Once upon a time while I was in renal failure — but before my kidney was removed — I met an older woman online in a high-falutin’ self-development group. Then I learned I was in renal failure, and I announced it to the group since it meant I’d have to drop out.
A few women reached out, and this one — we’ll call her Tammy — offered to drop in and ‘sit with’ me. Since I had a part-time nurse, this seemed ok. But I was on lots of medication, and I was in a state of real mental and emotional distress.
Tammy showed up late, after my nurse had left for the day. What followed was a visit from the bowels of hell. Despite the fact that I had just been released from the hospital with a devastating diagnosis, Tammy demanded that I cater to herwhims, which were plentiful.
She criticized the fact that I had some art sitting on the floor although it was framed and waiting to be hung. She spent 2 hours telling me the ins and outs of her feuds with different members of her family, which basically amounted to nobody speaking to her any longer.
When I asked her to leave she refused by stating she was going to stay there until my partner showed up so I wouldn’t be alone. At this point, I was seriously considering calling the police or an ambulance to come pick me up and get me away from this woman.
I tried to escape by going to the bathroom, and Tammy followed me.
In the end, I was reduced to tears. And she ignored the fact that I was crying, the fact that I wanted her to leave, and the fact that I was exhausted. This visit prompted a dear friend of mine to create a flyer that I was to hand to any other visitors that told them they had to leave after 20 minutes.
The Houseguest from Hell was a classic example of emotional vampirism aka asshole behavior. Unfortunately, if you’re someone who’s living with chronic pain, chronic illness, or trauma that occasionally requires a great deal of rest or removal from society — you’re even more vulnerable to these kinds of people.
Here’s the thing, they don’t see themselves as breaking boundaries. They see themselves as kind and generous folk. But it’s not just how we present ourselves that matter, it’s also how we’re perceived.
So if you’re reading this and thinking “oh my gosh I think I might know somebody like that” – or worse – you think you might bethat person, I’ve created a little graphic with key phrases of the person who’s being a asshole versus the person who’s being a supportive angel.
Here’s the rub, when you’re dealing with a prolonged event it’s lonely. In fact, there’s a transformational energy in your life when you’re in the middle of a crisis that’s inherently solitary. You step out of the normal flow of community life. Every flavor of transformation demands solitude.
I’m not just making this up, either — I’m not that smart. I learned what I know about solitude from some seriously wise people.
“Solitudeis the furnace of transformation. Without solitudewe remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. – Henri J.M. Nouwen
Without great solitude, no serious work is possible. – Pablo Picasso
In solitude I find my answers. – Kristen Butler
Disappear. Then, come back even better. – Ree Johnson
In stillness lives wisdom. In quiet you’ll find peace. In solitude you’ll remember yourself. – Robin Sharma
As a result of all this solitude – however necessary for your transformation — you can become desperate for other people. You can become desperate for interaction, society, community, and the feeling of normalcy. It’s a very vulnerable state and you’re not always at your best decision making. You may find yourself on serious pain medication, or find that your memory or your perceptions are changed by pain. You may be on other medications that also have impact on your thinking and your decision making.
You may also have such depleted energy that you can’t advocate effectively for yourself. Or you may experience a sense of helplessness that makes it really difficult to stand up when you’re being bullied.
There’s almost no foolproof way to completely boundary yourself from assholes. However it is at least worth the attempt and you can always take a beat, look around at the people who surround you, and ask yourself how they behave in relationship to Ring Theory.
If You Like It Put A Ring On It
Psychologist Susan Silk and her friend Barry Goldman developed a concept called Ring Theory a few years ago.
It’s an easy way to know what to do in a crisis. If the crisis is happening to you, you’re in the center of the ring. If the crisis is not happening to you, you’re in one of the outer circles.
The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can cry and complain and whine and moan and curse the world and say, “Life is unfair,” and, “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.
When you are talking to someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you can’t resist opening your mouth, first ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. For example, offer support. Don’t give advice.People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support.
But what does this look like in a real life? Another woman from that same group — we’ll call her Tammy Angel — came to visit me almost a week later. I was extremely hesitant to have her come by, but she assured me she was just going to drop by during her lunch break, and she wanted to bring me something in support.
When she showed up, she walked through my door and introduced herself, gave me a gentle hug, looked me in the eye and said “I am so sorry this is happening to you.” Before the hug, she had to sit down a bunch of balloons and a houseplant that she brought.
We had a short 20-minute visit, during which she also presented me with a pink glittery journal and a collection of multicolored pens. She shared with me that her son had dealt with prolonged illness and she knew how lonely it could get. She asked if there was any food she could heat up for me, and then looked at her watch and said, “I don’t want to keep you up too long. I’ll go ahead and head out.”
The two Tammies — Asshole and Angel — give an effective illustration between what it means to offer support to someone in a crisis and what it means to be a jackass to someone in a crisis. Ring theory is really helpful in regards to who you should be dumping on and whether you have the right to be dumping on that person. Our first Tammy dumped on me while I was in the crisis. Tammy Angel, in contrast, supported me while I was in the crisis.
The outcomes of their visits were so different: Tammy Asshole made me afraid of other people. Tammy Angel restored my faith in other people.
Anytime you hear someone going through a crisis you have a choice: you can be the person who makes them afraid of other people — of their judgments, of their lack of boundaries, of their emotional and mental impact.
Or you can be a Tammy Angel in someone else’s life: offer them support in a crisis and know that you’re putting something into the world that will eventually make its way back to you. And if nothing else, You can help restore their hope and give them a good memory that might last for years.
Most people mean well but meaning well doesn’t undo real damage caused by thoughtless words or actions that break through someone’s vulnerable boundaries.
Be the Angel, not the Asshole.