Tag Archives: toxic people

Don’t Be Nice All the Time

 

Over and over again, while growing up, Kari heard: “It’s better to give and be nice than it is to receive.”  Valuing the other person more than yourself was expected. So, today, she tends to be nice to everyone but herself. No surprise. When people mistreat or take advantage of her, she gives them a free pass. But Kari’s been waking up to that unhealthy pattern—seeing how it’s not serving her very well. Her current relationship is a perfect example, and right now, she would like to end the relationship but guilt stands in her way.

Guilt over caring for herself blocks her from doing the right thing.

Doug, another client, received the same training. “The way I feel good about myself is by being a good guy … doing for others.”  He gave me an example.  When an acquaintance of his, John, needed a phone, Doug agreed to sell him his $250 phone for $80. He even agreed that John could pay him later. Doug didn’t hear from the man for several weeks. Finally, when they bumped into each other somewhere, John paid Doug … but he paid him $50 instead of $80. When I asked Doug how he felt about that, he said: “I wanted to do the right thing.”

“Is it right to let others take advantage of you?” I asked. “How do others learn the same morals you were taught if you rob them of that opportunity?”

We talked at length, then Doug arrived at a realization:

“I should have stood up for myself,” he said. “Sometimes it’s right to upset people.”

Several years ago, I created a little story for the sake of illustration:

Imagine a classroom of small children—crayons in hand—each thoroughly absorbed in his/her own drawings. Jenny is sitting beside Joey, and at some point, he reaches over with his crayon and marks on her paper. Jenny objects, “No Joey!” while pushing his hand away. He stops, briefly, then repeats the offense. Again Jenny protests but this time she briskly moves to another spot in the room, taking her sheet of paper with her.

This scenario would have played out quite differently had Jenny been indoctrinated with the directive to always “be nice.” In that case, she would have wilted when Joey marked on her paper, letting him have free rein. Believing that objecting is hurtful, she would be ruled by restraint. Striving to be nice is a worthy ethic to teach children, but it should be a two-way ethic.

Niceness should run both ways.

Yes, Jenny should be nice to others, but she should also hold the belief that virtue applies to everyone else as well. Joey wasn’t being nice and that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Jenny’s actions preserved her well-being and dignity, but she also did Joey a favor. She gave him the opportunity to learn an important lesson: If I mistreat people, I’ll alienate them. They won’t want to be around me.

Had Jenny folded, submitting to Joey’s will and disrespect, she would have sent the opposite message.

We humans don’t grow when others are placating or pretending to go along with us. The best mirror we have available is the authentic response given by other people. No, it’s not always easy to look at ourselves through the eyes of others. It can be painful, but some deeper—truer—part of ourselves finds it gratifying to be shown the truth.

Protesting isn’t hurtful if done correctly. Being enlightened by truth is quite different from being punctured by it. When Jenny voiced her protest, she wasn’t being hurtful.

If Joey was hurt, he was hurt by the truth—not by Jenny.

When someone crosses a line, our instinct tells us to be self-protective. It’s the same instinct that protects us from eating spoiled food, stepping out in front of traffic, getting close to a raging dog. Psychological well-being is no different. Inner distress is a signal announcing the need for change.

Instead of just enduring, we’re supposed to listen to it and take action. Doing so is an act of love, both for ourselves and for the other person.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

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Silence Your Inner Bully

Negative self-talk arises from a ruthless internal bully.

“Everything I touch fails. I suck at everything!”

Those words were uttered by 35-year-old Brady who can’t seem to shake a pattern of failed jobs and relationships.

Is it a matter of bad luck? Definitely not. It has to do with how he was programmed.

“In my father’s eyes, I was a loser . . . couldn’t do anything right,” Brady said. He recalls his one goal in life as a boy: “To make my dad proud of me . . . to hear him praise me for a job well done—just once!” But that never happened. “Instead, he kept reminding me of how worthless I was.”

Brady’s no longer a child living at home, but he’s taking over where his father left off. The only difference is that his attacker now hangs out in his head. Call it his inner bully.

Inner bullies don’t just spring out of nowhere. They’re the byproduct of daily exposure to a demeaning or verbally abusive parent.

“Are you really the way your father sees you?” I asked. “Does he really know you?” Brady lowered his head. “I—I couldn’t say that he does.”

I smiled. “Then quit living as if it were true . . . as though he’s right,” I said.  “You’re the authority on you, he’s not.”

I offered the same advice to Ellie, another client raised by a toxic parent—her mother.

Among other things, Ellie wants to start her own business, but she’s paralyzed by a constant barrage of self-belittling thoughts.

