For many of us who are organized and task oriented or even just moderately productive we are viewed by others as have energy and momentum in handling life’s issues and responsibilities. Many people who may feel timid or at a loss for handling their own responsibilities often see us as an opportunity to acquire the completion of their obligations through our efforts. This perception often becomes compounded if we exhibit kindness and consideration for others which is frequently misinterpreted by them as our being an “easy touch” or manipulatable for getting what they want or need with a minimal effort, if any, on their part. Whether this is thought through or simply instinctual on their part is not as important as the fact that we must deal with them in a way that conserves our own energy for our own tasks, obligations and pleasures. Handling these kinds of people can be a real challenge especially for those of us who have been raised in our contemporary culture idolizing altruism. In this article I’d like to cover:
• The origins of helplessness,
• The ploys used by those to manipulate our attention and energy and
• 5 strategies to disarm their ploys and maintain our own direction and energy.
Origins: How might someone find themselves in a situation that they would consider themselves helpless? The simple and assumed answer is that they are simply incompetent or incapable of performing the tasks that are required of them. But it goes much deeper than that. With all the responsibilities we have in our daily lives and aside from those who are obviously handicapped we are all eminently qualified and able to deal with what our life throws at us. The chink in the armor comes when we’ve grown up in an environment where we’ve been subjected and encouraged toward the belief by our caretakers that we ARE incompetent and incapable. This coupled with the need to get on in life leaves us in an untenable position. How do we do what we need to do but avoid exposing our laziness or incompetence? Easy. We just get someone else to do it for us and no one is the wiser.
There are many reasons by which someone may feel incompetent. But, also, their personal ethics often come into play and they may not just use others to hide their perceived lack of ability. They may also have a diminished work ethic or lack consideration for others and their comfort and simply decide that there is nothing wrong with getting others to take care of their responsibilities. Whether through lack of competency or lack of ethics, the methods that others use to manipulate us into performing their obligations basically follow the same pattern. They play on our indoctrinated belief that it is our responsibility to take care of those who appear to be helpless and weaker than us.
But where did that belief come from? Two places: During colonial times we actually needed the help of others to survive and from our western altruistic and religious foundations declaring that the welfare of others is our responsibility before our own benefit or convenience. It’s a simple jump in our perception to see how easily this might be used to capitalize on our perceived obligations.
The ploys used by those to manipulate our attention and energy: This story has many variations but comes from two basic perspectives: either we believe that we are helpless or incompetent and solicit help or assistance or we know we’re not and simply use the ploys for our own selfish gains. Either way, the ploys are just as effective against us and need to be dealt with in a way that will conserve our energy and efforts so as not to be drained or subjugated.
Ploy #1: “Woe is me. I’ve been deserted and left in a position where the only way for me is down. You're my last hope!” This ploy is based on tapping into our compassion and our capacity to feel guilty if we decide to not assist. Our historically western religious belief that we are expected to be our brother’s keeper plays a major role in how we respond. This ploy has also been quoted as “the tyranny of the weak.” It also includes those who can be perceived as sick and assumedly unable to perform the tasks that are being solicited. We see this ploy primarily operating in family situations. If we accept the premise that the person is incapable or “too sick” to take care of their responsibilities, we’re dead meat. Our compassion will be seen as a weakness and we’ll be played as far as they can take us. Whether they are conscious of what they are doing or not is not as important as the process. The only difference is that if we confront the person who is unconscious of what they are doing we will most certainly solicit an honest denial and, if this is a family member, create a long term resentment on their part. Many elderly parents utilize this type of guilt and will use this ploy to maintain their children in close proximity to them.
Ploy #2: “My goodness! How well you do that! Everyone can see that there is no one as compassionate as you! I would be so grateful if you could do that for me. Where else could I find such perfection and consideration?” This premise is obviously focused on energizing our pride and ego. The controlling and hidden factors in this interchange are that if we don’t submit to what is asked we would, number one, be seen as lacking in compassion, number two, “everyone” else would see and be told that we are lacking and, number three, we would be held in contempt by the solicitor. This is the “build us up to break us down” ploy. This also includes the age old “damsel in distress.” Those of us who have fragile egos are highly susceptible to this ploy. The last thing we want is to be publicly “dissed” and our incompetence and “lack of compassion” exposed. Why incompetence? Because when we are so invested in our ego and its appearance it becomes a predominant factor contributing to how we overcompensate for our perceived lack of personal status. We will do almost anything to keep our publicly perceived image strong and intact.
Ploy #3: “It’s your responsibility to have this taken care of. If you don’t, this will leave me in a very untenable situation.” This ploy is a combination of ploy#1 but with the added dimension of bullying us through using the performance of our perceived obligations as a gauge for how others will perceive us. In a sense, this is sort of a blackmail. Much the same as in Ploy #2, if we don’t acquiesce to their demands we risk not only exposure but the spreading of our “dis-commendation” to our family, business or peer groups.
