My 20-year-old client, a college senior, was both sobbing with pain and shaking with rage. She had learned just a few hours before she called for an emergency appointment that her boyfriend of two years had been having an affair with her college roommate for three months. How did she find out? Both thought she was visiting her parents, who lived in a suburban New Jersey town, near her college in Philly. She returned to campus early to prepare for a Monday morning exam and found them in her dorm room having sex. Her boyfriend was horrified, but her supposed friend calmly told her, "I always wanted him, and now I have him. Even if it does not last between us, I have ruined it for you."
The older sister of my 40-year-old client refused to allow him to enter his parents' home after both were killed suddenly in a freak automobile accident. "Sure, you can get in by court order, but first you will go through hell," she told him. My client is an honest, loving man and a successful, compassionate doctor. The next words his sister spoke left him both incredulous and ill: "I am sick and tired of being second best all these years, while you were the adored favorite. Now you will get yours," she warned, "and this will make me as happy as would dancing on Mom and Dad's grave."
The younger sister of my client, a hard working, reliable and rational 35-year-old grad student in architecture, kept her from allowing her mother to die -- even though leaving the pain of extensive cancer throughout her body and brain was her mother's ardent wish. "I am going to keep Mom alive, and make the two of you suffer the way you both made me suffer," she told my client. "You were the beautiful, popular, successful one, and I was the 'nobody.' Well, now this 'nobody' is finally in charge of the two of you, and it feels just great."
Several years ago my friend, a writer, was asked by one of his colleagues to read over a paper he had slaved over for years, but wanted to take a few more months to perfect. His colleague did minor revisions, and then published the paper under his own name. "Prove that it isn't mine," he told my friend, laughing as he spoke. A younger friend was given a dangerous portable crib that had been recalled for causing infant deaths by a "friend" who followed safety news closely. She was told, "I decided not to use this any longer, but I know you will find it handy."
Perhaps you read actress Kate Mara's quote in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair. As many of you know, Mara plays the ruthless, ambitious Zoe, whose amoral tactics to get whatever she wants mirror those of House of Cards congressman, Kevin Spacey. In discussing her role as Zoe, Mara says (page 99, "It Girl: Ave Maria"): "In my mind Zoe is still a good person. But the stuff she does to get ahead is fun stuff to do as an actor. Stepping over people is fun."
A good person? Zoe, like her congressman protagonist, is amoral, manipulative, dishonest, totally self-centered, and terrifying. But today she, and so many others, have become role models. Their message is loud and clear: "Take what you want. Do anything you want, regardless of how cruel and vindictive, to get and keep what you want." Without going into details (you most likely already know), were those involved in the dangerous traffic problems in Fort Lee, N.J., which delayed responses to four different medical emergencies and frightened young children, also good people?
How do nasty, vindictive actions become part of one's nature? How can a parent of young children write something like, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," with no apparent guilt that could inhibit this kind of behavior? We are all a product of our inner development and the societal messages that surround us: As we continue to grow toward maturity, do we feel attractive? Do we feel comfortable expressing our sexuality? Do we feel competent and effective? Do we feel lovable and loving? This psychological growth and development, coupled by societal messages of behavior options, leads us toward our choices and our direction. The less we value and believe in ourselves, the less we will value others; and the more susceptible we will become to ruthless, completely narcissistic, dangerous role models.
Envy of another's accomplishments or attractiveness and jealousy involving sought after love are natural instincts. Those with sufficient self esteem learn to live with these feelings and be truly happy for the good fortune of others. Those who do not reach this level of maturity often find satisfaction through unfettered ambition. In other words, like Zoe and others, both real and created by writers, they step over and hurt to achieve their goals, and have fun doing so.
A far healthier message, and the only one that leads to life fulfillment and confident "winning" is: "Work hard. Find your direction. Love loyally (and find a partner who offers the same). Compete primarily with yourself by doing and being your best."
What to do when one of these out of cage "beasts" becomes part of your world or the world of those you care about and want to protect? Remember, they are often charming, beautiful, handsome, and seemingly accomplished. However, inside they lack true confidence -- so different from their natural bravado. Predictably their inner misery is and will continue to be projected as weapons against you.
Once this is understood, there is only one thing to do. Banish them from your world, and if this is not possible, buffer yourself as best you can from their reach. Do not tell them they are hurtful, and do not try to reason with them or teach them another way. Waking up and changing is up to them, and sadly most will not. When you withdraw and buffer yourselves, simply no longer caring about them, any power they hold over you is gone.
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