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.