Unsolicited Advice: You Teach People How to Treat You

Welcome to Unsolicited Advice, the weekly column in which I dispense advice no one asked for to people who don’t even know who I am.

I’ve been combing the internet in all the usual places looking for inspiration for this week. A few friends have sent me some ideas. Other friends have actually asked me to use my column to address their own dilemmas but unfortunately that would be in direct violation to the unsolicited advice bylaws. I can only give advice to people to don’t ask for it.

As I combed through columns and emails, I noticed a recurring theme.

“How do I get [insert name of offending person here] to understand that when he/she [insert regular, repeated, offending behavior here] it really hurts me? I’m at my wit’s end!”

Each circumstance was different but I have seen a different version of this same question so many times I thought it was appropriate to just give it the broad strokes and give some unsolicited advice to all of you out there who find yourself wondering about this very issue in relationship to someone in your life.

So…how do you get that certain someone to stop using you, mistreating you, or generally acting like your feelings or efforts don’t matter?

I have bad news and good news.

The bad news is, there’s really nothing you can say to those kinds of people to change their mind. It won’t work to yell or cry and it won’t work to make demands.

You teach people how to treat you.

People are just people – at least that’s what the science says. Everyone is primed to get away with whatever we can for however long we can. We push the boundaries with each other almost from the start. Babies push away their food and throw things just to watch mom and dad pick them up. Toddlers become defiant, teenagers become combatant. Everyone is just feeling out the boxes around them, seeing where the edges are and pushing them out when necessary. You do it, too.

Somewhere along the way your boundaries with Hurtful Person (HP) shifted. HP stays out with his friends too late and blatantly flirts with other women because he knows you’ll still be in the bed when he gets home. You’ll scream and cry and threaten and he’ll apologize and then in a few days the cycle will begin all over again.

HP won’t stop asking you to cover all of the decorations, meal-planning and supplies for the annual gigantic family reunion because she knows you’ll do it again next year no matter how much you complain. In fact, because you just keep doing it all by yourself, HP probably suspects you secretly like being the person who has to do everything all the time.

HP won’t respect your authority at work because you’re the “friendly” boss. You bite your tongue, you accept excuses you know should be unacceptable. You don’t want to be the boss, you want to be the friend and that’s exactly how HP treats you…like a friend.

You have taught HP to treat you poorly and that’s why HP treats you poorly.

Now here’s the good news…we all do it. Perhaps that not the exciting news you hoped for but take comfort in knowing you’re not alone, you’re not weird and you’re not weak. Chances are you love hard and like the rest of us you seek approval in some way or another.

Just know that you don’t have to tolerate mistreatment. You can set your boundaries. You can say “no” and you have absolutely no responsibility to explain it to anyone. You’re an adult and your life is just as complicated as the next person’s.

St. Oprah Winfrey always says that you can’t change another person but you can change your reaction to that person. If you have someone in you life who keeps repeating the same hurtful patterns, do something different. It isn’t mean or wrong to protect yourself, your time, your rest.

Everyone’s “boundaries” will look different. For one person it may look like a few nights on the couch, for another it may mean severing ties. Only you know where those borders lie…but the point is, you do know.

It’s never too late to teach people a different lesson about you.