Tell Me More–A Relationship Red Flag?

I’m very curious to learn what others think about this topic. Despite my extensive formal education in psychology, I cannot recall learning about this behavior as a sign of a personality disorder or other psychopathy, although I believe it has to fit in somewhere. It is, at the minimum, a defensive posture and, if deployed with malice, an astute way of assessing someone’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. To what am I referring? Namely, asking personal questions without offering any emotional intimacy or depth in return.

I’ve encountered this phenomenon in two areas of my life. The first, the more benign but still infuriating of the two, happens when someone posts a question on social media but does not offer their own stance, opinion or response. I’m learning to stop myself from responding to first check whether the person “put themselves out there” and shared where they are coming from before responding. I think I’m beginning to formulate a flexible rule of “you go first” when someone asks for vulnerability. Obviously, in situations such as healthcare, I do not expect my medical doctor or therapist to tell me their problems before I share mine. There are some relationships that are meant to be one-sided. I keep having a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, though, that those posting certain types of questions on social media either have ulterior motives or are not brave enough to start from a place of showing up authentically. “Sure, I’ll share….., but you go first” feels right in some contexts.

The more ominous of the situations occurred in a face to face situation in which I found myself the past few years, in which someone I once counted a friend and now only consider in our professional capacity repeatedly asked me prying questions while sharing minimal vulnerabilities in exchange. He would sometimes be arrogant and unrelenting in his questioning, which led to a traumatic experience and a whole host of other fallouts for me. I realize now that a giant red flag should have been raised internally simply from him asking too many questions without opening up in a corresponding manner. I don’t want to over-simplify here–every question does not need a like exchange. A pattern, though, of asking highly-personal and emotionally-charged questions, coupled with very little openness by the questioner, is a concern that the person is gathering information not being a friend, and is not interested in and/or capable of developing emotional intimacy.

I’ve always been alert to potential scammers. If I answer the phone when I don’t recognize the phone number, I will not even give my name or acknowledge anything until the person tells me who they are. If there is a paranoid to gullible continuum, I am far on the paranoid side. Where I’ve been lax, however, is in treating emotional and personal queries as being asked out of kindness, since so much of my experience growing up was of being ignored. “They’re interested in me” tracks way too quickly into “maybe they care about me” when in fact there can be all sorts of motives as to why someone wants to know more about another person. In this case, there is a relatively clear-cut way to know whether to lower my guard–am I being entrusted with secrets or only asked to unearth my own. I felt violated in the former friendship I described above when I realized the person had succeeded (for a time) in hiding so much of what they really believed and who they really were from me. I am someone who typically only needs to experience something like that once to get it. At the same time, I don’t want to over-react in future situations and get lost in inventorying how many vulnerabilities have been traded. I think I’ve shared a good deal of my own perspective here, so I hope my readers will share theirs!

The Blame Game (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

I’ve spent today getting blamed repeatedly for something that isn’t my fault and having every offer of help I’ve given batted out of my hand. I’m being cast in the role of villain in another person’s story and wow is that triggering as f*ck to someone with complex PTSD. It is so difficult for me not to take a personal attack to heart.

I was able to give myself a little space and realized that what was happening was that I was being manipulated with a “give me what I want or I’ll leave you” to which I said and meant “okay leave if you must” which only caused a further escalation of emotions. I hold my boundaries sacred and refuse to allow myself to give into manipulative tactics, but the emotional waves I have to ride in doing so are quite large. I feel angry and anxious.

It takes a lot of social support to resist the efforts of someone who is being abusive, which I’m sure is why abusers try to separate their victims from loved ones. I immediately sought out others who might be influential in the situation I was facing, both to make sure I was protected and to process my reactions. They helped me parse apart the practical part of the situation from the emotional aspect of it, which is allowing me to be dispassionate in my overt response.

I’m still reeling a bit and am not certain if the situation is resolved or if it will continue to escalate, so my anxiety is intense. I’m trying to calm myself and ground myself in the here and now but it isn’t working very well. Having someone else dump what is their responsibility on my lap and blame me for the mess makes me want to clean up what I didn’t spill. I need to brush myself off and walk away, leaving them to manage their own outburst and to seek me out if they choose to do so once they’ve found a better way to communicate. How do you handle being unfairly attacked and blamed for someone else’s issue? What do situations like this trigger for you? How do you protect yourself mentally when faced with another’s scorn and wrath?

Living with Complex PTSD in a Pandemic

I don’t know if I’ve been having more self-doubts than I normally do or if I am simply more aware of the “negative” thoughts I have than I would be were life not impacted by the pandemic. In either case, in the past week, I’ve noticed myself questioning my interpersonal capacity and feeling glum about my limited social life more often than I typically would. I’m both alone and lonely, an unpleasant combination.

