Were You Raised to be a Doormat? Most Liked Hot Conversation

Yesterday a difficult neighbor caught me at the mailbox and cried on my shoulder about a big problem she was having. I was surprised because her problem was really personal and we don’t know each other very well, but she was distressed so I stood and listened and made sympathetic noises. When I saw a decent opening, I bolted.

Later, I told Mom that I hadn’t wanted to hear about the woman’s problems because it made me feel obligated, but more than that, I wondered why she’d dumped that load on me.

“She probably feels comfortable with you,” said Mom. “Maybe she doesn’t have anybody else. It’s a compliment.”

A light went off in my brain as I recognized the sound of old, familiar propaganda.

Like many of you, I was taught to sacrifice my own interests in service to others. If a person who everybody else avoids reaches out to us, we feel honored to be chosen. Because we’re special – stronger, more patient, more broad-minded than those wimpy others who would simply give up.

I was taught to think, “I must really have something, that this person needs me.” What I didn’t see was that normal people avoided the abusers. Normal people valued themselves enough to protect their time and energy, whereas I labored to help the crackpots change and do better. When I first got hired in human resources, I was practically codependent.

I had the look of a victim.

I understand that my parents thought they were teaching me compassion, but they went too far toward love and not enough in the direction of self-defense. It would have been good if they’d taught me to squint, Clint Eastwood-style, when I encountered potential users.

I once read a book called The Sociopath Next Door (yep, that’s what floats my boat) by Martha Stout. Toward the end she said, now that you know everything about a sociopath, you’ll want me to tell you how to protect yourself. How to see them coming. And the answer is, you can’t, not really, because they look for people who are nice, because those people are more easily manipulated.

Well, isn’t that great.

Even if you never meet a sociopath, you still have to have some filters, because even good people can tend to take, take, and take some more. Here’s an article by Dr. Judith Orloff about maintaining balance in a vampire relationship.

Now that I’m older I consciously resist looking like an easy mark or sending out signals that say, “Use me! Use me!” After many years in HR, two failed marriages, and countless one-sided relationships, I have developed a strategy. I offer it to you.

At first you take a little chance on a person, without making an irrevocable commitment. Then you look for reciprocity – does the person give you something ethical in return? Time, effort, repayment, career help, etc.?

Or instead of looking for reciprocity, observe and track the person’s behaviors. Discount any talk of big dreams or undeserved heartache; watch the patterns. If you see a track record of selfish behavior, lack of follow-through, or narcissism, arm yourself. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Act accordingly.

I understand that there’s a risk in taking this hard-line approach. You can’t shut down or become a recluse. Compassion is good! We need more of it. Also, this rule gets a little wobbly when you’re dealing with children or really young people because they’re not fully formed. I cut them more slack than mature adults.

Here’s a weird outcome of my new thinking: I don’t feel quite so special. I’m average, not heroic. I no longer have bragging rights. (More about that in a previous post, The Courage to Be Average.)

Although it’s good to be heroic, I’d reserve that for pulling kitties out of trees. In the meantime, I implore you to teach your kids or grandkids the squinty-eye. It just might save them from being drained and manipulated by the weirdos, narcissists and slackers who depend on a friendly face and big heart for all their energy needs.

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Posted in Any Shiny Thing, family & relationships, health & fitness.

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28 Responses

  1. Debi Drecksler Debi Drecksler says

    I loved what you wrote but I have to agree with your Mother…“She probably feels comfortable with you,” said Mom. “Maybe she doesn’t have anybody else. It’s a compliment.” 

    We need more compassion in this world…Even if it’s toward a stranger!

    7 like

    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      I know, Debi, you’re right. This post got away from me a little. I was trying to say that compassion is good in the right balance, but if you find you’re living for mean people, sacrificing yourself all the time, it’s not good. I’ll have to chalk it up to unclear writing and try harder next Friday!

      4 like

      • Generic Image Susan406 says

        I’m glad you added this comment.  Although I agreed with what you wrote above, I think the trick is to find the balance between being compassionate and being taken advantage of.  That’s really hard to do!

        4 like

      • CeeJai CeeJai says

        Hello Lynne,

        I just read your post and LOL because I posted on the same subject last week on my blog. Age does give us freedom. I think the Universe is telling us enough is enough!

        You can check out my take on being a doormat at http://www.doctorcj.com

        0 like

  2. Hawk Lady Hawk Lady says

    I enjoyed your post and recognized myself in it. For years I had a ” friend” that was a vampire. All our conversations were about her. Even if I had something I wanted to discuss it would end up being about her. Now that we are older I don’t subject myself to her selfishness.

    Yes, as women of a certain age, I think it was part of our role training as young girls to be caregivers. Caregivers are compassionate, giving, sacrificing, and unselfish-aren’t they?

    At some point in time we have to become caregivers to ourselves. I don’t think that makes us any less special or extraordinary.