I remember her asking: “What’s wrong with me? Why is my mother so nasty to me?” I answered her with a question of my own. “What’s wrong with your mother? Why can’t she see your value?” Ellie couldn’t answer that. She just did a lot of crying instead.

Brady and Ellie can’t control how their parents view them, but they can control what they accept as fact and what they tell themselves.

Unfortunately, that can’t happen with a simple snap of the finger. It requires learning a new habit. The old automatic thinking has to go. I recommended the book You are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Rebecca Gladding, M.D.  The book shows readers how to rewire their brain and it offers steps for ending deceptive brain messages.

Inner bullies are fairly common. Why? Because there’s no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect childhood. Like sponges, we absorb any negativity our parents and others dish out. We also absorb the positive, but it takes an abundance of feeling cared for, cherished and valued to override the not-so-good stuff.

We’re not at the mercy of our programming. As children we couldn’t avoid being programmed, but as adults we have the advantage of wisdom. We can out-think our inner bully.

That’s how we silence it. 🙂

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

 

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Say Good-bye to Bullies

Don’t put up with bullying just because it’s been your habit since day one and is therefore insanely comfortable.

That was my advice to Nicole who endures verbal abuse from her boss on a regular basis. She’s always belittling her in front of the other employees. For example, she’ll blast her for missing deadlines and she’ll erupt in rage when Nicole expresses an opinion of her own. Let’s face it, she’s supposed to be her boss’s puppet and nothing more.

Nicole just sits and takes it. Why? Because it’s familiar territory—echoing how she was raised. Her father was a bully, and she learned that her role was to submit. Succumbing to bullies is her norm—it’s all she knows. It’s how she was programmed.

Residing beneath Nicole’s facade of niceness lies her anger.

“I would just love to call in sick tomorrow,” she said, “and stick her with all the work!”  Nicole dropped her head, saying, “But it wouldn’t be morally right if I did that.”

“Is it morally right to put yourself through this?” I asked.

“What’s the fine line between abuse and job responsibilities?” she asked.

“You answer that,” I said. “You’re wiser than your boss, you know.”

“There’s never a good excuse for abuse,” she said. “Ever.”

“Does that mean that anybody in a leadership position who doesn’t treat you respectfully doesn’t deserve your dedication?” I asked.

She nodded.

“What do I do about this?” she asked.

“What do you want to do?”

Without the slightest hesitation, she said with a perky little smile: “Find another job.”

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Unexpected Gift

 

“I don’t take responsibility for what’s going on in your head.”

That’s what Gordon wishes he had said when his girlfriend completely misinterpreted him . . . again.

It all started when she called to tell him how bored and miserable she was at work. According to the work schedule, she had the day off, but they needed the money. Bills were starting to pile up because Gordon had been sick for several days and was forced to take time off from work, so he’d been borrowing money from her to handle his half of the bills.

After getting free of the bug, he returned to work and started earning an income once again. But it would take a while before they were completely out of the woods.

Gordon was feeling nothing but respect and gratitude for his girlfriend’s generosity and work ethic.

After the call, he quickly rearranged his schedule so he could surprise her at work and help alleviate her boredom. As he drove to her restaurant, he felt immense tenderness toward her and was looking forward to brightening her day.

He walked in. She looked up and saw him smiling. Her face got very serious. “You need money, don’t you!” she said gruffly.

He froze . . . stunned.  She had completely misread his intentions. Though deeply hurt, he managed to stammer out a few words in defense of himself: “No . . . why would you think that? Nothing like that. You told me how slow things were and that you were bored, so I came!”

As usual, nothing he said made any difference. She didn’t budge from the distorted picture she had of him.

The whole event had a sobering effect on Gordon.  “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “She automatically assumed that just because I was visiting her at work—where she makes tips—that I came with my hand out, wanting some of her hard-earned cash.” He thought she might jump into his arms, or smile gratefully, or even just grin a little. The more he thought about it, the more it hurt.

“What kind of guy does she think I am?” he said. “I don’t even come close to the type of person she imagines me to be. Only a cold-hearted jerk would respond to someone’s call for help by showing up with the intent of asking for money. She doesn’t know me at all!  And the person she thinks I am isn’t even someone I’d want to be associated with.”

Once Gordon’s eyes were opened, he realized that this scenario had defined their relationship for the entire three years they were together.  He also saw just how much unhappiness he had swallowed during that time.

This latest event was a reality check. He came to realize that he could no longer stay in a relationship that was so costly to his well-being.

“Without knowing it, she gave me an incredible gift.”

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Why Didn’t they Put Up a Fight?

