Tag Archives: toxic people

Don’t Grin and Bear It!

smile outside

 

Out for a walk one day, I was struck by how natural it is for animals to protect themselves from harm. Their survival instinct doesn’t seem cluttered with emotional logjams such as second-guessing, guilt, or denial. At the first sign of danger, without the slightest hesitation, a bird will take flight. Likewise, rabbits hop away to safety. I think birds and rabbits have something to teach us about boundaries.

Cassandra, a distressed client, comes to mind.  She once asked me, “Is it okay to skip being nice to people who mistreat you?”

“It’s more than okay, Cassandra!”

I pointed out that, just like birds and rabbits, we’re supposed to be invested in self-preservation.

Unfortunately, Cassandra’s boundaries crumble when the programming of her childhood overrides the instinct to protect herself.

Cassandra’s parents downplayed her brother’s bullying behavior and sarcastic remarks. Instead of protecting her, they excused him. The message conveyed was this: “Boys will be boys. And you—being a girl—should be nice.”

Because we’re drawn to what seems familiar and normal to us, we tend to surround ourselves with people who psychologically resemble those from our past. So, not surprisingly, Cassandra’s in a relationship with a man who treats her like her brother did. And instead of objecting to his hurtful behavior, she takes it. The result is a dampened spirit and constant knots in her stomach.

Her learned behavior is the same in all settings, including her workplace. Wearing a smile despite being treated unkindly, Cassandra allows them to cross her boundaries.

Cassandra yearns to free herself from such programming. That’s a good thing, because trying to make something palatable that isn’t—enduring the unendurable—is not only exhausting, it’s also an act of self-betrayal.

In the weeks ahead, Cassandra and I worked on boundary-building. It began with her learning to listen to the truth of her feelings instead of listening to the programming that told her how she “should” feel. I recommended a book I would love to hand out on street corners, The Nice Girl Syndrome by Beverly Engel.

Birds and rabbits don’t question—even for a second—their right to self-preservation. And the predators of the world have learned just how difficult it is to lay a paw on them. Why should we—thinking creatures—be any easier prey?

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2016 Salee Reese

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Filed under General Interest, Get Free, Parenting

Husband and Doormat

I-am-not-a-doormat - touched up

The problem with walking on eggshells is that it imprisons you, and nothing gets better.

That was my response to Naomi in our counseling session. She habitually succumbs to her hot-tempered husband.

“I’m careful about everything I say because, well, he gets ugly if I tell him what he doesn’t want to hear,” she said.

He routinely undermines her self-worth with hurtful, sarcastic remarks. But instead of objecting, Naomi immediately self-censors how she feels.

There’s a price to muzzling ourselves: a restricted voice—unspoken words held captive in the throat—is a form of confinement. If we can’t talk freely, we aren’t free.

Frederick Douglass, the renowned abolitionist, would agree. In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he equates freedom with the ability to articulate grievances. Our founding fathers understood that basic truth when they wrote the constitution.

“When did you become a slave to his moods?” I asked. “And why is degrading treatment okay with you?”

Naomi lowered her head …. and after some tears and lots of sighs, she opened up about the many years of putting up with his abusiveness.

A pattern, though, took root way before Naomi met her husband—when she was a small child. Her one sibling—a sister—kept the household in constant turmoil with her explosive outbursts. Naomi was frequently the target of her sister’s rage and hostility.

“My parents catered to my sister in order to keep things peaceful,” she said.

And they coached Naomi to do the same. When her sister was offensive toward Naomi, instead of being supportive by prompting her to stand up for herself, they hushed her.

“They would tell me to not make waves,” she said.

In fact, Naomi was reprimanded if she fought back or defended herself. Anger wasn’t allowed, even when it was unquestionably justified.

“I was supposed to be understanding,” she said.

Clearly, Naomi and her sister weren’t held to the same standards of conduct and selflessness.

This sent a distinct message to Naomi: the difficult people—those hard to live with—are to be excused.

In this seedbed of her early formation, Naomi naturally concluded that her feelings should always take a back seat, and that she’s expected to quietly endure harsh treatment.

This early programming set the stage for the dynamics in her current relationship. In effect, Naomi married her sister. And now her parents reside inside her head, instructing her to “not make waves” and to tolerate her raging and demeaning husband while ignoring her emotional wounds. A clear-eyed, critical stance toward her husband’s behavior leaves Naomi feeling guilty, causing her to second-guess whether her feelings and observations are accurate, acceptable or even normal. My work with Naomi has included helping her question her programming instead of herself.

“What did your parents need to do differently?” I asked.

