I recently wrote about being the kind of person who sees good in others, and how that can make you a target for people who want to take advantage of you. Those people are parasites, bullies, narcissists … people who are jealous of your open and loving heart and the love and friendship that has brought you, and seek to cause you pain in order to feel good about themselves. Because they have nothing else in their lives from which to gain inner peace and happiness. They get off on making people around them miserable because it makes them feel they have control of something fundamentally good … you.
So how do you move forward after an experience that has shattered your worldview? That has deeply challenged your strongly held beliefs that people are kind and loving and while everyone makes mistakes, surely nobody would ever intentionally inflict pain on others? That has made you question everything you thought you ever knew about how we all strive to treat other human beings?
It can be tempting to hide away and avoid people altogether. To not permit yourself to become close to anyone new. To cut off everyone you do know because, well, do you really know them at all?
Just over three years ago something happened to me that completely and utterly shattered my worldview. I was in shock for a year. Aside from a few people, nobody knew what was happening, and on the outside nobody guessed. I did a brilliant job of covering things up. After that year was up, I knew I could no longer live that life, a life that went against everything I believed in, that was leading me to question my own sanity, a life that was consumed by treading on eggshells, panic attacks, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts. I took steps to distance myself from the cause, but things got much, much worse, before I was finally free. Free to work out what the bloody hell just happened. And free to work out how I was possibly going to face the world again without losing an open, loving, and trusting heart, knowing that there were indeed, toxic people in that world. Parasites, bullies, narcissists.
But I have worked out how to face it, while still keeping my heart open, loving, and trusting. Here is what has worked for me, and I really hope this might help others feeling how I did not that long ago.
Firstly, spending a lot of time alone is really important. Time alone without distracting yourself by alcohol, TV, Facebook, or filling up your social calendar. Take some time out from everything and everyone except yourself. Grieve. Process. Be angry. Cry. Learn to be comfortable with your own emotions. Learn to be comfortable with yourself. You need that time to process what has happened, and be honest with yourself about why you have been a target. This is not to say that it is your fault in any way. THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
Secondly, get a good counselor. Someone who specializes in abuse, narcissistic personality disorder, PTSD. Someone who acknowledges that what you have been through is NOT NORMAL. Make notes on what you want to discuss with them. Prepare for your time with them. Tell them you expect to come away with actual tools after every session, and not just expect them to listen while you pour your heart out. You want someone who is proactive in assisting you with rebuilding your worldview.
It is likely that patterns will emerge in your personal or professional life where your kind nature was taken advantage of before. Some of those memories may still cause you confusion. Now you can put them in context and understand that you were a target because of your open and loving heart. You didn’t do anything wrong.
You know the way that you can see people in pain? You can sense people in trouble and want to help them? You can’t help that about yourself, right? You just want to make their pain go away. Well, bullies and narcissists can read you just as well. They are experts at finding people with the most empathy because they know if they play the victim card, you’ll be putty in their hands. They can’t help that about themselves either … it’s just the way they are wired. There is nothing you will ever be able to do to change them, and there is no treatment for narcissism. They will never change.
They may have brought you unimaginable pain, but they have also given you an incredible gift. Because if you spend enough time actually processing what happened, you will be able to spot a narcissist or bully a mile away. They all behave in exactly the same way. There is nothing original about them. Which makes them easy to study. You will educate yourself about narcissism and know exactly how to respond to them. You will learn all sorts of new vocabulary, like lovebombing, gaslighting, flying monkeys, grey rock, which will enable you to easily articulate exactly what happened, and to see when anything like that is happening again. You will be able to identify these people. And instead of feeling dismayed at the number of toxic people there are in the world (and when you know the signs, they are everywhere) you will feel a secret confidence that you know what they are. And you will know to avoid them. When I met an acquaintance’s husband, I instantly saw the signs. He makes me extremely uncomfortable whereas he wouldn’t have done before, so I now know not to invest any emotional energy into that man. But I’ll be there for his wife when she realizes it too.
And it is that emotional investment that is the key to how you face the world afterwards. I made a very conscious decision to hold on tightly to my open and loving heart, because I bloody well value it. I like that about myself. I like me. I don’t want to change. So I’m just going to hold back on any emotional investment because I’m not willing to change ME, and that me is a target.
So I decided that I wasn’t going to trust anyone new. But I wasn’t going to MIStrust them either. I wasn’t going to assume everyone had some agenda of their own. But I wasn’t going to assume everyone DIDN’T have an agenda of their own. I wasn’t going to make any kind of decisions — good or bad — about anybody. I would just let them be whoever they were, confident in the knowledge that they might not show their true colours right away, and confident in my newfound knowledge of all the signs of toxic people. And confident that, having spent so much time alone and continuing to do so, anyone I let close would be close because I had one hundred percent CHOSE them to be, not because I needed anything from them. I no longer needed someone to heal, because I am focused on healing myself. Nobody can ever heal someone else anyway. You have to do it yourself. And some people never will.
Now this newfound knowledge about yourself and others is all well and good, but if you spend all your time alone you don’t get a chance to put it into practice. So you’ve got to get out there and interact. You need the chance to put your new radar into practice, and know how to clearly set boundaries when you feel in any way taken advantage of. I’ve had this opportunity three times in the past year, when I was in situations where three separate individuals behaved in ways where I felt my good nature was being abused. I fought my natural instinct to avoid conflict and not upset people, and instead put myself first. I stated very clearly that whatever was happening at the time was unacceptable, and did not give that person the opportunity to do it again. Easy to do if you’re not emotionally invested and if you know the signs that somebody will continue to treat you disrespectfully. It’s in their nature. They can’t help it. You won’t change it. But YOU get to decide if they will have the chance to do it again, not them. And actually, for someone who has historically been absolutely crap at setting boundaries, it was a fantastic feeling to do it the first time. And it got easier each time.
Living a life where you’re cautious with your emotional energy may sound like you’re constantly on the lookout for, well, assholes, but it’s not like that. Being aware of poor behaviour doesn’t mean that you stop being aware of good behaviour. If anything, you become even more appreciative of the little kindnesses in the world. Because they are there. And this is why it’s really important NOT to shut yourself away from the world. If you don’t work in a field like I do, where for three days a week I meet hundreds of people at the markets, then get yourself in a position where you are likely to meet random strangers … even if it’s volunteering in your local charity shop. When you’re spending your day smiling and chatting with complete strangers, that in itself keeps your heart open. And sure, you notice the man who flirts with female stallholders right in front of his wife, but you also notice the man who spends every weekend shopping and hanging out with his nephew. You notice the self-entitled kids who grab a handful of tasting crackers and run off after smirking at you, but you are touched by the sweet one who politely asks you if they may taste a pickle then shyly thanks you before returning to their parents.
And it’s the uncle and the polite child who stay in your heart. Because it’s open.