The pain and rage I feel from being invalidated or rejected by others is so exquisite that I have spent years cultivating a buffer of self-reliance and self-care through which I can shoulder as much of the emotional burden of being a human on my own as I possibly can. I have a paradoxical capacity to appear vulnerable and open while not actually feeling the emotions that are supposed to go with the intimacy I am able to create; this ends badly when I cut off relationships abruptly when my bullshit capacity is reached while the other person had no idea of the grave threat I viewed them as posing to me. I show up as warm and empathetic without an underlying loyalty or commitment to maintaining the trust I engender, which makes me view myself as manipulative. This has led me to scale back how far I go in engaging with others because I don’t want to hurt them. Their ability to rend my heart has diminished over time as I expect very little good from anyone.

I applied for and was granted ADA accommodations at my job related to having PTSD earlier this year. Something in that experience helped me come to terms with the fact that, although I always hold out hope for healing, I am probably going to be someone with life-long damage and deficiencies due to the childhood trauma I endured. I am disabled and no amount of “trying hard” is going to magically create relationships in which people get my disability and relate to me in a way that works with rather than against my needs. I could be and in fact have been met on a deep level by others, but it takes skill, patience and an unyielding dedication that the vast majority of people I’ve encountered are nowhere near capable of providing to me. People cause me more harm than healing and that isn’t all my fault or all my doing.

Writing out these truths and lessons helps me a little to make peace with the inner judgment and criticism I’ve been feeling. I’m worthy of grace and worthy of effort. I know I lack grace and effort in how I respond to others; I cannot abide relationships that trigger me but I can at least own the reasons why I may need to end them. I did that with a long-standing friendship that had become toxic last year and I feel much more at peace with its devolution than I otherwise would. “It’s not you, it’s me” is ugly, but sometimes ugliness is truth.

It’s been almost six weeks since I had any sort of “normal” in-person human interaction, aside from half-shouted conversations with neighbors at a distance, and I’m not collapsing underneath the isolation and the loneliness because it is not that different from my life before lockdown. I may be disabled by my trauma and my PTSD, but I will make as much of my life as I can. I suspect some people live in terror of my everyday–“what would it be if there was no one there for me”–and yet the adaptability and the persistence of life, of being as a human, of the will to be here, in this moment, fascinates and motivates me to endure.

Inner Complexity (In the Cards)

I brainstormed questions to my parts for a card for my In an Open Hand deck today; I have several left to create for the spring season. Today’s focus was about showing all sides of who I am. In reflecting on this theme, I was struck by the contradictions and nuances I’m finding in the unexpected expansiveness of being able to work from home.

From last August till this March, my mental health condition (PTSD) had been getting significantly worse, and I was struggling to find hope as I faced a seemingly unending series of triggers. Being able to disengage from face-to-face contact with people entirely has been a godsend to me, an experiment I never would have contemplated life would have enabled me to undertake. I’m “supposed” to be feeling lonely and anxious, but I feel calmer and happier than I have since last summer. My daily thought isn’t “when can I get back to normal life” but rather “oh shit, what am I going to do when I have to get back to normal life?”

I keep reminding myself that I’ve had more phone calls and text conversations and Zoom sessions than ever, so the feelings of peaceful relaxation may not be due solely to the change in the frequency of in-person interaction I’m having. I don’t know what it would be like if my internet and phone went out and I was truly alone with my thoughts, but I’m not convinced it would cause me immense suffering. Having to interact with people, especially in tense situations, causes me immense suffering.

The image that comes to mind is a broad path to the top of a mountain. I’ve managed to wander off of it and now the bridge across the stream it crosses has washed out, so climbing it is out of the question. I’ve meandered into a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies and tall grasses and a healing sun, and the shouts and commotion of “other people’s presence” are growing more and more distant. I’m no longer remotely convinced climbing the mountain of success through relationships and money holds any proximal or distant joy for me. I still require a sense of community, a sense of being a part of humanity, but what if I live it in my own garden and share my bounty in ways that work for me, rather than in a rigidly-defined and prescribed form?

There is still immense grief for others and the potential for my own losses in all of this; I’m not rose-colored in my meadow. I feel that finding my own place and pace is allowing me access to expressions of community and solidarity, instead of isolating me from them. Perhaps the best way I can say it is, more days than not (there was a notable exception), in the past two weeks I think I’ve come closer than I ever have to experiencing what it would be like to live without PTSD triggers constantly at the ready, and I love it and I don’t want to leave it. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to experience this side of things. I hope who I am inside can bundle the memories of this in a way that informs choices I make for myself in the future. What are you learning? What inner needs are making themselves known to you?

