Tag Archives: toxic people

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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Over It

Holly told me she wasn’t suicidal. I disagreed.
“I guess you’re right,” she said after some thought. “I’ve been killing myself off for years.”

Holly was referring to staying with a man who frequently deflates her spirit—her husband, Lance.

She related the events of an evening they had some friends over. When it was time to call it a night, Holly stood with the front door open while saying good-bye as each guest left. From the living room Lance shouted, “Hey, dummy, close the door!”

I asked, “Could a casual passerby talk to you that way?”

“No,” she said.

“Then why do you take it from someone who supposedly loves you?”

“I’m not so sure I want to anymore,” she said in our counseling session. “I’m afraid to leave him . . . to be on my own. But I’m more afraid of staying. I look in the mirror and wonder who that dismal-looking person is. Where did Holly go?”

For some, contemplating divorce is rooted in valuing oneself, a recognition that greater respect is deserved. One could even say that breaking from someone who is toxic to our well-being is an act of compassion—self-compassion.

It’s typical for people to be drawn to those who treat them as poorly as they treat themselves. If we’re self-harming or self-condemning we automatically feel deserving of harm or condemnation from others. Conversely, those who treat us respectfully are rejected or ignored. Kindness can feel foreign and make us uncomfortable.

But when we begin to cherish ourselves, something interesting happens. We simply cannot tolerate demeaning or abusive treatment anymore. Indigestion is experienced at the core level. Our gut cries “foul” every time we’re subjected to degrading behavior or remarks.

This is what’s happening to Holly.

“His nasty jabs make me boil inside,” she said, “and I cringe every time he puts down the kids.”

That’s understandable. A sense of outrage when treated horribly is not only appropriate but a sign of being mentally healthy. We’re supposed to think protectively of ourselves and of our children.

She recalled an incident in which he tripped over her shoes. He erupted, blasting her for leaving them in his way.

“If it’s not me, it’s the kids,” she said. “I used to fold—letting him get away with being a jerk. But I can’t do that anymore . . . I fight back.”

Abuse should never be permitted or swallowed no matter what form it takes—physical, verbal or emotional. All have a flattening effect on self-esteem.

When I first saw Samantha, another client, she was putting up with physical abuse. “Whenever he would beat me I used to believe it was my fault,” she said. “But I don’t anymore, so what can I do?”

“Why don’t you leave this man?” I asked.

“I’m thinking of the kids,” she answered.

“No you’re not,” I said. “Thinking of the kids includes considering what they’re exposed to day in and day out. Watching mommy get hit isn’t good for children. Period.”

Although Holly isn’t a victim of physical abuse, she’s a constant target of her husband’s verbal and emotional abuse, which is just as devastating. Eventually, I met with Lance, who seemed clueless about his behavior and the effect it was having on his wife.

“Why would she want to divorce me?” he asked. “I love her!” I presented him with the simple truth: “The love in your heart doesn’t count unless it’s translated into actions.”

Instead of feeling loved, I pointed out, she feels like a whipping post.

If Lance wants to save his marriage, he’ll have to make some changes. Real changes. Superficial change—merely going through the motions—won’t cut it. She has to see and feel a changed heart. It’ll show in how he consistently relates to her and the children. Because he seems so blind to his mistreatment, I’m afraid Lance has an uphill battle ahead of him.

While Lance tries to change his side of the equation, Holly is starting to take her life back.

She’s been liberating herself from everything that debilitates or saps her spirit, including him.

She’s growing beyond the belief that she deserves insulting attacks to her dignity. And  she’s realizing that her children need a climate that’s esteem-enriching. She also sees how unhealthy it is for them to observe their father’s cruelty and her mere endurance of it.

Ultimately, if Lance continues in his spirit-deflating ways, she and the kids will be out of there. As they should be.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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It’s a Ducking Habit

 

duck

Tish shines when she’s with her friends and coworkers, but around her boss she loses that shine.

“I go small the minute I step into her office!” she said. “I’m just like someone who’s been physically abused—I duck!”

Tish’s boss and her parents have some things in common.  Her parents didn’t invite or make it safe for her to express her views. It appears her boss is the same way.

Tish grew up in a home where working through problems—talking things over—just wasn’t done. Instead, powder-keg overreactions were the norm. Tish found shelter in laying low . . . or by ‘ducking.’ It became her coping mechanism.

Ducking can be more than a physical response. It can also be a psychological one. Whenever we walk on eggshells or cater to someone’s moods, we’re ducking. When we’re anxious about someone’s reaction and it causes us to stifle ourselves, we’re ducking. Keeping our mouth shut when something ought to be said is a form of ducking.

Being direct, honest and straightforward can seem just too risky and threatening. But the alternative doesn’t serve us very well, either.  When we make a habit of ducking, we desert ourselves. Our true self gets buried. Call it a recipe for life dissatisfaction and depression.

For example, ducking is hurting Tish’s chances of moving up in the company. It inhibits her from getting her needs met and her concerns heard and resolved.

By ducking, she’s guaranteeing she won’t be listened to.

Ducking behaviors served Tish as a child. They protected her. But today, such behaviors are a mere habit—a conditioned response—and do more harm than good.  She can change, and she must, if she wants to cultivate a better scenario for herself at work and elsewhere.

I explained that the first step is to realize that there are people out there who welcome open dialogue. They don’t mind being disagreed with, and they don’t blow up or make people walk on eggshells. They care about the points of view of others, and they respect the fact that problems will crop up.

“And they look forward to jointly resolving them with you,” I said.

The next step is to stand tall. “Be the strong person you really are, Tish!”

It’s in her. She listed off plenty of examples of being her bold and bigger self. In fact, when Tish isn’t ducking, her strength, wisdom and drive are forces to be reckoned with!

Her boss needed to see that. As it was, Tish was selling herself as a pushover. Her boss couldn’t respect her because Tish wasn’t respecting herself.

Shortly after that session, Tish told me how she successfully confronted her boss about a problem—one that her boss had been refusing to address for a long time. It’s getting resolved.

Yes!

 

(c) Salee Reese 2016

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

 

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