My offer to help was genuine. This was a man I’d met professionally several years earlier, who had few resources available. But he had interesting ideas, determination, and his fingers in a number of pies that were good for him and good for the local community. He got in touch, we got together, and I offered him assistance. Gratis.
He had the salesman’s charm; useful personally and professionally. I had tools and experience to help, and I wasn’t busy with work at the time. Use it or lose it, I told myself. A few hours here and there, the opportunity to put some good stuff back into the universe – it seemed reasonable.
It was even more appealing when he said he wanted to compensate me when he eventually had the money, and asked me to track my time at an agreed rate.
Givers and takers
While I was enthusiastic initially, I soon recognized him as a talented taker with a (deceptively) soft-spoken demeanor. At moments, he acted like my best friend (strange in itself). At others, classic narcissistic traits appeared. Meanwhile, I had critical priorities of my own: single parenting, job searching, and my writing projects.
During those first weeks, I gave my time willingly, tracked it, and invoiced with a payment date of TBD. But his requests came more frequently, in ever-widening waves, and required a growing amount of effort.
I’m a giver, but I know when I’m being taken.
Five weeks into the onslaught of questions, documents, and phone calls, I began to pull back, politely explaining that parenting and job searching were taking up all my time, which was true. I’d given him templates and tips, and he could carry on effectively without me. I made it clear in the beginning that my kids came first; as a part-time single dad – a fact he used to establish empathy at our first meeting – I thought he’d get that.
The narcissist always demands more
But the barrage didn’t stop. I emailed that I had no availability. Still it continued – phone messages, more emails. I tried again, more explicitly. No change. Then I tried ignoring him. He’d stop contacting me for awhile, and then start up. Frankly, his attempts to mine me for an increasing set of (free) services were exhausting and infuriating. He seemed to feel entitled, and I ended up feeling guilty, like I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain.
But what bargain? Infinite assistance, for no compensation?
Charm, humor, flattery, persistence – these are the “user’s” methods of operation. But this was more. Angry and emotionally manipulative messages, an inflated sense of importance on his part. Classic narcissistic behaviors.
The giver’s dilemma
Givers take pleasure in helping and being needed. We are often easy targets for the “takers.”
We may strive for give-and-take, but we tend to over give and under take. We’re also hard-pressed to confront the necessity of asking “what’s in it for me.” There’s nothing wrong with healthy self-interest. In fact, it’s essential.
Unfortunately, on the giver’s side of the great give-and-take divide, we have difficulty with balance and context. Women in particular are people pleasers, and may have difficulty breaking away from behaviors learned in childhood, as well as patterns formed in romantic relationships.
Signs of narcissism
Three months of calls and emails later, the latest (angry) message arrived in my inbox recently. But this time, I was furious. Time to end this, once and for all. I sent a sixth email restating that my family and my work come first. I wished him well.
I don’t know if he’s done, but I am. And I’m relearning a tough lesson: the destructive nature of the narcissistic relationship.
Would the situation have been different if he were paying me as a consultant, ghostwriter, and editor? It’s a moot point. He wasn’t paying me. Did I make things worse by going for a “use it or lose it” approach?
If he hadn’t taken advantage, it would’ve been fine. Exploitation is a classic sign of narcissism, and attempts at exploitation is exactly how it played out. And I have no intention of being sucked into a long-term give-away of time and experience that clients pay me for. He abused my generosity, acted out at my push back, and then tried to make me feel guilty.
In our economy of unemployed and underemployed achievers - consider this:
- Many give away services to get a foot in the door. Be careful. You may slip your foot into a sticky situation, with nothing to show for it except aggravation.
- Services provided for exchange is a different story, offering a respectful solution for all involved.
- “Use it or lose it” makes sense, but only if applied smartly. In the boardroom or the bedroom, exercise due diligence. A destructive relationship is a bad relationship, period.
Is there a narcissism epidemic in this country? Sometimes I think so, especially after many years of being in the dating pool again. Personally, I’ve lived my share of draining relationships, and I thought I’d learned to steer clear. In this case, I was seduced by my own desire to feel needed and use my experience.
Statistics on narcissism in marriage and divorce appear frequently in the press; narcissistic relationships are on the rise. They often involve a charismatic man, and a woman’s slow dissolve into his world at the expense of her own.
This same dynamic occurs in business, often on a grand scale; consider the massive financial frauds that have come to light in the past few years, and the larger-than-life egos, magnetic personalities, and trusting “innocents” that are part of the story.
The narcissistic tool kit
So what do you do?
Every taker isn’t a narcissist any more than every giver is Mother Theresa. But narcissism disguises itself in many forms, and some of us are more susceptible. We need to watch for warning signs, including:
- Emotional manipulation
- Overblown sense of self-importance
- Overestimation of talents or contribution
- Growing need for attention
- Disregard for the other
- Excessive anger.
To make matters more complicated, the “use it or lose it” approach can be problematic. It’s like settling for what you can get rather than what you want. I settled for giving away skills to feel competent; I ended up feeling used.
As for my non-client client, I imagine he’ll find someone else to help. Meanwhile, I’m reminded how to recognize a narcissistic relationship. And to get out from under, as quickly as possible!
I realize that’s not so simple if we’re talking about a spouse or a boss, and I’m not suggesting anyone walk out on either. In those instances, you should seek professional counsel, identify options, and make plenty of contingency plans. Especially in this economy.
As for me, I need to listen to my own advice: in all things, due diligence.