“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou
I am mostly talking to women here, but this could apply to anyone. Obviously, my experiences as a woman weight my perspective considerably. This is about boundaries and how to have healthy ones and how to protect yourself in our increasingly hostile social environments here in the United States. Granted, I encounter more problems of this nature online than I do in person, mostly because cyberspace interactions lack the visual, auditory, and verbal cues of face-to-face interactions. When you can’t see someone’s face or hear their voice or observe their body language, it is often hard to detect their intent.
There are people who will collect information about you that they may later use to attempt to manipulate you. They may be way off base, having made assumptions that are utterly incorrect. But that doesn’t mean they can’t hurt you if you are not vigilant. Someone warned me of just such a scenario not long ago, which caused me to reflect upon my susceptibility to manipulation. Authenticity – being consistently me all the time, everywhere I go, with my talk matching my walk – frees me from most concerns of manipulation. Yes, of course, people will still try to fuck with me, but they won’t succeed because I have no deep, dark secrets that can be exploited. Their attempts to manipulate me speak about them and their need to control or dominate others; they have nothing to do with me.
Sometimes manipulative behavior by others is simply a reflection of their own pain. I’ve heard it said that ‘hurt people hurt people’. It’s true, we sometimes lash out when we are in pain. It’s part of the human condition. Plus, we tend to adopt the behaviors of others around us, so if we were habitually treated poorly by someone, odds are that we will treat others in some of those same ways. (We can overcome this cycle of behaviors if we are willing to look at ourselves and maintain awareness of our own motives, but that’s another blog post – and a lot of therapy). I have great compassion for hurting people who lash out as I, too, have sometimes lashed out and, being imperfect, will likely do so again. We are forever human. I simply strive to maintain awareness of my emotional condition and refrain from responding without thinking things through. The more emotionally charged a situation is, the more important it is for me to take a step back and get some objectivity, let the feelings pass.
When other people are nasty or hostile toward me, when they hurl words or accusations at me, or spew their anger in my direction, my first inclination is to become defensive. This is a very human response, quite natural, but also a bit immature. Part of adulting is learning to resist such knee-jerk responses, taking note but remaining calm. I know, because it took me longer than many folks to fully grow up. My goal in these situations now is to take the time to evaluate the exchange and let compassion play a dominant role in my response, rather than letting my feelings do the talking.
With some folks, that means simply walking away because I can’t muster any more compassion than holding my tongue. Also, with most folks, I refrain from sharing my assessment of their behavior because, hello, that would make me a hypocrite, and would also be futile. If they are busy assessing my shortcomings as they see them, they are most definitely not considering their own. I try to say something supportive and yet non-committal, such as “I hear you.” I want them to know that I am listening; most of us just want to be heard. Often, the angry individual will take this as some sort of tacit agreement with them, since I did not argue or respond with like hostility. That’s fine with me; they can think what they want. I just want to diffuse the situation and escape without being a jerk.
But when someone persists, when they really want to point out what they believe are my shortcomings, they must be stopped. Don’t misunderstand; I am not talking about arguing with them, which is likely futile. Rather, I am saying that I have a right to defend myself. I may choose to do this verbally, non-verbally, or both. I have a right to say something such as, “We can talk about this, but I will not permit you to attack me.” Or “You may disagree with my position, but you may not insult me personally.” If that fails, I just walk away. I do not have to take abuse of any sort. From anyone. Ever.
Someone who is saying hurtful and accusatory things is not a friend, and is not trying to get to know you, they are asserting their power and attempting to dominate you. They are bullies, plain and simple. They can, and undoubtedly will, try to dress that up in all sorts of justifications, claiming that your alleged shortcomings left them no choice but to confront you. This “blame the victim” approach to domination and subordination is a classic move from the abuser playbook, and something most women have experienced, if only briefly. If you let this abusive person continue, they will mess with your head and it might work, at least for a while. They may be very skilled at having low-key discussions with hostile undertones that make you doubt your own perceptions. They might succeed in chipping away at your self-confidence. The pop-culture term for this sort of mental and emotional abuse is “gas lighting.” These folks will say and do anything to convince you that they are right and you are wrong, and that any misgivings you have are all in your head, a result of your own shortcomings. It matters not the topic, it is the behavior pattern that is telling.
So, when your gut says “get the fuck out,” listen to it. Ain’t nothin’ good gonna come from taking that crap. Don’t doubt yourself, just do it. I don’t care if this individual is in your work space, or personal space, or in cyber space. Give them a wide berth. If they persist, look for a new job, change your locks, or block them. Whatever it takes. I am not being overly dramatic here. Remember, if it quacks like a duck…
Women are particularly prone to accepting and excusing this sort of behavior from men. We have been conditioned from birth to do so. All of our institutions give deference to men. This is not an assault on men, this is a statement of fact. Any man who does not recognize the myriad ways that women are subordinated in our culture is likely one that is participating in the subordination.
Don’t leave your angry comments here because they won’t get read. Instead, try taking a look at yourself. It worked to make me a better person, and I have high hopes for you, too.
Friends, your safety is my first concern. If you need help making a safety plan or exiting a difficult situation, visit this website for information or an anonymous chat, or call 1-800-799-7233. Take care of yourselves.