Saturday, July 31, 2010

How Dare You Defend Yourself!

It starts innocently enough. In fact, it starts with compliments: "You're so wonderful! I LOVE the way you're always so nice and welcoming. And smart, too! You're the best friend, counselor, teacher, etc. I've ever had!"

Early in the relationship you hear pointed gossip and sniping about other people but when you say that you're uncomfortable your friend says: "Oh, I'm just being concerned. That's how we figure out how to help people in my family." Loving. Caring. Being concerned. Hmm, that's not how it was done in my family. . . but my family members aren't exactly the best role models. You try to justify what you see in your friend, you try to be loving and look for the best. But you fear that the "helpful" aspect she talked about is never really acted upon directly. . . at least not in a loving way, not that you can see.

Then you hear worse things. "So and so did that, so and so did this. So and so is always doing something 'wrong'." You express concern that your "friend" might be harboring distressed feelings about you but the response starts out the same: "Oh no! You're wonderful! I'd never think such thoughts about someone like you!"

Still, you think to yourself, what is a person like me?  Is there some way I might let my friend down? You brush that thought aside and then you brush it aside again and again. Don't let "your negativity" spoil things. After all this relationship seems to be going alright—why worry about something that appears to be okay?

And then it extends to wide world: "Did you hear what happened on the news today? We have to stop this awful thing! It's awful! It's incest! Rape! Sexist bastards! Rapists! Land rapists! Republican sexist land-rapists! [Assuming the person is a Democrat. . . think of Glen Beck and his cronies if they're not.] The people involved are Nazis. The people involved don't give a damn about anybody. The people involved have to be brought down! They're evil, they're bad. Why isn't anybody DOING anything???!!!"

uhhhh. . . It doesn't feel right and yet. . . how can I say I've never, at least at one time or another, thought the same way?

The individual incidents that start to add up in your mind never seem terribly awful or even intentional taken one at a time. It's hard to point to a single example of destructive conversation (at first) that doesn't make you feel like you're being petty, judgmental or somehow deficient in your loving and compassion about your friend's apparent distress. She came from an abusive family, didn't she? Wasn't she/he abandoned at a young age or virtually abandoned by having lived with an alcoholic or someone who was mentally ill? How could she take responsibility for her own thoughts and actions after a childhood like that? She has a disability! A disability to think positively about anything. . . except about you, of course.

But bit by bit you start to distrust anything your friend says. She was SO nice yesterday but somehow the conversation turned to an acquaintance of hers who is "irresponsible" or "lacking in generosity" and the story told is something she might be able to say about you. "Oh no, you're never that way! And besides, you have a lot going on in your life. If you ever do anything like that it's only because you're going through a rough time."

But the next time you get into conversation it's more of the same.

Then come the underhanded snipes in your direction for supposed infractions the two of you never have discussed. Expectations that haven't been filled that were never agreed upon or even spoken of. If you try to talk about it directly, a phony exaggerated sweetness comes into your friend's tone of voice. "Oh no! I'm not upset about anything!" If you persist the response becomes even more adamant: "I know better than that. You mustn't think that way about me. I didn't mean anything by it. A slip of the tongue, I never think like that about you." And on and on. But there's no mistaking the hard set to the jaw, the narrowed eyes and distant feeling of angry superiority coming from your friend's direction.

But it goes away. A few days or weeks later everything is going along swimmingly again. It's comfortable enough, you stop thinking about it.

Until the day you walk into the room and overhear your friend on the telephone telling horrible lies or twisted half-truths about you to whoever she was talking to. Worse, it was about something she had insisted for months wasn't something she was unhappy about at all! In fact, she had told you to stop trying to do anything about it. She was happy with how things were.

That's one example. A worse one, by far, is the person who might be given the label of having borderline personality disorder. That person puts you on a pedestal only to knock you off later for some misunderstanding but it doesn't stop there. If the pattern repeats of you needing to say "no" or to call them on their behavior often enough, they decide that you are the evil Nazi, the rapist, the next person that needs to be "brought down". The tone of sweetness is replaced with angry vindictiveness. Suddenly you're faced with a person with a vendetta. If you're unfortunate enough to look like a person with some authority—a therapist, a social worker, someone who "should have known better"—well, suffice it to say I worked at a social service agency where a patient with this disorder attacked. If she hadn't left a deranged 20 minute message on our answering machine that showed the lack of clarity behind her thinking we would have wound up using enormous amounts of time and resources attempting to defend against the lawsuits she was threatening in a court of law.

Back to the title of the blog: how dare you defend yourself?!! You see, the incident that sets this behavior off is when your ability to be nice and welcoming is superceded by the need to set limits, to say "I don't like this behavior anymore", to say "no", or even end the relationship by choosing to shut the door. It might even be a casual conversation—a thread on Facebook, for example— where you express the opinion that saying no to this type of personality might be a good approach for someone else. "How could you say that?" the borderline (or somewhat borderline) person will say and suddenly the perceived trust in the relationship is tipped on the floor.

The incident at the social service agency I worked at has haunted me ever since because of my own family history and, more frightening, because I didn't have the experience at that point to see it coming. The borderline person is attracted to people who try to be helpful—the "good" people, the ones who would never hurt them or let them down, the ones who were trained at birth to be so responsive, the ones who adopted highly functional, super-responsible, take-care-of-others patterns to survive. And to tell you the truth, they tend to pick therapists and well-meaning teachers specifically because of this. There's a strong element of perfectionism and codependency that comes from having lived in fear of the consequences of making mistakes. The healers among us are especially prone.

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