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4 Ways to Defend Yourself Against Emotional Pirates

01/21/2014 10:08 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

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By Martha Beck

Some people can be a little self-absorbed. Others are reliably narcissistic. And then there are emotional pirates, who plunder every last ounce of energy you've got.

Cecily and Gwen hit it off on a Caribbean cruise after they realized they lived close to each other. Back home, they began meeting for coffee and conversation. Gwen told Cecily about her troubled marriage, her sciatica, her intrusive mother, the trials of parenting. Cecily told Gwen...almost nothing. Somehow, Cecily's life just never seemed to come up. But one stressful morning, Cecily finally decided to share.

"My dad's got cancer," she told Gwen, clutching her coffee mug. "I'm really scared for him."

"Oh," said Gwen. "That reminds me of the time my boyfriend—well, ex-boyfriend—thought he had skin cancer." She went on to tell the tale, in tragic terms, with herself as the dramatic heroine. Later Cecily told me, "That's when I realized that Gwen is kind of self-absorbed." Kind of? The "friend" Cecily made is an emotional pirate.

You've probably encountered similar brigands on the high seas of life. Some are charming or charismatic, others whiny. But they all have one thing in common: They want others to pay them attention, and they never, ever pay it back. They demand your pity, admiration, and agreement, even when you're in need. And they leave you feeling emotionally looted.

You may think that pirates are simply wounded souls in need of TLC. Listen: Some people like being pirates. They don't want to generate their own emotional well-being. They want yours. Yo-ho-ho, a pirate's life for them! If you don't learn to recognize and defend against these scourges, you're waiting to be victimized. So here's a Pirate Protection Program to keep you safe:

Step One: Always stay shipshape.

Emotional pirates prey on weakness, on ships with tattered sails. To avoid being attacked, give yourself the attention you've been giving the pirates. Notice: Are you physically at ease? Wearing comfortable clothes? If there's any discomfort in your life, take one action to make yourself feel better. Now take another. This is called meeting your own needs, and it's a primo pirate-proofing practice.

Some people balk at the thought of putting self-care over a pirate's demands, but ignoring your needs to pour energy into a self-absorbed person's self-absorption isn't virtuous. It only sets you up to get hurt.

Step Two: Evaluate every vessel.

If Cecily had been shipshape, she would have registered that Gwen made her feel hollow and tired. Though she had noticed Gwen's "kind of self-absorbed" energy, she never let it rise into consciousness. She didn't want to judge Gwen. But noticing that a pirate is a pirate is like noticing that a shark is a shark; it's not a moral position, just fact. Pirates—whether because of emotional wounds or inborn narcissism—steer their victims' attention away from the feeling that they're being emotionally looted. I want you to turn toward it.

Here's a quiz to help clarify what you really feel about people in your life. Below are five reactions you might have to any given situation, from positive (1) to negative (5).

1. You feel joy, delight; you're loose, energized.

2. Your emotions are pleasant, your body relaxed.

3. You feel weariness. Your body may feel tense.

4. You feel resentful. Your body is very tense.

5. You're angry, even if you think you shouldn't be. Your muscles are contracted, maybe enough to create pain in your neck, head, back, shoulders, and/or jaw.

Now, to test for pirate potential in any individual, keep that person in mind—let's call him or her Person X—when you read through the scenarios below. As you imagine each scenario, notice your reactions without resisting, judging, or suppressing them. Using the rankings above, circle the reaction that best describes how you feel.

Situation A: You're having a meal when Person X comes in and sits down to eat with you.
Reaction: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Situation B: You and Person X, stranded in an airport, have to share the last hotel room left.
Reaction: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Situation C: You're having a medical procedure and need a ride. Only Person X is available.
Reaction: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Situation D: While you're trying to deal with a snafu at work, Person X shows up.
Reaction: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Situation E: Person X sends you a long e-mail.
Reaction: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Now add up all the numbers you circled to determine Person X's pirate score. (You can repeat the test as many times as you want, evaluating anyone you know.)

Once you've done that, consider these recommendations:

Score 5–10: This person is a "crewmate," someone you definitely want in your life. If you haven't connected recently, reach out to him or her soon and often.

Score 11–15: Person X is a "friendly vessel" who's sometimes absorbed in personal problems but is often available to pay attention to your needs. A good casual friend at home or work.

Score 16–20: You're dealing with a "merchant ship"—a person who will give you attention if she knows she'll get something out of it. Do business with such people, but don't depend on them for emotional support.

Score 21–25: Avast! Ye have allowed a pirate aboard.

Step Three: Mount antipiracy defense measures.

Some pirates make themselves obvious. Their arrogance or neediness is like a skull-and-crossbones flag. Others are very subtle. They can lie so effectively that your first signal of something amiss may be your own anger, frustration, or lack of energy. But as soon as you recognize an emotional pirate, try these maneuvers:

Quietly sail away: Once Cecily knew that Gwen was a pirate, she began spacing their coffee dates farther and farther apart, and finally stopped calling Gwen or answering her messages. If you can end a relationship with a pirate this easily, do it. You may be met with anything from disinterest to a flurry of phone calls to a tantrum. If the pirate throws a fit, proceed to the next tactic.

Batten the hatches: To perform this maneuver, be civil, but don't ever offer the attention the pirate craves. Limit yourself to bland, noncommittal comments. Instead of "You poor thing!" or "Tell me more!" try saying, "Yeah, that's life," or "Onward!" When pirates realize your attention hatches are truly battened, they drift away.

Hide your treasure: This powerful approach will baffle and confuse emotional pirates. Remember, attention is your treasure, so instead of pouring it onto the topics pirates bring up, focus on something that interests you: cooking, carpentry, cat burglary, you name it. Ask questions you want answered. For example:

Pirate: You won't believe what my ex said to me!
You: Hey, how do chickens sleep? Do they lie down, or what?

The more random your comment, and the more unrelated to the pirate's topic, the better. Again, persistence is key! Continue to focus on your real interests, no matter what. Share no treasure, and the scurvy knaves will be gone.

Step Four: Head for calmer seas.

You may be one of those warmhearted, codependent people who attract many pirates or who have let one pillage them for years. (This usually means you were raised by parents with piratical tendencies or fell into a romantic relationship with a pirate before you realized what was happening.) If so, the tactics above will feel awkward, especially at first. Hang in there! For motivation, recall that while you've given many hours of intense emotional energy to your pirate, the pirate would not notice if you were on fire.

The moment Cecily fully realized Gwen was a pirate, she began implementing the maneuvers above—gradually. A naturally giving person, she found it hard to simply take a cutlass to the relationship. And that's okay. If you know you've allowed a pirate into your life and you continue to let yourself be plundered for a while, don't beat yourself up. Go at your own speed. But take notes. Later, back among crewmates who pay as much attention to you as you do to them, you can entertain one another with tales of the lawless looters who pillaged your energy long ago, before you really learned to sail.

Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).

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