Appreciating Risk

Being on T has led to so much unexpected personal growth for me; I was unprepared for the mental effects I would experience. The best way I can describe it is having an internal slider that can shift from a fine-grained, nuanced painting to one with broad and bold strokes of color. When I need clarity and decision-making, the lines are clear and I can make a choice. When careful deliberation and a weighing of multiple competing needs is relevant, I can zoom in with great detail. I hope that the easy/simple option doesn’t start to outweigh the more nuanced one over time if I continue to use low-dose T.

A specific area of my life where this new experience of flexibility is showing up is in interpersonal relationships. I find myself speaking where before I would have suppressed my voice; my inner bravery in being honest with myself is being shared with others. Alongside my growing fondness for hearing my own voice (cringe!), I find myself feeling calmer in confronting others. The feeling of “this needs to be said” is taking precedence over “what harm might I experience if I say this.” It isn’t that my assessments of situations are necessarily changing, but my risk/reward balance is shifting. Almost bizarrely, people are starting to listen to me! I find myself being taken more seriously, although it is too soon to tell if it is in regard to a particular situation or a general shift. I do not know what will continue to change physically or cognitively, but I am here for it and am appreciative of being able to see the simple and complex at the same time. If you are on HRT as a trans and/or non-binary person, please feel free to share if anything I’ve described fits for you or if your experience has been different.

Room for Growth

I am following up my recent post about how to know whether each person’s full humanity is being recognized in a relationship. Today, I’m focusing on my own weak spots in living up to what I wrote. The list from my previous post is below.

“If your full humanity is being recognized in a relationship, you will be:

  • considered as a whole person, not as a representative of one aspect of your identity
  • expected to own your mistakes and to make concrete steps to improve
  • welcomed as you are
  • able to set appropriate boundaries, saying yes and no according to your preferences
  • only responsible for managing your own emotions, thoughts and behaviors
  • able to make your own decisions
  • allowed to consider the compatibility of each person’s needs, desires and wishes
  • taken seriously when you share that something offended you
  • offered love, affection and trust without having to earn them
  • apologized to when someone’s actions harm you
  • allowed to express your needs, desires and wishes without being shamed or mocked
  • given space if you ask for it
  • present with each part of yourself
  • encouraged to adapt and grow at your own pace
  • built up, cheered for, and supported.”

Offerings of acceptance

“Welcomed as you are” is a struggle for me in my personal relationships. In professional relationships where I have authority over someone, I strive to my fullest capacity to be open-minded, non-judgmental and to find something good in everyone I meet. Outside of the structure of this context, I tend to focus on potential red flags, signs of abusive tendencies and to assess on a continual basis how likely my boundaries will be repeatedly tested in a relationship. In other words, I center my attention on self-protection and compatibility. I would like to better trust myself to be able to adjust how close I am to someone in the context of information I learn in the future, rather than to take every questionable situation and elevate it into “and we’re done” before I have a full assessment of how things might go.

Unearned trust

I am not certain as to my capacity at “offering love, affection and trust without having to earn them.” I am not overly transactional in my relationships (for example, I don’t give gifts or act with generosity with the expectation that it is returned in kind), but I do open up incrementally as I build trust with someone. I also think that I am prone to withdrawing if I feel hurt and could fairly be accused of “abandoning” people, although my perspective is that we each need to be responsible for handling our own emotions rather than expecting someone else to resolve difficult feelings for us. I suppose my evaluation of this capacity would be that I am alright with where I am at on it, but I think there have been others in my life who would report me as being limited in intimacy and closeness.

Change on your own time frame

I am not very good at making sure those in my life are “encouraged to adapt and grow at your own pace.” I want results and I want them now! My lovely brain is highly skilled at instantly peering, with accuracy, into another’s weaknesses and then developing, without intention, a multi-step plan for how they can better their life. I have advice overflowing and have had to do a lot of work to contain my desires to share it when it is not solicited. I’ve been reinforced many times as to the fact that the assessments I make are on-target and insightful, so I feel confident that my wisdom isn’t merely a projection of my own unconscious issues. I own my shit and I work on myself constantly; my desire to help others do the same is both a reflection of my dedication to inner work and of my intolerance for a lack of insight.