 

Larry Nassar sexually assaulted dozens of young female gymnasts under the guise of medical treatment. I’ve read so many critical comments directed at these young women that I felt compelled to respond and offer another perspective.

Why didn’t they object? Why didn’t they just push him away while shouting, “No!”?

At least two very substantive reasons come immediately to mind.

First of all, girls are conditioned to be non-aggressive and to fall in place just below men. This can be easily observed in the youngest of females all the way up through adult women of every age and in every station of life.

Second, Nassar’s position as a doctor, along with their trust in him, won their obedience. From the onset, those girls were indoctrinated with the idea that their doctors and coaches were the best in their field and fully vested in helping them succeed. Their parents believed that . . . everybody believed that. So any discomfort or pain they felt while receiving Nassar’s “treatment”—physically and psychologically—was immediately dismissed. Their distress was in direct conflict with their programmed brains.

If you’re a woman, I’m sure you can think of a time in the not so distant past when your behavior was directly impacted by one of these factors. You may tolerate more aggressive behavior from your male boss than you would if he were female. You may bite your tongue when your doctor dismisses your concerns. Consider the wage differential between males and females working in equivalent positions.

And of course self-diminishing programming isn’t limited to the female population.

Over the years, I’ve counseled both women and men who were sexually abused as children. In every case they felt powerless. Their perpetrators were older, bigger and often in a position of authority. To a child, a babysitter qualifies. Camp counselors, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins and pastors qualify as well.

When I’ve asked my clients why they didn’t resist, I get similar answers, such as:

“I was afraid of what he/she might do.”

“I didn’t think I had that option.”

It’s important to recall what it was like being a child among giants. One does not rile a giant—it isn’t safe. Vulnerability squelches any boldness we might have. Our survival instincts instruct us to just go along.

Criticism and judgment is not what the victims of perpetrators need. They need to be given the respect of being understood. They need caring regard for what they went through, for not putting up a fight and for keeping it a secret.

They need empathy.

Such a response would appear impossible for those who never experienced sexual abuse. But it isn’t. Have you ever been exploited, tricked, overpowered or violated? If so, you understand. Did anyone ever betray your trust? If so, you understand. Were you ever beaten by a parent and too embarrassed to talk about it at school? If so, you understand.

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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My Girlfriend Is a Bully

Avoid people who don’t care what they do to you.

Picture a large, ugly, brutish ogre who frequently pummels people over the head with a club. More than likely, he’ll be catered to because doing so will make things a trillion times more pleasant than the alternative. Standing up to him will have the same effect as throwing gasoline on a roaring fire. Better to shrink down and become docile than incur greater fury.

Not all bullies look like ogres. Some are pretty. Alan’s girlfriend, Vicky, fits that description, and yes, her hot-headed tirades trigger an impulse to appease.

“I have to watch what I say around her,” he said. “She’s quick to take offense.”

So Alan treads cautiously, taking care not to ripple the pond.

This inclination to avoid making waves is exactly where bullies get their power. Defusing that power involves overriding our built-in response to fear—our natural impulse to steer clear of trouble.

The automatic flight or fight response, writes Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., author of Emotional Vampires, was necessary for our primitive ancestors. “Without it, they wouldn’t have lived long enough to become our ancestors,” he said. To assure survival, the rules were plain and simple: “If the danger is smaller than you, kill it and eat it. If it’s bigger, run away before it eats you.”

According to Bernstein, bullies take full advantage of this instinctual fear response. So it’s understandable why bullies would use intimidation, aggression and anger as tools to gain control over others. It works!

Bernstein points out that “When regular people get angry they distrust their own feelings and hold themselves back.” But, he continues, this isn’t true of bullies. They “lean into their anger,” using it to their utmost advantage.

Vicky believes it’s high time Alan marries her, so she’s applying pressure. Her bullying tactics aren’t always thunderous. Sometimes she tones down the anger and uses sarcasm—a subtler form of aggression. She’s also been using guilt-inducing digs. So the question weighing heavily on Alan’s mind is whether he should marry her or run away before she devours him.

In our counseling session I tried to give Alan some things to chew on.

“Do you really want to be in a relationship where you have to shrink down in order to make it work? Is ducking and placating a life you want?”

Alan shook his head. “That’s not living,” he said. “She would have to change.”

I continued, “The next question is, will she? Is she likely to?”

The odds are against it because Vicky rarely takes a good, hard look at herself in the mirror. Instead, she’s a classic blamer, pointing an accusing finger.

How can we be self-corrective if we’re not self-reflective?

If Vicky were to turn her life into a play, the cast of characters would consist of villains and she would be the victim. In her mind’s eye, she’s constantly being wronged. Consequently, she feels justified to lash out, sometimes unmercifully.

