As 2019 came to a close, I had a realization. I looked at a lot of my relationships in the last year or so and recognized a pattern with startling clarity. I had managed to implicate myself in at least three major relationships where my boundaries had constantly been crossed.
It began with a workplace romance that became one of the most confusing and destructive episodes of my recent life. Next came what I thought was my big break; a management position in a company, and a chance to learn and up-skill in my field. I was also living in a share-house, and I eventually found myself embroiled in exactly the same situation with my new housemate that the other two aspects of my life upheld. I had full exposure to the necessity of developing strong and clear boundaries, and enforcing them.
I am by no means what anyone would call a “pushover” and I’ve always had a strong sense of self. I am probably one of the last people you would expect to have entertained not one, but three different situations where I have willingly been an accomplice to the stomping down of my personal boundaries. In the after-light of these relationships, I couldn’t help but think; “What went wrong? And how did this happen to me?”
I decided to find out.
People who are good at taking advantage of other people’s boundaries can often or mimic pleasantry to get you to conform to their will. If you feel like a boundary is being crossed, it probably is.Whilst they may not directly attack you, with foul language or name calling, a person with nefarious intent might try to push you to understand “their point of view”. They may try to sweet talk you into doing something you are not comfortable with or lay blame on you for disturbing their plans, their schedule or their mood, which is set at a more valuable position than yours. For example with my housemate, I would ask or notify him of my plans and he would agree to them. Afterwards, he would notify me that these were unacceptable or unfair.
My boss, to whom I’d specify my maximum hours, would then try to harangue me into more or picking up more shifts. He would use many tactics to get me to agree to these new terms, by way of flattery, stipulating changes of circumstance, and failing that, attacking my ability as an employee.
In both of these situations, there were no instances of swearing or threats. I was simply gravely doing them injustice by not agreeing to their new terms, and I was expected to change my behavior in accordance with their moods.
People tend to be their best self when they are feeling good. They know what they want and they’re either getting it or they’re well on their way. But what happens when you’re suffering? What happens when you aren’t feeling good? What happens when you have just had a huge let-down, and you’re trying to recover?When I look back on these three situations, their first commonality was my state of mind. There are many ways in which people who intend to take advantage of you can fly under your radar, the first of which is after you have suffered a loss.
A great tactic that salespeople around the world use is the establish your weakness and then capitalize on it. If you are straight out of a relationship or workplace where you’ve felt like you failed or are generally lacking confidence, you are more susceptible to people who want to emotionally manipulate you. They see you as an easy target to get what they want out of the situation.
Often in relationships, the one taking advantage is not always a horrible person who goes out with the intention of hurting you. In fact, abusers, narcissists and the like will often express a feeling of “wanting to look after” their partners. They also may want to control your strength so that you don’t leave them. Narcissism is very common in relationships where one person controls or places their thoughts and feelings over another. However, the first signs of this can come across as a genuine intent to care for you.
When you are in a place of low self-esteem, the idea of someone looking after you is a powerful aphrodisiac. If you’re feeling like all your relationships or workplaces have been a failure so far, you are willing to accept a lot more concessions in lieu of security and the prospect of emotional fulfillment or financial freedom.
3. Position of Power
One of the most common ways to be taken advantage of in today’s world is by abuse of power.A reason for such a massive amount of abuse in power is that narcissists (or people with narcissistic tendencies) are often the ones at the top of the food chain. They possess a key set of skills that rise them to power, along with a lack of empathy that can be confused with pragmatism. They portray a level of confidence that assures them both supporters and results.
Once a person has established power over you, whether it be in work or play, lines become blurred as to what is acceptable and what is not. If you see them as more successful as you or more financially stable, you may be coerced into lowering your boundaries by the desire to level-up, or to have the success that this person appears to have.
I found that in maximizing financial gain for the company, I was searching for a shower of compliments from my boss that never came. But what also didn’t come, no matter how hard I worked or the long hours that I put in, was any gain for myself. I sat in a sales meeting one day talking for hours about how much we could make adding one cost measure after another, my boss getting more and more enthusiastic the whole time. The problem was, we weren’t on commission. I wasn’t getting a pay rise. I wasn’t getting a promotion. I was blindly enforcing my bosses success, with not so much as a pat on the back for my work. I had asked about these things of course, but my boss found ways to assure me that I was replaceable and should be happy where I was.
Over time, the lack of encouragement slowly morphed into avoiding criticism, and by the end of my time at the company I was doing more invisible damage control than I was working towards a common goal. Once you begin to lower your standards, they continue to fall.
