Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Are You a Doormat? Don't Be!

Letting people walk all over you is not being nice or indeed even helping the people who are abusing you.

You may come away from this blog with the impression that I don't suffer fools gladly - and I don't.  And you may come away from this blog with the impression that I am unsympathetic - but that is not true.  I genuinely ache when I see people put themselves in peril.  However, I learned long ago that putting myself in peril trying to "help" people, often isn't the answer.

If you swim out to help a drowning person, and you both drown, that is not helping anyone.   And if you throw a drowning person a life-ring, and they refuse it because it is not their favorite color, then it is time to move on.  Or worse, if you drop everything to help a drowning victim, and then discover they are standing in three feet of water, you are not being a hero, but just a fool.

Simply stated, there are people out there who will latch onto you, if you appear to be even remotely successful or self-assured.  And these people will approach you and say they are victims and need your help.  And they will play upon your natural instinct - a good instinct - to be helpful and kind.  And then they will use you - play you - for all you are worth.

This is not to say that you should not be kind and generous and helpful - far from it.   Our society is a better place when people volunteer, help friends in need, and are generally kind and generous.  But you have to be careful, as your instincts to be "helpful" can be exploited and used against you.

Many of the folks who would like to abuse you do so without conscious intent - their neediness and ability to latch onto you is like what a remora does to a shark.  They are the Zelda to your F. Scott, so to speak.  Hangers-on who sense you are kind, generous, and moreover seem to have half a clue as to what you are doing.  They find comfort in your strength, your emotional support, and sometimes your financial support as well.  And they can be Emotional Vampires, as I have written about before.

But others are more conscious as to what they are doing.   Panhandlers, con-artists, and other flim-flam people can spot an empath a mile away.  The guy with the gas-can prop approaches you in the parking lot, "Excuse me sir, but I'm trying to work my way through Bible school, and I seem to have run out of gas!"  He can sense from 20 feet away that you are the kind of person who likes to help out - the first to volunteer, the one that gives a jump-start to the guy with the dead battery.  And before you know it, you are giving this guy $5 to get back to Bible School.  But an hour later, you drive by, and you see him still there, approaching another person with the same spiel.   And you realize you've been had.

So you hit the accelerator, jump the sidewalk, and run him down - and than back over him again to make sure he is good and dead.  OK, that last part is just a revenge fantasy.  But there is something particularly evil about people who intentionally play upon the good will of others, don't you think?  And flim-flam artists have evoked the ire of the citizenry for ages - often being tarred and feathered, run out of town on a rail, or lynched outright.  And their sense of outrage is understandable.  It is one thing to play upon your greed, but to play upon your good will is just sick.

How do they do it?  How does a con-man spot his "Mark" a mile away and give him the spiel, and within a matter of minutes, pocket some money?  Granted, some just approach everyone, and then quickly figure out whether the "pitch" is working or not.  And since most of us are kindhearted and generous, there is a pretty good chance they will succeed.

But they also pick up on very subtle cues - body language, eye contact, things of that nature.   And that is why, in the New York subway, you rarely saw people make eye contact, particularly in the old days, when panhandlers and crazy people would wander the cars.   You even so much as looked at them, and they zeroed in on you like a guided missile.  Because only a tourist or a chump would make eye contact.

And in a similar way, the people in your life who take advantage of you - friends, family members, acquaintances - also sense vulnerability and take advantage of your good nature.  For example a friend of mine has an emotionally disturbed friend.  Now, mental illness is tragic and all, but most of us are not equipped to deal with this sort of thing.  The emotionally disturbed friend is a very real burden to my friend, and he says things like, "I need to be around you, you make me feel better and normal!"

Now that is all very fine and all for the emotionally disturbed friend, but what does my friend get out of this arrangement?  Well, he gets the emotional energy sucked right out of him, is what he gets.  It is a relationship where it is all give and no take, where one side benefits and the other loses.  And the net result for my friend is, well, it reduces the quality of his life.

And when I was a youth, I found myself in this position, over and over again.  Perhaps it was because of my upbringing - used as an emotional punching-bag by a mentally disturbed Mother - that I ended up being an attractant for such people.  Perhaps there are just a lot of crazy people in the world, or perhaps somehow I was making myself a "Mark" for them - making eye contact when I should have looked away.  But in my early life, I ended up squandering a lot of my emotional energy by pandering to the needs of emotionally needy people.