“I should have been allowed to assert myself with my sister,” she responded. “They should have let me fight her, stand my ground and say how angry she made me feel. Instead, everything was suppressed. I was never able to speak up to verbal abuse.”

Since her feelings weren’t validated as a child, Naomi has to learn how to do that for herself as an adult. Trusting her emotions is an important hurdle. She is learning just how important it is to be able to honestly assess how others treat her, and how to do it without feeling guilty. Sometimes, subjecting another person to critical analysis is absolutely called for—and necessary for both parties.

I asked her, “Now, what does your husband need from you?”

She seemed surprised by the question. “He needs . . . he really needs me to be myself. He needs me to be honest with him, or he’ll treat me like this until the end of time and we’ll have no chance of really being together. We’ll be ‘husband and doormat’ until we’re old and gray . . . .”

A few sessions later, Naomi told me how she had successfully stood up to her husband after he made a rude comment. She told him she didn’t deserve being talked to that way. And as one could easily predict, he flared up. She, on the other hand, felt bad about upsetting him.

In so many words I said this to Naomi:

He’s upset because you’ve given up your doormat status. Remember, he married a doormat. He didn’t opt for a partner who stood up for herself. So understandably, he’s not in a jubilant mood upon running headlong into your integrity. He’s going to fight back at first, hoping to return things to how they were. Consider his fury a clear sign that you’re evolving.

She smiled, and I could see the relief on her face. Clearly, a new day is coming for Naomi! 🙂

Hopefully, Naomi’s husband follows suit and does some evolving himself. If not, she probably won’t stick around. That’s because once we perceive things through clear eyes, and once we become our own advocate, it’s impossible to go back to tolerating the status quo.

Something to keep in mind:

Don’t automatically assume when someone’s angry at you that you’ve done something wrong. Maybe, just maybe, you did something right.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2015

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Filed under Couples, General Interest, Get Free, Parenting, Random Acts of Courage

Seek Sunlight

woman prison

 “I felt like a cage was around me when I was with John. I wasn’t me. I was afraid to be me. I was always nervous about doing the wrong thing and setting him off.”

Those words were spoken by my client, Marta, who finally left her husband because he’s an alcoholic—he got violent.  Click here to read an earlier post about Marta’s situation.

Are you like Marta was, anxious about upsetting others if you voice your truth, act yourself, or possess a mind and will of your own?

If you nodded your head, it’s very likely you’ve spent a chunk of time with a person who made it difficult for you to do so. Their intense—often combustible—reaction taught you to remain tight-lipped and behave chameleon-like in their presence. You soon realized that it’s better to appease than face the consequences of being true to you.

Understandably, a sharp tongue, harsh hand or painful withdrawal are backlashes worth avoiding.

Who are these people? Some are addicts—hooked on drugs or alcohol, some are spoiled children residing in adult-size bodies. Some have a mental disorder of some kind, and others are just over-reactive, difficult people.

They all possess something in common: They can’t be counted on to be consistent with their warmth, remorse or clarity. In one moment they will understand what you want them to understand and in the next they won’t. One day you’re a beloved friend or ally, but the next day you’re the target for blame and hostility.

Their unpredictable fluctuations cause that tight knot in your stomach to take up permanent residence. You’re constantly on the watch for the next upheaval. Over-exposure to these people can cause you to doubt yourself. You wonder: “Am I at fault? Did I cause their reaction? What can I do to fix it?”

You can’t. There’s only one solution: Save yourself. Don’t entertain the thought—for an instant—that you’re the cause or the one responsible to fix it. Trust your instincts that say:

“This is not sunlight for my soul.”

In fact, it’s just the opposite.

We’re hard-wired to sense what’s toxic for us both physically and psychologically. Call it our survival instinct. Trust it.

And finally, believe that you’re worthy of the sunlight. You deserve to be around people who are consistent, who see your goodness, and who relish your individuality, which includes having a mind and will of your own.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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The Latest Wow: How to Save a Sinking Ship

healthy ship


“I just learned that the human brain isn’t fully formed until the age of 24.  I got married at 20 so, therefore, I wasn’t in my right mind.”

This little gem—which activated my uncontrollable-laughter-impulse—fell straight from the lips of Anna, a client experiencing a bit of disillusionment in her marriage. Not at all unfamiliar territory for those of us trying to make a marriage or partnership work. We can so relate. 🙂

Peggy is another client who came to me for help in figuring out how to effectively cope with her own brand of disillusionment—living with a man who perpetually sees every glass as half empty . . . tempting Peggy to throw said glass against the wall.  Click here to read my advice to her . . . .

