“You cannot simultaneously set a boundary and take care of the other person’s feelings.”
– Melody Beattie
While I love her quotes, Marilyn Monroe is another beautiful, brilliant, misunderstood soul who often presented a tough exterior to the world. I give her credit for her renegade attitude and living life on her terms. But one has to wonder. Did the media scrutiny, rumors about her personal life, and pressure of being in the public eye push her over the edge? She died far too young – at age 36 – and the circumstances of her death remain unclear. Was it an accidental overdose, suicide or homicide?
In today’s social media society, it’s even easier to spout off mean Tweets or try to smear someone through Facebook status updates. People seem obsessed with gossip and clueless as to the impact of their actions. It makes me think of the recent rape scandal in Ohio and teenagers showing a total lack of empathy. We also have witnessed it with the NCAA tournament. Several former colleagues and sports writers I know seemed appalled at the harsh and critical nature of comments about Indiana University players after their loss. They are all just kids playing a game, trying to win and represent their university well.
The truth is – we are all just human beings, or rather, souls having a human experience – and I believe we are all connected (another thing confirmed in the StrengthsFinder Signature Themes report). If we are all part of a bigger life force, then we must not harm others because we will be harming ourselves. We must not exploit or try to oppress others, because ultimately it means we are exploiting and oppressing ourselves. What you put out comes back. And we can only take so much. Some of us cope better than others, but every person has a breaking point.
And so we get to the heart of the matter. Are these bullies and mean-spirited people consciously aware of the emotional pain they create for others? Do they care? Yes, maybe they did suffer their own form of abuse or abandonment, or maybe they have a personality disorder. But what good can really come from tearing others down, invading boundaries and trying to sabotage other’s success? What causes someone to lie and backstab, and how do you refute someone who has tried to ruin your reputation? It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.
From my experience, if you confront a bully, it simply escalates the situation. They blow smoke, deflect, manipulate, get defensive and do whatever they can in their power to convince you that you are the problem. It’s your fault and you are the bad person, even when you are the one trying to do the right thing, compromise and apologize, forgive and forget, or stand firm in your convictions. They will take advantage of your kindness, naivety, and sensitivity and seek to destroy your self-esteem, your character, and your sense of sanity. Indeed, crazy people make you feel crazy.
In an effort not to single people out in my blogs, let’s just say I once dated a guy who liked to stare down, flirt with and hang on other women in front of me – among other things. When I told him I thought it was disrespectful and it hurt my feelings, he told me I was the one with the problem. I was jealous and insecure. While I am definitely not perfect, and sometimes struggle with insecurities, his behavior was over the top. I could never really catch him doing something wrong, but I always had this uneasy gut feeling that he was untrustworthy. Not to mention, he yelled at me and told me I needed to dress more provocative, grow out my hair and that I better not get bigger than a size 8. He broke up with me once, then came back and said he would change, and then broke up with me again. A case of a classic narcissist.
I know many of you are probably thinking: “Why didn’t you kick that jerk to the curb and never look back?” At the time, I was devastated. I do believe he loved me in his own weird way and thought he was being “helpful,” but he chipped away at my already shaky self-esteem until I really started to believe there was something wrong with me. My hair, my clothes, my weight – nothing was good enough. To this day, I cannot say he is an entirely bad guy, just someone you shouldn’t date. He came on strong and charming. He was so good at manipulation and turning it around on me, I internalized everything. I couldn’t think straight. I read books in hopes of helping myself and changing him. I lost myself, my dignity and my identity. It was like I became addicted to the drama and tried desperately to cling to a relationship that was never meant to be. For some reason, I thought having this person in my life – and his approval – was more important than loving and respecting me. I spent four years after our breakup being single, and it’s when I set my standards and stuck to this mantra: “Better single than sorry.” And as life would have it, when I made the decision to finish my master’s degree and move, I finally met a great guy who accepts me for who I am.