But, and the pause matters here, I am not in charge of anyone’s life besides my own. I do not get to decide how, when or where someone comes to a reckoning with who they are and the impact of their actions, especially when they do not have a direct effect on me. My insight may not be what the person needs at that moment in time, especially if they are upset. Often, offering empathy clears space for objectivity and analysis, but being “rational” doesn’t always allow for an emotional connection. I feel frustrated that people I care about have to help me learn this lesson on a repeated basis, but it also allows me to circle back to considering compatibility. I do best with those who appreciate my clear-sighted way of looking at the world, rather than with those who only want “emotional support” and who do not move from a place of coping emotionally to working on solving what can be solved in their life situation. There is a fine balance to be struck in this area and I hope, with time, to get better at finding it.

If you care to, please share which of the aspects of my list you find to be most challenging at embracing, and where you might go with it.

In the Fullness of Your Humanity

For today’s post, I decided to consider the qualities of a relationship that enable a sense of my full humanity as well as allow me to acknowledge the full humanity of the person or people to whom I am relating. I will be continuing this post in the next few days in order to answer the reflection questions I included. I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments!

If your full humanity is being recognized in a relationship, you will be:

  • considered as a whole person, not as a representative of one aspect of your identity
  • expected to own your mistakes and to make concrete steps to improve
  • welcomed as you are
  • able to set appropriate boundaries, saying yes and no according to your preferences
  • only responsible for managing your own emotions, thoughts and behaviors
  • able to make your own decisions
  • allowed to consider the compatibility of each person’s needs, desires and wishes
  • taken seriously when you share that something offended you
  • offered love, affection and trust without having to earn them
  • apologized to when someone’s actions harm you
  • allowed to express your needs, desires and wishes without being shamed or mocked
  • given space if you ask for it
  • present with each part of yourself
  • encouraged to adapt and grow at your own pace
  • built up, cheered for, and supported

Reflection

Which of these characteristics speaks most to you? Are there any that feel uncomfortable, or for which you know you have caveats? Are there any that you value but find challenging to offer to another? What might you add to the list?

Invalidation or Acknowledgment? (In the Cards)

Today’s card invited me to consider vulnerability and sharing in confidence with others. What it led me to consider is how I can discern, both inwardly and outwardly, whether my pain and needs are being taken seriously or not. I know how to spot invalidation, experiencing and acting from a place of validation is more of a challenge.

Signs of A Validating Relationship

RESPECT

Respect includes boundaries. No one can solve all of our problems or bear all of our burdens. When someone respects me, they care enough to ask how they can be there for me, and to be realistic if there is something I need that they are unable to provide. The message “I agree you need this. I can’t provide it right now, but let’s talk about how you might get what you need” is my clearest approach to respectfully declining something I can’t take on personally.

Respect also includes holding what people share in confidence. This has been a struggle for me for reasons I’ve never fully understood. I think holding someone’s secret feels like lying to me and I have been known to gossip at times. Perhaps being forced to prove my “loyalty” by hiding the fact that I was being sexually abuse as a child has made me averse to knowing someone’s business but having to pretend to others that I don’t. I’m not a hypocrite in that I don’t expect others to hold most things I share with them in total confidence. If I have an area of providing a validating environment on which I most need to work on myself, this would likely be it.

Responsiveness

People express empathy in different ways, but there has to be some degree of caring shown in order to feel validated. People who ignore me by not responding at all when I’m venting show me that my concerns are unimportant to them. Likewise, those who listen to my needs and then immediately focus defensively on discounting my concerns and/or on asserting their own conflicting demands demonstrate to me that they only want to take, rather than to engage in a mutually-beneficial relationship. Responsiveness includes acknowledging my perception of the experience, apologizing if harm has been done and discussing ways to improve the situation with a non-defensive, open mind.

Recollection

In terms of feeling cared for, having someone remember a sensitivity or remind me that they care about a particular burden I’m carrying feels extremely validating. On the other hand, having to remind someone again and again that something upsets me leads me to believe they don’t actually care deep down. Sometimes, through dialogue, I’ve learned that they simply struggle with memory in general. Other times, repeated failures in this area have proven true as an indicator of their lack of concern for my general well-being.

Which relationship behaviors are necessary for you to feel heard and seen? What red flags show you someone might not be a trustworthy person who cares about you? What do you do in relationship to validate others?

Expansiveness (Today’s Daily Work of Art)

I contracted myself into the smallest spaces into which I could fit, believing my happiness lay in being likeable.

When I found myself (in pieces), I realized how much room, mine alone to inhabit, I’d been conceding to others.

Now, I’m smacking the walls, splintering the frame, willing myself into the largest existence I can create.


No boxes. No binaries. No yielding my place of power.


Certain

days shrink me.

people coerce me into thinking these walls are made of granite.

experiences undermine my foothold.