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

 

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Avoid the Muck and Guck

 crooked road (2)

I found a perfect piece of advice for those of us who try to fix someone else’s distorted thinking. It’s an old Russian proverb that says:

“Don’t drive a car straight down a crooked road.”

Easier said than done, especially if we’re the target of someone’s erroneous accusations. At those times, it’s extremely difficult to resist springing into action—in defense of ourselves, armed with facts and mounds of explanations.

Trish, a client, is a good example. One morning she got up before Chad and went downstairs to start her day. She was relishing the silence and a nice cup of coffee when he suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Hey, what are you all ticked off about?” he asked with a scowl.

Chad had assumed wrongly. She wasn’t “ticked off”—her mood was in fine shape . . . uh, at least up to that point. His accusation instantly jolted her out of the tranquil spell that enveloped her, and she spent the next several minutes frantically attempting to get him to perceive her through a clear lens. (Click here to read more…)

Trish got snagged by his stuff. Soon, they were both swimming in their combined muck and guck. We all know that place . . . it serves no one.

That’s our little piece of insanity. We engage. We walk into a tangled web of distortion and accusations and try desperately to clean the other person’s lens. Or, another way to put it: we “try to drive the car straight down a crooked road.” It doesn’t work. The car lands in a ditch.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

 

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The Latest Wow: Don’t Feed the Parasites!

mosquito

Not long ago, one of my clients, Rani, wowed me with this:

“Some people don’t really deserve the benefit of the doubt.”

Experience taught Rani that somber truth. For months, she overlooked and excused multiple incidents of being used, deceived and manipulated by her friend, Val. “It finally reached such ludicrous proportions, I just couldn’t ignore it anymore,” she said in our counseling session.

Rani loaned her money, let her move in, gave her rides to and from work. The list grinds on. As for the loan, Val promised to pay it back, but so far “I have yet to receive a single nickle of it,” Rani said, disgusted.

Let’s face it, there’s a population of nice people out there and there’s a population of . . . uh, let’s just say, not-so-nice. They take advantage of the nice ones and the nice ones let them. That merely perpetuates a maddening set of circumstances . . . for the nice tribe, that is.

These two types attract each other like magnets. Self-centered versus other-centered. One is self-denying and willing to give up what they want and even need so that the other can experience a “happy” life.

When I ask these big-hearted people why they sacrifice themselves, they tell me things like, “I’ll feel guilty and mean if I do otherwise.” Ironically, they’re afraid of being self-centered and . . . not nice.

Rani no longer thinks that way. Her experience with Val opened her eyes to a fundamental truth: When the events of our lives don’t bring us peace, it’s vital that we opt to make life changes.

 As for the “nice” word, she came to see that it isn’t nice to dishonor ourselves by tolerating being used and disrespected.

And it isn’t nice to keep feeding the parasites. How do they ever learn that parasiting isn’t nice? 🙂

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Latest Wow: Ripe for Manipulation

puppet

“I don’t like to confront, so I’m easy to manipulate.”

That “WOW” came from a mid-fortyish male client. He didn’t realize it, but he nailed a common human problem. Many of us don’t like to confront.

Why are we so squeamish about confronting someone … even when it’s appropriate?

There’s a wide variety of reasons. A major one is the fear of setting off a fireworks display or, to put it bluntly, the fear of making someone mad.

And the problem with that is:

If we’re afraid of upsetting others, we give them power.

Not everyone will elect to use that power, but others won’t hesitate to take full advantage. They’ll use anger or the threat of anger to control you. They don’t want to hear what you have to say.

Angry responses stifle us, and that’s exactly what the manipulator counts on.

We see this form of manipulation among couples, among friends, at the workplace, and between parent and child. Sometimes we witness parents being manipulated by their angry child or the other way around. It happens.

I say our purpose in life doesn’t include sticking pacifiers in the mouths of those who might get upset.

The solution? Let them be upset. For example, if a child throws a fit because he doesn’t get his way, you let him throw the fit, right? Versus giving in. This advice applies to adults, too. Remain unaffected.

If we don’t care about someone’s angry reaction, manipulation isn’t possible. If a confrontation is done respectfully, it needs to be said. Pure and simple.

To avoid being manipulated by someone’s angry flare-ups, we have to be willing to brave the storm instead of trying to prevent it. Doing so is far less costly to our dignity than mindlessly appeasing. And besides, once we do it, we realize the storm was far less scary and draining than sacrificing the truth of our being.

It’s our fear that sets us up. Just like a dog cowering in the presence of a cat … guess what message he’s sending? Guess what position the cat is likely to take?

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Filed under Couples, General Interest, Get Free, Parenting, The Latest Wow!