Three Rules for Empaths – an Antidote to Abuse and a Guide to Healthier Relationships
Jordan Peterson is an infamous psychology professor and author whose recent book, “12 Rules for Life – an antidote to chaos,” is an acclaimed best-seller. Throughout this book Peterson espouses the wisdom he has gained from his years researching and engaging with clients. This wisdom is distilled into 12 epitaphs which he calls ‘rules.’ Whilst I have not yet read the entire book (it is on my reading list), I thought I’d borrow his format with this post which I have entitled Three rules for empaths – an antidote to abuse.
I am suggesting that three important rules to consider are boundaries, honesty and self-love. But more about them later.
These ‘rules,’ if followed, will go a long way towards protecting you from abuse, toxic relationships or mere awkward interpersonal interactions.
If you are an empathic, highly sensitive person, a co-dependant or even just an every day person who simply thinks that ‘most people have the best intentions’ or someone who tends to ‘see the best in everyone’ then this post is for you. Or, perhaps you’ve recently been the target of a nasty smear campaign or have just come out of an encounter with a toxic person or abusive relationship and you are looking for answers.
The reality is that there are damaged people out there, many of whom have their own histories of abuse and trauma perhaps, but whether consciously or unconsciously these people wreak havoc on society at large. Many are undiagnosed cluster B personality types who do not have the capacity or the desire to self-reflect. They have a deep, psychological need for validation, approval or a crippling fear of abandonment. They also lack empathy for others to varying degrees (common to all cluster B personality types) and they cannot abide criticism in any form, forever blaming others, the system or circumstances for their woes. They have little regard or capacity to care about the feelings of others or the impact of their actions on society in general. Therefore, their behaviours go unchecked in the community as they bulldoze their way through relationship to relationship, negatively affecting people whom they come into contact with, either via the workplace, in families or in intimate relationships. For an example of the sorts of damage these people can do see Sarah M. Brown’s excellent article in Psychology Today, Who does that?
The ‘who’ Brown refers to are Cluster B Personality disordered people, many of whom run rings around the unsuspecting. The good news is that if you become entangled with one of these pathological personality types eventually you will come to the realisation that there is something not quite right about this individual. You may not be able to put your finger on it initially, or you may question whether or not you’re over-reacting or even imagining it. But something about this person starts to ring alarm bells. Hopefully, you are in a position to remove yourself or step away from this person as fast as possible. Far too often, unfortunately, people find themselves trapped in a situation or relationship with someone who is turning out to be not quite the way they presented themselves in the beginning.
If this describes you, and you have come out the other end, shaken, scarred or maybe even traumatised beyond belief, you may be wanting to know how you can avoid having to go through anything like this ever again? Well, this reflection is not that. This is not a “Red flags” to watch out for piece. There are plenty of those on the Internet, but what this article is really about is you.
This is because it is (often) the case that you directly allowed the narcissistic/toxic person into your life or allowed them, at any rate, to affect you negatively. This may not be the case for children of narcissistic parents or if your boss turns out to be a narcissist, but even if this is your situation the below three rules will go a long way towards either helping you heal from an encounter with one of these toxic people, or towards dealing with this person in your life. If you practice the following rules, such that they become a part of who you are, you will be less likely to be 1. Attractive to narcissistic/toxic or sociopathic people as they will pass you over for a ‘softer’ target, and 2. Easily sucked in by one in the future as you will be more grounded and sure of yourself.
Now, let’s go through them one by one.
Rule 1: Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries!
Rule one could actually be all three rules combined. Because, if you get rule one right, you most likely won’t have to worry about rules two and three. However, rules two and three are essential for healthy relationships. After all, healthy relationships (and by healthy, I mean positive, fulfilling, respectful and joyful relationships) are everything a toxic or abusive relationship is not.
The first step to living within your boundaries is knowing them. Yes… knowing what your boundaries are is the key to protecting them. Sit down, have a think and write some things down that are important to you in terms of values. What do you value most? What sort of person do you want to be? How can you live your life in such a way that you sleep soundly at night? What sorts of people, relationships, activities do you want in your life? These are the sorts of questions it is well worth asking yourself from time to time. One way is to get a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the middle so as to make two columns. At the top of one column you write the word, “YES” and at the top of the second column you write, “NO”. Then simply fill out both columns with a list of what you will say yes to and what you will say no to in your life. It is your life after all, just as it is your body and your time. No-one has the right to tell you what you should feel, think or do. Knowing your boundaries is the first step towards protecting them. Once you are clear on what you will say yes and no to it becomes easier to tell when someone else is trying to encroach on your boundaries.
