Dear Dr. Alasko: I keep wondering why so many bad things happen to me, especially since I strongly believe in "loving others as thyself." A few years ago I married a man who turned out to be emotionally and financially abusive. Soon after my divorce, my brother needed a place to stay and I took him in. Then he began stealing from me. I'm at the point where I don't trust anyone, not even my family. I don't want to give up on the entire human race but how can I be loving toward others and still protect myself?
Dear Reader: You describe yourself as losing trust in everyone because you've been abused and exploited by some. Unfortunately, you are taking several bad experiences and from that, reaching a broad (and incorrect) conclusion about all human beings. Yes, there are corrupt immoral people out there — but there are also honest and ethical people. Now you have to learn how to tell the difference, while avoiding making another mistake by lumping everyone together.
My experience has taught me that people who have difficulty recognizing when they're being exploited have a specific problem: they allow their emotions to overwhelm their thinking.
For instance, suppose a friend is not only constantly late, but regularly fails to follow through on commitments. If your emotional need is for friendship at any cost, you will find ways to intellectually justify your friend's behavior and not see it for what it really is: chronic irresponsibility and disrespect for others’ needs.
Most likely your need for relationships with your ex-husband and brother distorted your thinking. Instead of thinking about certain behaviors and letting yourself see that they were unethical or deceptive, your disarmed your natural instinct to protect yourself to serve your immediate needs.
Human history is littered with tragic examples of how people misinterpret information because of agenda driven by emotions and their frozen forms, ideologies. The psychological terms for this process of defective interpretation are denial and delusion.
I'm sure that you yourself have met people who flatly denied an obvious and essential fact. "I only had a glass of wine; I can drive just fine." They deny their inebriation and replace it with a fantasy version of reality: "I can drive safely." Then they typically blame the resulting DUI or accident on someone else.
Of course relationships are more complex than a single incident, because our emotional needs are multi-layered and influenced by complicated histories. However, this complexity does not eliminate your core need, and responsibility, to protect yourself from other people’s unethical agendas.
If you really want to reverse the process of allowing bad things to occur in your life, I suggest you start by sitting down and writing a rigorously honest narrative about both your marriage and about the time your brother came to live with you.
Describe the first moments you felt uneasy about something, and then describe how you recall allowing your thinking to either shut down or get distorted.
Try to sort out the patterns. Yes, there are patterns. There always are. Once you rigorously analyze the patterns, you can then begin to change them.
I'll discuss this process in greater depth next week.