    7 like

    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      Thanks, Hawk Lady. It’s one of the compensations for getting older: you feel more entitled to say no, because you know who you are and don’t feel as obligated to prove yourself.

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  3. watermusic watermusic says

    If you do it out of kindness and genuine concern that’s compassion. If you do it because you are afraid of how not doing it will make you look that’s being a doormat. I can tell you as a recoverning doormat that it helps to listen to your inner self. When you act out of compassion you feel  energized and connected. When you act out of fear you feel drained.

    14 like

    • Sienna Jae Fein Sienna Jae Fein says

      So well said, watermusic!

      Don’t you think recovery from doormat-ism is easier as we age? This is a time when, as a rule, we are more focused on our larger families and our widening social networks. Life experience helps us grow more discerning with regard to those outside that circle.

      We’ve all had encounters with people who are all about themselves, and we’ve learned to extricate ourselves with varying degrees of aplomb. We need to know that we can be good people without feeling responsible to listen to every whine inflicted on us by people we barely know.

      Compassionate understanding when a friend or family member is in pain is what makes us human, but listening to a litany of grief from a near-stranger who just wants to vent is not compulsory.  

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      • watermusic watermusic says

        Well, I’m 56 soon to be 57 and I’m still learning. I will give you a good example of the balance between compassion and healthy self care though. I work with a woman who is in the middle of a drama the way she often is.  Her emotions are extreme and intense. When she started telling us about the lastest I listened for a few minutes then redirected the conversation.  I care about her and I care about me. Listening to her rant and rave wasn’t helping her and it wasn’t doing me any good. Someone on this site said, “I refuse to let the events in some one else’s life effect my emotional well being.”  That is sound advice.

        10 like

  4. Flow555 Flow555 says

    Good discussion of issues!

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  5. Jeannemcv Jeannemcv says

    I can relate to the Doormat Theory…My mom dubbed me The Emotional One since I would listen to all people and then truly feel for them..but through the years I have friends and family with many problems and frustrations, and because I am sympathetic and compassionate, they turn the tables on me and drag me into their junk..I have extended the OLIVE BRANCH IN PEACE way more then I ever should..since I am a Doormat I can never have the last word, so I am the bigger and more mature person and calls a peace treaty..so now am thinking it is not a great thing to even get caught up in listening!!

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    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      Oh, Jean, you are singin’ my song. But here’s the weird corollary: once you say, “I cannot do this anymore!” and back away from the peacemaking, you, or rather I, lost my sense of being so important. If I wasn’t the golden one, able to make a difference, backing out only to save myself, then wasn’t I just kind of average? And I had to let that be okay.

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  6. Generic Image lovinglife says

    I spent 45 years being a ” Doormat ” for my narccistic husband .. and many of those years were after I had gone to a therapist who diagnosed me  as being co-dependant.  Would I ever learn to discern the difference between being compassionate and being used?  Yes !!!  with lot’s of hard work the past couple years I have come a LONG way .. and yes,  tears too.  I just want to fix everything for everybody .. oh,  and fix them too. You can recover .. and backslide .. and recover again .. once you truly recognize the behaviors you need to avoid .. and the people you have to distance yourself from.

    2 like

    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      Debbie, Dr. Phil says you have to look for the payoff – all behavior is motivated. I think it’s motivated by fear, but Dr. P says there’s always a payoff, and once I heard that, I really felt like I could understand. Codependency in my case was motivated by fear that the other person wouldn’t survive without me, and the payoff was that I felt safer if I plugged in and let them suck out all my energy, as I tried to save them. Sound familiar?

      3 like

  7. Generic Image anonymous says

    Hi Lynne.
    You’ve one of the best subject for discussion today. Living the door mat live for many years, I am trying to finally learn how to help the one who truly needs it, and the one who just takes an advantage of my good will, compassion and generosity. Being on this new live path, I did not realize what a challenge it is going to be for me. I would like to recommend a book written by Mary Ellen O’Toole, Ph.D; called Dangerous Instincts. How Gut Feelings Betray Us. Fear Can’t Help You. An FBI Profiler Shows You What Can.

    2 like

    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      Vera, thanks for the recommendation. Sounds like an expert on the subject. Years ago I watched a video on interviewing techniques. Called “More than a Gut Feeling,” it said there are no such things as instincts in adult humans, but what we DO have is the ability to pick up on signals that are so subtle we’re not even aware of them.

      1 like

  8. Generic Image Faith Baker says

    I have always had a kind heart, which got me into a marriage with a misogynist husband. I have been used by so many people thru the years that I now have no friends, because I guess I exude this kindness but will no longer be drawn into their drama. I am 51 years old, so this has been a long learning process and I must constantly be on the “look-out” for people’s motives! It is time for me to take care of myself, as not any of these people has ever returned my kindness, help, money or favors. Its difficult to do when we women are brought up to believe it is our job to take care of everyone! Its high time that we get off this mind-set and start thinking for ourselves and for taking care of ourselves first and foremost. Believe me, no one else will! 