Note: Be aware that toxic people will often be quite subtle in their boundary violations, especially in the beginning. They will often start with small, seemingly insignificant requests which may not seem like that big a deal, but they will still make you feel uncomfortable. These are often used to ‘test the water’ so to speak, to see how you react. If you give in on a small boundary violation, they will then push things a little further next time, and so on. This is just something to be aware of, which is why the next rule is also very important.
Rule 2: Honesty
Some toxic personalities become very skilled at getting others to unwittingly break their own boundaries in often subtle, covert or even devious ways. Some (especially sociopaths, psychopaths and some malignant narcissists*) will purposely say all the right things and act in such a way as to project an image of healthy normality, or of who they think you want them to be. Often this involves a period of romanticising and idealising you, the target. They will tell you what you want to hear. They will mould themselves into your perfect other, reflecting your needs and wants seamlessly. Thus, you may let your guard down at first with these people. However, sooner or later the mask of perfect normality will slip. This will usually be in the form of getting you to ‘bend the rules’ in some way which usually involves breaking a small but significant boundary. If this happens it is important to check-in with yourself often. It can help to monitor how you feel after spending time with a certain person and to honestly reflect on whether this person makes you feel supported, respected and valued, or whether you feel anxious, unsure or somehow ‘less than’ after being with them. Do you find yourself questioning your own reality or version of events? Are you being accused of saying or doing something you know you didn’t do? Is this person trying to emotionally manipulate you in some way, guilt trip you or become overly emotional when they simply do not get their way, until you give in to their request and they become as sweet as pie again? Do you feel drained emotionally, physically and even spiritually after you spend time with them? If so, you need to be honest with yourself about the effect this person is having on you. To be able to see what is rather than what you hope something to be is a skill worth cultivating.
Now, being honest with yourself doesn’t mean you have to be honest and upfront with everyone you meet. If you choose to be honest with a toxic person, be prepared for some heavy-duty backlash. As I mentioned above, they do not take well to criticism. The best you can do is be honest with yourself and then be direct, clear and steadfast in your NO; No, I don’t want to do that, No, I cannot drive you on Saturday, No, I won’t lie for you, etc. You don’t owe them a reason. Saying no should be good enough for a reasonable person. If you love and respect yourself, then saying no to a narcissist/toxic person becomes easier to do. This brings me to rule number three…
Rule 3: Love and accept yourself, just the way you are.
Self-love is the key to tying it all together. I have written about self-love before and have mentioned Louise Hay, the queen of self-help who advocated for self-love as fundamental to self-improvement and healing. But how do I love myself, you may ask? There are many things one can do to love and accept oneself. There are affirmations, there are acts of self-care, honouring your needs and feelings, being truthful with yourself and others are but some of the ways. However, I think a simple rule of thumb is to attempt to treat yourself as if you were someone you really cared about and wanted the best for. In other words, be your own best friend, mother and even lover. Show kindness, love and even affection for yourself in all things. Consider yourself a unique, worthwhile and valuable individual who is deserving of love and acceptance, just the way you are. Check out my summary of Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability for more about what it means to have a sense of worthiness.
But let it be said that those who have a healthy sense of worthiness, self-love, acceptance and compassion for themselves are less vulnerable to anything a toxic or abusive person may conjure up. When you value yourself, it acts as a natural repellent or barrier that protects you from unsavoury characters who may cross your path. The best part is, if you take these three ‘rules’ to heart and practice honesty, self-love and keep proper boundaries then you don’t need to do anything other than be yourself. You will naturally attract people that value, accept and love you for who you are into your life, which will leave little room for narcissists, abusers or the like.
I hope you found this post helpful. If you are in an abusive relationship, help is out there. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800respect if you are in Australia – or your local domestic violence support service in your country.
*I am purposely using non clinical terms for the sake of readability here.