere, and listen to your answer, and ask followup questions? If it’s just a one-time or occasional deal, balance isn’t so important, but with friends and family or other regular relationships, it’s good to watch for that.

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