Tag Archives: toxic people

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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You Have a Choice: Walnuts or Apples

apples and walnuts

 

Once upon a time, a walnut tree decided to start producing apples instead of walnuts. He was shunned by some and admired by others for his raw courage.

He had defied his programming.

No question, if this had actually happened, the news of this free-thinking walnut tree would have received world-wide attention in a matter of seconds.

In truth, we all know that it’s impossible for walnut trees to grow apples. They’re genetically programmed to produce only one thing … walnuts. And just like walnut trees, we humans are genetically programmed. Take our physical appearance. It’s directly influenced by genes passed down from our ancestors.

But unlike walnut trees, we also undergo parental programming that shapes our behavior, our thoughts and attitudes. That we can change! And if we choose to do so, we will be shunned by some and admired by others. 🙂

For example, Cheryl has been programmed to put her mother’s needs before her own. If her mother requests something or manipulates Cheryl through guilt tactics, Cheryl drops everything and caters to her wish. Even if it’s hugely inconvenient. Even if her own family suffers.

I’m happy to say that’s all changing. Lately, when Cheryl has the impulse to drop everything and do her mother’s bidding, she stops and asks herself: What do I think is the best use of my time right now? How do I best take care of me and my family?

In other words, what do I choose to do?

Then there’s James. He gave countless examples of his father yelling at him when he was a boy and telling him how worthless he was.

“In his eyes, I sucked at everything . . . I couldn’t do anything right.”

For 40 years, James bought into that piece of damage. He even picked up where his father left off. As an adult he would mutilate his own self-esteem with the same messages he got from his dad.

Not long ago, he chose to see himself in a new light.

Katie was programmed to tough it out. Instead of comforting her when she got hurt—either physically or emotionally—her parents would sternly say: “You’re alright.”

Her programming failed to prepare her for understanding and working through her emotions. So she was at a loss—to the point of panic—when her dog died, when her car broke down on a busy highway, when her boyfriend cheated on her, and when she became the target of cyberbullying.

By the time I met her, she was inches away from suicide.

Today, she’s choosing to embrace her feelings. By doing so, she’s on the road to learning how to manage them.

Each of these individuals chose to defy their programming. They’re to be admired.

Walnuts or apples? To break the spell of programming, make it apples. 🙂

 

(c) Salee Reese 2016

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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The Golden Rule in Reverse

resepct two way

“Don’t let other people treat you the way you wouldn’t treat them.”

This is what I recently said to Stanley, who never objects to disrespectful treatment from key people in his life. He swallows it … and suffers for it.

Kind-hearted by nature, he’s respectful in all his dealings with others. He wouldn’t, COULDN’T, hurt a flea if forced to. But there are those in his life who don’t mirror that characteristic. When I asked him why he doesn’t stand up for himself, he said, “It’s what I’ve come to know.”

Said so well! Stanley’s succinct comment speaks to all of us. Programmed from early childhood, we tend to behave and react in ways that echo what we’ve come to know. To step outside that box takes us out of our comfort zone, and as we all know, leaving our comfort zone isn’t one of things we crave in life—we resist it like the plague.

For the remainder of our session, Stanley and I explored the ways his comfort zone existence has hurt and hindered him. I knew we were getting somewhere when he said, “I can see that I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s the only way I’ll dig myself out of this hole.”

Click here to read about Deanna with a similar problem and the advice I gave her . . . .

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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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