Typically, such “victims” are blind to the wounds they inflict on others. In fact, if those wounds are brought to their attention, they’re likely to respond by saying: “But look at what you did to me,” or “How do you think I felt?” So instead of heart-felt compassion, the victim becomes defensive—feeling wronged one more time.

Alan has a kind heart. Casting him as a villain is not only erroneous, it’s an insult to his innate goodness.

Defeating bullies, Bernstein points out, takes place in the arena of our own mind.

For Alan, this means he must first become convinced of his basic goodness and that he doesn’t deserve Vicky’s degrading treatment. Having mastered that, he will naturally stand up against her demeaning assaults. He won’t shrink, he won’t skirt trouble—he’ll defend his integrity head-on.

When Alan changes his dance step, Vicky will invariably be challenged to do the same. If she doesn’t, he’ll be faced with a choice, and hopefully he’ll make the right one.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Nope … the Ring Won’t Change Him

 

Steer clear of people who fail to take an honest look at themselves.

Do you really want to be with a person who can’t be reasoned with, who doesn’t take an honest look in the mirror, and who flies into a rage at the mere drop of a hat?

That was the question I asked Brenna, a client contemplating marriage to a man who matches this description. She’s also fairly certain he has a drinking problem. Combine alcohol with his other troublesome traits and we have a person who’s impossible to live with—at least peacefully.

“If you choose to marry this man,” I warned, “you’re in for a difficult ride.”

I explained that the overuse of alcohol impedes a person’s ability to reason, self-manage and grow. Where, then, does self-reflection, self-restraint and accountability come from?

“Are you going to take on that task for him?” I asked.

Brenna does that now—extensively.

“The other day he tripped and blamed the dog for being in the way,” she said. “When I heard him shouting at the dog, I told him he shouldn’t take his frustrations out on an innocent animal.”

His angry outbursts are frequent and they’re usually aimed at her. She gave several examples and pointed out that “he thinks he’s totally justified, and never apologizes.”

“So how do you feel around this guy?” I asked.

“I’m always on edge—nervous about setting him off.”

“Do you really want to live that way?” I asked.

Brenna thinks that by marrying him, he’ll change.

“I feel I should give him a chance,” she said. “After all, everyone has imperfections.”

“This doesn’t fall into the same category as facial warts or accepting a husband’s failure to put the toilet seat down,” I said. “This is about someone being mean to you day in and day out.”

“But he could change,” she said.

“Brenna,” I said, “why would someone be motivated to change if they’re given the reward—in this case, marriage—before they change?”

“… I don’t have an answer for that one,” she said.

Brenna needs a strong dose of reality: People don’t change unless they elect to do so. Getting married won’t magically rectify a preexisting condition.

Valerie, another client, is a good case in point.

Like Brenna, she thought her boyfriend would change for the better after they tied the knot. She thought having a ring on her finger would end his crazed jealously.

But she was in for a rude awakening.

“One day, I was headed out the door to go grocery shopping,” she recalled. “What I had on—how I was dressed—was the farthest thing from my mind. But my husband noticed, and he wasn’t pleased. He was sure that I was meeting someone, so he followed me without my knowledge.”

It wasn’t until she filled her grocery cart that he appeared out of nowhere.

“There he stood glaring at me,” she said. “In front of everybody, he grabbed me and dragged me out to his car. When we got home, he cut up all my clothes and threw them out the window. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.

“The next day he said he was sorry and swore he would never do it again,” she said. “I bet I heard that same story a hundred times! He would change for a short time, but then it just got worse.”

Periods of remorse don’t qualify as real change, not as long as the bad behavior returns and continues.

Valerie eventually left her husband.

“I finally woke up and realized he was sick,” she said. “It wasn’t me.”

Sometimes abusive relationships involve more extreme violence.

One client, Holly, told me how her boyfriend became enraged and struck her in the head. A few days later, he called—irritated. “I haven’t heard from you!” he accused.

“Why should I?” she said, “You hit me!”

His recollection about that evening was fuzzy—he had been drinking. But he did recall hitting her.

“There must have been something you did to provoke it,” he countered, immediately deflecting the blame to her.

If Holly’s smart, she’ll get out now. If she chooses to endure it, she can expect more of the same. Her boyfriend shows no motivation to take stock of himself or accept blame. He hit her, but wants to blame her for it.

People are reluctant to end bad relationships, even abusive ones, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because the other person wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t take it well, or he may change someday.

The raw truth is, unless partners display genuine insight into themselves, and show real improvement over their toxic behaviors, they’re not likely to change.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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