I wish I had some profound answer on how to interact and rationalize with bullies, narcissists, liars, frenemies and other saboteurs. My neighbor got so fed up he works from home, has semi-retired in his mid-40s and intends to be hiking in Colorado in two years and generally drop out of society. My plans don’t include anything that extreme. I’m too social to ever hibernate permanently, though I did enjoy my two years “checked out” as a full-time grad student. It seems I did pretty well at hiding out. Many people thought I had left town. It’s why starting a second Facebook account (in an attempt to keep my personal and private life separate) gave me so much anxiety. I like being low-key and under the radar.
Maybe it’s not the healthiest, but my tactic is avoidance. No, you cannot avoid every uncomfortable situation or mean person, especially in a small town, but I have gotten pretty good at avoiding people I do not want to see. If you live with a mean person, like a parent, sibling, spouse or romantic partner, I am truly sorry. My advice is to invest in some good therapy, set healthy boundaries and practice regular self-care and detachment. Move a state or two away, or across the country, if necessary. I’m a fan of fresh starts and believe they can be good for the soul. If you work with mean people, well, I am truly sorry. But at least there is hope! Beyond good therapy, figure out an exit strategy as soon as you can. One thing I know for sure: You should not have to expose yourself to mental anguish or people who think it is fun to lie, shoot down your ideas, undermine your skills, and try to make you look bad on a daily basis just to earn a paycheck. You shouldn’t have to pop antidepressants or antianxiety pills, either. That is just masking a problem that will lead to some form of addiction or illness.
And rest assured, Dr. Phil, being a psychologist, would say there is no shame in seeking a well-educated, well-trained, unbiased third-party professional to run things by or solicit advice. They don’t know your family or friends, they are emotionally detached from your dramas, and they know baloney when they hear it. They will tell you if you are being bamboozled or if you are way off base. If nothing else, they allow you to vent about whatever you want and cannot tell anyone else as long as you aren’t threatening to hurt yourself or others. Go for a couple of months, a couple of years, indefinitely if necessary. A few good books that have also gotten me through some dark days and given me the confidence to stand up for myself, or at least renegotiate some personal relationships and rid my life of bad people not worthy of my time: “Help, I’m in Love with a Narcissist (seriously),” “Codependent No More,” “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life (even the most well-meaning parents can leave scars),” and a daily book of meditations by codependent author and guru Melody Beattie, “The Language of Letting Go.”
No relationship is perfect, whether it’s between family members, friends, colleagues or romantic partners. They constantly have to be negotiated, as Dr. Phil would say. Relationships are managed, not cured. Each of us has a bottom line for how much addiction, arguments, pain, betrayal, drama, disrespect and toxicity we will tolerate. We all have non-negotiables and deal breakers. We all have feelings and normally those feelings will guide you if you stop and take the time to listen and feel them. Many of us have been stuffing our feelings for so long – with food, booze, working too much, and other avoidance tactics – we are too scared to get still and listen to our intuition. If you feel you invest more into a relationship, then it may need rebalanced rather than ended. If you think it’s unhealthy, it probably is. If people yell and deflect responsibility when confronted, it may be time to disengage and stop letting them yank your chain. If you have friends who roll their eyes and make snarky comments, but overall are decent people, maybe a civilized discussion is all that is necessary. We can determine what feels good and what hurts, and we can choose whether it’s in our best interest to try to maintain a relationship or cut our losses and go on.
Not to end with another Dr. Phil-ism, but “peace at any price is no peace at all.” Once you find healthy self-esteem, your life will change. Healthy self-esteem does not mean you are narcissistic, selfish or in-to-yourself. It means you love and respect yourself enough to make YOU the priority. You will stop being a doormat. You will stop dating jerks, hanging around fake friends, and interacting with people who make you feel bad. It doesn’t mean you still won’t attract bad people, but you definitely learn to spot them more quickly. There is something liberating in liking your own company and learning to roll solo.