But I am imminent.

My resolve will harden my shoulders and upright my posture.

Embodied and emboldened, I will demolish any resistance to the entirety who I am.

Safety First (In the Cards)

Today’s card draw from my In an Open Hand deck invited a reflection on the safeguards needed in order to foster deep connection. I’ve become intimately familiar with what feels unsafe in relationships, so I’m hoping I can extrapolate from that into what would allow for a sense of security (as well as consider moments where it’s gone right). I believe the same principles apply inwardly in my inner work as well as outwardly as I relate to other people.

Respect for vulnerability and boundaries

The interaction that has destroyed most of my close relationships is my perception that the other person does not care about the vulnerable parts of who I am, that they are pressing past my boundaries I’ve clearly established to get to my strength, my trauma be damned. I also struggle when someone reacts to me as though I’ve crossed their boundaries, even though they either never communicated them to me or have changed them without telling me. I grow especially weary when people take and take in terms of emotional support, but then push me away when someone else (usually the person they were in conflict with that I’ve been helping them process) gets closer to them and they don’t need me anymore. Basically, I can tell when I’m being used and I refuse to tolerate it.

I want relationships where vulnerability is treated with the care and honor it deserves and where the emotional care-taking is evenly balanced over the course of the relationship. I want to be comfortable setting boundaries and having them be set with me. Most of all, I want to feel that there are more than enough resources between the other person and I so that we can both benefit from our interactions, rather than holding a sense of scarcity that makes every kindness I give feel like a kindness withheld from me (and vice versa).

capacity to own flaws and limitations

I’ve received very few heart-felt apologies about the “big” stuff in my life. I can think of several that I’ve doled out, as I know I am capable of self-examination and can take responsibility for my part in interactions. In order to be able to do this, a person must first know themselves well and accept themselves, otherwise, any feedback from others that they’ve been acting in a harmful way will only trigger their defenses.

The capacity for self-reflection is only part of the equation, as a recent relationship proved to me, as a person also has to be conscientious and able to feel guilt. I feel remorse when I know I’ve hurt someone, intentionally or accidentally, so I apologize. People who cannot feel guilt don’t and those of us on the other side of it may feel tempted to internalize their guilt. It’s as if there is a free-floating amount of remorse generated when one party harms another, and someone has to absorb it. As a result, I feel so guilty when I end relationships with people who have harmed me and have failed to apologize or change after doing so.

When someone knows themself and holds themself to a set of moral standards, they can then view mistakes and flaws as opportunities for growth. There might even be a place of gratitude for the chance to learn more fully how to be kind and caring. This is an impersonal example, but I read this article and, because I support death with dignity so strongly and because the patriarchy is so insidious, I completely missed the misogynistic murder aspect to the story until I read Twitter discourse on it. I felt immensely appreciative to be able to re-examine my thoughts and reactions before I caused direct harm to anyone by sharing my flawed viewpoint. I would be lying if I said I handled in-person confrontations as well, but I want to be a person and to know people capable of this non-defensive response to situations where we miss the mark.

support and honesty

I’ve met people who seem intent on criticizing my every flaw to make themselves feel better. I’ve also met people who flatter me as a way to get what they want from me. Neither approach is sustainable over time in terms of building trust. What I want from others and from myself is the ability to find and uplift the good, while judiciously sharing concerns when asked.

My issues with anxiety are so severe that I can lean into “well, but have you considered…doom and gloom prediction…” an approach which inevitably feels unsupportive even when my intention is to help the person avoid harm. I try now to at least ask permission before launching into such an analysis. I want the people with whom I’m close to be honest with me in their assessment of issues I discuss with them, but to couch that honesty within the context of their own biases.

In conclusion, I think I’ve managed to create a narrative to which I can return from time to time in order to assess the health of my relationships. The attributes I’ve described are not only qualities I want to find in others, they are also capacities I want to more fully develop in myself. It feels rather odd to crave guilty people, but, when I think through the relational landmines of the prior decade, pretty much all of them, whether the other person invaded my space or abandoned me when I needed support, was held in the frame of “I don’t own/accept responsibility for/feel guilty on any level” for pain I experienced as a result of interactions with the person. In some cases, I wasn’t brave enough to fully articulate what I believed the person should accept as their mess to clean up, but this was usually because their general approach to the world told me there was zero chance of them responding non-defensively. I can’t expect others to treat me in a way I cannot act, so it is my responsibility to continue to grow into the person I want in my life.

What are the behaviors and characteristics that create safety in relationships for you? What role, if any, does the capacity for guilt play? Who would you like to become relationally?