My roommate in prep school, a roommate in college, a girlfriend, then another girlfriend, a boyfriend, family members - you name it.  People with more prescription bottles than a pharmacy on their nightstand, who will regale you about "their problems" and how important they are, for hours, without giving a rat's ass about you at all.  You are just wallpaper to them - some object to be latched onto and be abused.

It took a long time for me to break that pattern of behavior - to stop feeling sorry for people and to learn to take care of myself, first and realize that taking care of yourself is not being selfish, but instead your primary duty to society.

You see, you can't "help" people with serious emotional problems.  You can help out a friend going through a rough patch, just as you can offer to help jump start a person's car in the parking lot.   But if their engine is seized, they need help beyond what your jumper cables can provide.  And at that point, the best you can do is point them to a real professional who can help.

When I was in college, I went to a free "relationship counseling" session in the Psychology department, where young Pscyhe majors were learning their trade.  We sat down and discussed our problems and then they talked to each of us individually.  Afterwords, the professor approached me and gave the most unconventional relationship counseling I have ever heard of.  "Get out of this relationship, now" he said, "it is toxic."

And he explained to me that forming a relationship with someone who is mentally ill is never a good idea.   Such folks need professional help, and that is help beyond what you can provide.  Moreover, oftentimes trying to have a relationship with such a person is more injurious to the mentally ill person.  And such relationships - like Zelda and poor F. Scott - can end up as a lifelong nightmare.

But being raised in family marked by mental illness, I thought that such relationships were "normal" and that feeling sorry for someone - trying to protect them - was a normal thing.  Breaking out of that behavior pattern was essential.  And finding someone who wasn't needy and clingy all the time (we all are needy on occasion!) was the key to future happiness.

Now some folks would read this and say, "Well, that is just mean-spirited and cold-hearted!"  But taking care of yourself is never being mean-spirited.   After all, the people who walk all over you certainly take care of themselves, why aren't you entitled to do the same?

And of course, this does not mean you should use others as a doormat, either.  Looking out for your own self-interest doesn't mean taking advantage of others.

And it is a fine line, of course.  And like managing your finances or trying to control your weight, it is an ongoing struggle - day to day, one day at a time.  It is a balancing act, to be sure.  But you can be generous and kind and nice and helpful to others without being or feeling exploited or used.

And as I noted at the beginning of this piece, being a doormat is often unkind to the person who is stepping on your face.  If you act as a crutch for another person, they will never learn how to walk.  Rescuing people from their own folly only serves to train them to be passive-aggressive - to place themselves in a position of peril and await rescue, rather than be proactive about their lives and their livelihoods.  Once you enable their behavior, they see no need to discontinue it.

I wrote before, for example, about a friend who spend their money wildly over the years - buying a luxury motor coach, leasing new a Cadillac every three years, donating wild sums to evangelical churches, and the like.  By retirement, they were destitute, not by circumstance, but by choice.  And some of their friends "felt sorry" for them, and started paying their bills for them - the light bill, the cable bill, the credit card bill.  (And you see this story repeated in families, where a Husband sends money to his Brother or Sister every month to help pay off their credit card debt).

The problem is, the people giving the money later found out they needed it - that they were not as well-off as they thought they were.  And moreover, their spendthrift friends kept getting further and further into peril, no matter how much money was given to them.  It is like welfare - you can't cure poverty simply by throwing money at people.  If they have underlying spending problems, chances are, they will just squander the money.

And of course, giving money away is unfair to those of us to learn to live without and do without and scrimp and save.  The spendthrift friend tried to ask me for money - to help pay off a credit card bill.   But I wasn't about to give money to someone so they could have 500 channels of cable TV when I didn't even own a television.  I wasn't going to pay off their debts incurred by their serial leasing of cars, while I was driving a 10-year-old car with over 100,000 miles on the clock.  In short, I wasn't going to "feel sorry" for someone who was, in essence, wealthier than I was in terms of standard of living, if not in bank account balance.

But others are not so astute.  And they listen to the "woe is me" story and whip out their checkbooks.   And sometimes, the person being walked-on gets some sort of sick pleasure out of the deal - being able to feel powerful and responsible, like a big brother or sister, by doling out money.  It is an ego trip, to be sure.   And it gives them something to bitch about, too.

But it is a sick dance, and in the end, neither party is happy.

Look for and forge relationships that are peer-to-peer, not parasite-and-host.  In the long-run you will be far better off.