5 strategies to disarm their ploys and maintain our own direction and energy. These three ploys will cover the majority of the ploys that come from the origin of helplessness. We must remember, however, that all these types of ploys derive their effectiveness from our own perceived frailties and failings. The fact that we believe that we have them is ample enough fuel to power our subjugation by them. However, the more Self-Trust that we are in possession of, the less these ploys will have an effect on us. But as adults and humans we all know that we have weak points in our self-confidence and until we are able to “plug the gaps” with the needed confidence building we will need to have strategies to keep the “users,” conscious or instinctual, at bay in order to maintain our energy and self-respect.
Strategy #1: Accept and displace the compliment. This is mostly in response to Ploy #2. Two things are happening here. First, our culture expects us to be humble when being complimented and then to somehow defer the “honor” to another recipient. This is considered a contemporary measure of humility. The second is a play on our desire to maintain our “granted” image of “better than.” Both actions require us to diminish ourselves in order to stay within the limits of “modesty.”
There is nothing wrong with accepting a compliment. It is only our own self-consciousness and expected modesty that encourage us to deflect it. Our self-consciousness is proportional to the amount of Self-Trust we are in possession of. If it is strong within us the next part is easy. Do project an exaggerated honor on another recipient claiming that their proficiency is better than our own, that they would do a much better job than we would and that they would more likely than we have much more time and consideration to answer the solicitor’s needs. In doing so we will have played into their demand for humility but deflected it to a worthier “contestant.” We’ve effectively acquiesced to their demand of humility and used it against them. Realize that if we can’t diminish our own need to be “better than” this will not work for us. We must remember and accept the fact that we are OK as we are. This will pull the rug out from any solicitor’s exaggerated compliment and free us from any assumed obligation.
Strategy #2: Actually “help” them but put limits on your time and energy. By telling someone that we have commitments to someone else we negate the “responsibility factor” implied in Ploy #3. Then if they threaten us with blackmail we have a counter with an obligation that meets their terms but just not with them. This will also enable us to gauge our time and energy in a way that meets our needs and obligations so our interaction with them can’t be pushed beyond “reasonable” limits. This salves our desire to be helpful and useful but keeps the degree to which we can be manipulated under our control.
Strategy #3: Cite circumstances where the person soliciting help was fully competent and able to complete their obligations without our assistance. This amounts to using ploy #2 against our solicitor. In pointing out circumstances where the solicitor has been competent and able is eminently contradictory to their claim of helplessness. In pointing out their successes they must acknowledge our observation and “compliment” on their proficiency and ability. This, essentially, frees us from feeling obligated to “save them” as well as letting them know that we know that they are able to do it themselves. They cannot, in good conscience, continue to solicit us unless they have neither shame nor self-respect. If that’s the case, or they pose additional reasons for their inability (unwillingness) to perform the task(s), our response would be, “That’s just something you’re going to have to work out for yourself.” We’ve offered a culturally accepted response to their request (demand) and they must acquiesce in order to remain in good standing with us and their peers.
Strategy #4: Commiserate. This strategy is the easiest and probably the most fun all. I was working for a boss who was very people savvy and could read them like a book. When she responded this way I was shocked at its effectiveness and laughed almost until I peed in my pants. When the solicitor complained about how difficult and how hard her life had been my boss responded with, ”Oh, honey I know. It’s so hard. Dealing with that circumstance has hurt me so much too and put me in such a bad way that I just don’t what to do.” In commiserating with the solicitor she had put herself in the same position as the solicitor and disarmed her ability to put her in a position of having to be responsible for “saving” her. In the same position the solicitor could not reasonably assume that my boss would have anything to do with her “rescue.” What a beautiful and harmless way to turn the tables on being used! (Not to mention funny).
Strategy #5: Simply state “No. I’m not comfortable doing that.” DO NOT give reasons for your decision. That gives your solicitor armament and a door to badger you. If your solicitor threatens you with harm or diminished social standing, just respond with, “Well, that’s just something that I’m going to have to deal with.” Your solicitor will then, most likely, realize that they have misjudged you as an easy touch and move on to easier prey. In these days and times there is a large component of us who simply have no fear or regret in dealing with those who would use and abuse us. Our Self-Trust is developed to a point where our image in the eyes of others is minimally important and our feelings about ourselves and what we do has a lot more sway over how we conduct our lives. This does not mean that we lack compassion. It simply means that we maintain the right to determine where and how we will apply it. But until we reach that point of trusting ourselves and attending our own needs, these strategies will serve to mitigate any “coercive” experiences we might encounter.
These strategies take our time, awareness, practice and patience to be implemented to full effectiveness. We must be patient with ourselves and recognize where we must simply “cut our losses” with certain people who will not acquiesce in favor of our comfort and our necessity to care for ourselves before addressing their needs. Unfortunately, our western altruistic approach to social relationships has metastasized into a voracious cancer eating away at our Self-Trust and confidence through implied obligation. Moving from perceiving ourselves as a victim to being in charge of our own love, work and energy is an ongoing process. Remember, it took a long time to train us into being susceptible to manipulation. It will take a reasonable amount of time, patience, and practice to change us from being reactive to being proactive in our own interest. There is nothing shameful in looking after our own welfare.