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    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      Faith, you are so right!!! The best thing that ever happened to me to help me break this self-destructive pattern was my second marriage. My husband once said, “I earned you.” I thought he meant he had struggled so long and hard to be a better person that when he HAD, then I came along and he was rewarded. HAH!!!!! He meant he had worked very hard and didn’t intend to continue, so had endeavored to find a sugar mama, and by hook and crook, he found me. Once I realized my mistake, it all fell into place. Horrible, but educational.

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  9. jada jada says

    In my openion, the word (door-mat|) refers to someone who allow people in their personal lives to walk all over them by letting them treat his/her the same way they feel about a door-mat; that is something you only use to wipe you feet and don’t care or think about it.  I would call it a (dumping-ground) because I used to be a dumping-ground for many of the people in my circle.  Some of them were my relative, friends. stangers and my close family.  It was as if I had a sign on me that says (please dump you problems on me, I am strong and I am prepared to take on any problem that you may have)  Well, did they responded to my sign.  Yet, when I had a problem, I had no one to use as my, dumping-ground  for my problems.  I got so tired of being a dumping-ground for everyone that I felt as if I was carrying a ton on my shoulder; it started to affect my health and that was when I decided that I will not be a dumping ground any longer.  The result was what I had expected.  I lost many friends and even some of my close relatives.  Some called me the mean Bitch or selfesh.  You know what?  I am soooo proud to be a bitch/selfesh than to be a dumping-ground for anyone.  It took me years to come to this point of my life.  I had to stop being a door-mat and a dumping ground because I felt that I had to start loving myself and to say no to abuse.

    2 like

    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      Jada, it’s hard at first to “love yourself” because it feels so selfish. We don’t REALLY want to be bitches! And when we give, give, give, well damn, nobody can accuse us of being selfish or bitchy. it’s like our protection. But if we get to a place where we are at last ready to take that risk of being judged, we hold our heads up and say, “sorry, I can’t help you.” It’s rough, esp. if you were raised a certain way, like we were!

      0 like

  10. Hawk Lady Hawk Lady says

    It relates to how much we value ourselves. Others will value us only as much as we value ourselves. Dear God, women of our generation were not often made to feel equal let alone special! We are the only ones that can rectify that.

    0 like

    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      Hawk Lady, I remember in the early 1970s I was very much into the idea of Women’s Liberation, and then Proctor and Gamble came out with a laundry detergent just as the Equal Rights Amendment failed for all time. The detergent? ERA, all in caps. I was convinced they did it to rub our noses in it. That’s how unhappy I was about it. Of course, looking back, now I think it might have been more about my home life than the USA.

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  11. Generic Image anonymous says

    Hi Lynne.
    Yes, it was a hard lesson for me to learn to pick up signals that are subtle and hard to detect at first. That’s why I am very thankful to you and people like you who openly talk about them to rise awareness. At the same time are able to write the experiences, outcomes and the solutions they found useful to overcome the challenges; they were faced with for us to learn from. Your post and comments we leave in is one venue.

    0 like

    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      Vera, that’s the cool thing about Vibrant Nation: you do get a lot of interesting posts that draw commenters, and it ends up being like a big coffee klatch. As you say, we can all learn from each other. Tnks for commenting!

      0 like

  12. Generic Image MyraLea says

    Oh boy!! Does this ring a bell with moi or what. You see I’m the daughter of a motherless daughter, so a lot of my needs were unmet in childhood, anyway, to make a long story short,when we are lacking, sometimes we just grab on to whoever comes along. I used to make friends with people I felt sorry for. Guess what though? They don’t usually reciprocate!! Imagine that? So, lately, I’m going through a tough time with health issues, a stay in rehab, etc. I feel as though I’m starting over somehow with a new year, new goals like finding a job, place to live, and the one thing I spend a lot of time thinking about….friendships. However, even if I spend a few Saturday nights alone, I am not going to establish a friendship with someone who brings on their own drama by making poor choices or using bad judgement. It’s okay to disagree with some of your friend’s decisions, but if there in an unhealthy pattern emerging…..forget it!! Wow! This post really got my attention, huh? lol

    1 like

    • Lynne Spreen Lynne Spreen says

      MyraLea, your comment just really resonates for me. “Feeling sorry” for somebody still is the surest way to get money out of my wallet. But some things you can only know with TIME, and that’s the beauty of being our age: we have had enough time that now we have seen patterns and know how to judge, in order to protect ourselves. Good to hear from you!

      0 like

  13. Hawk Lady Hawk Lady says

    When I grow up I hope to be wiser, stronger, more creative, and a whole bunch more caring. Yet, there is a fine line between caring and charity and I still do not have an unending resource to devote to charity. Relationships are healthy only as long as they provide each of the parties with something close to parity. The wisdom comes in measuring that and the strength in caring enough for ourselves to not allow abuse.

    0 like

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