My housemate began behaving strangely a few months after he moved in, but I let a lot of his behavior slide because I felt empathy for him. There was many conversations in which he told me the way he grew up, the challenges he met in his community, and his relationships with his family members. When he began to act in an unacceptable manner, I would put it down to his issues with his parents, or the experiences he’d had when he was young. And because his paranoia was so extreme, I felt that I couldn’t be hard on him because he was clearly not in his right mind.People who have interests in abusing you or overstepping your boundaries can slip under your radar if you have a large capacity for empathy. One of the most classic toxic relationship models is “The Empath and the Narcissist”. This is because highly sensitive people tend to want to help and nurture narcissists.
In a similar way, if you have a big heart and like helping others develop and heal, you may be blindsided by someone wanting to step over your boundaries. You might give them extra rope in your transactions, or forgive behaviors that are usually unacceptable. This becomes a slippery slope; once you begin to make allowances for people, they tend to expect more. You lower the bar until there is no bar left.
5. Guilt and Triangulation
Being made to feel guilty can convince us that we’ve somehow ruined the plan, hurt feelings, or been disrespectful in some way. This almost always has no consideration to our own feelings and expectations. After being consumed with guilt for enough time, we start to put the feelings of others’ above our own and what we want ceases to exist.But it’s not only guilt that traps us in this line of thinking. Triangulation is where another person or persons is inserted into the argument to alter the dynamic of the relationship and be used as leverage.
It could be, “other staff agree with me” or “another housemate also thinks it’s unfair”, or “your friends think this too”. This tactic is designed to zero in on your want to be accepted and liked, and to increase feelings of isolation. It’s also used to make you feel uncertain of your position in the group dynamic.
A person who doesn’t want to take responsibility for their actions will often minimize or completely deny them. This is one of the things that drives people most crazy, as it leads you to question what is real and what isn’t. A lot of people who experience this claim “feeling like they are losing their minds”. “It wasn’t that bad”, or “you misunderstood what I meant”, is a common way to gaslight a person. Another way is to completely deny that it happened, as if the conversation never took place at all.
I experienced this with all three of my relationships, ranging from “you took that totally the wrong way”, to “we never had that conversation”. I began to write things down after they happened so I could check back that they were real. It can be incredibly confusing and lead you to question your own state of mind when you are constantly being told that things happened differently to the way you remember, or that they didn’t happen at all.
A good way to assure you’re not being gaslighted is to understand that normal people don’t converse like this. In a normal, healthy relationship, things that are said can be dissected, explained and apologized for all without any accusation of your state of mind being inadequate. If you are called a “liar”, your mental health is constantly under attack, or your feelings in the situation are not important, understand that this not normal or acceptable. You are probably being gaslighted.
7. Idealization and Devaluation
Otherwise known as the “hot-cold” technique, this is employed to keep you on uneven footing. People who use this technique will often employ idealization as a way to get you on their side. They may sing your praises and positive attributes, or go as far as making you the center of their world. This can morph into devaluation, where a person will attack the attributes that they don’t like, or attack your capabilities if you do something that upsets them.It can swing very quickly between the two, or the person can idealize you at first and turn to devaluation. This ensures that you keep chasing the original high of their praise by jumping through increasingly difficult hoops. This particular trait is common in Borderline Personality Disorder, and is a dangerous cycle to embroil yourself in, as it leads you to base your actions on the results of the way someone else feels about them.
So, What Did I do?
When I had enough downtime to consider why this was a pattern for me, I realized that the only way to escape these situations was to cut all contact. I did this swiftly and completely, in all three scenarios. I found that because the relationship dynamic had settled, that I was unable to enforce new rules or boundaries that had already been crossed. I quit the job, broke up with the boyfriend and moved out of the house. I deleted emails and blocked numbers, and found alternative work. I made a vow not to beat myself up about it, and every time I thought about how silly I was for this pattern, I reminded myself that it was because of my strength and empathy that this came about. I realized that people who don’t respect your boundaries, do not respect you. It’s very important when you get out of a situation like this to practice self-love.
I decided to align myself with all of my positive attributes. I spent time doing creative things. I allowed myself to heal and did nice things for myself. I thought long and hard about my limits, what my story was, what I believed in and what I stood for. I wrote about how I felt and I surrounded myself with people who were truly supportive. I took up meditation, listened to podcasts and read books. I applied for jobs I thought I would never get, and surprised myself. A strange thing happens when you let go of things that are not good for you. I started to look forward, I started to dream big. I stopped looking back.
Because when you cut a cord and you walk away from something that no longer serves you, it doesn’t make sense to look back. You’re not going that way.