If Empathy is King, Are Boundaries It's Queen with HCPs?
In a previous article in which I crowned empathy as king when dealing with high-conflict personalities—those folks who are the most toxic, the most difficult of difficult people—I asked for feedback from readers. You were kind with your comments and thoughtful with your suggestions. The comment that resonated the most was this:
"... this [extending empathy] can only be done with professionals who understand the HCP personality of manipulation and game playing..."
"... the HCP looks for and attaches themselves onto those who have lots of empathy..."
"... if a person with lots of empathy does not understand the HCP’s goal of manipulation, they will become the next HCP’s victim and sink to the bottom with the HCP ..."
Spot on! Empathy alone is only the first step, the key that begins to unlock the HCP door. Without awareness of the full scope of HCP behavior along with one of the other vitals keys for managing it—settling limits—you have only part of the equation.
As Bill Eddy explains in It's All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (HCI Press, 2009) "setting limits is the most important and most difficult step in handling High Conflict People. HCPs generally have less self-control, are more impulsive, less aware of the impact of their behavior on others, and often don't care if their behavior bothers or hurts themselves or anyone else."
Setting limits is difficult for all of us when dealing with HCPs. We're used to walking on eggshells around them to avoid their wrath, accusations, and defensiveness. Many times we avoid them altogether or we do our best to help them only to pull our hair out in frustration. Either way, they don't get the impact of limit setting, which they need—on steroids!
Empaths love to help
The danger is for those who are more empathic by nature and unaware of the need for assertive limit setting. These folks are more attractive to HCPs because, frankly, they're vulnerable to the HCPs charm, emotional persuasion, crisis situations, and manipulation. A naturally empathic person is usually willing to listen, to give a helping hand, lend money, give rides, etc. It's easy to get sucked in. An empathic person can find themselves working full-time for an HCP to solve all of his or her problems. But guess what? Somewhere along the line, you will find yourself as the Target of Blame.
Conned at Church
The first time Marissa visited one of the many groups at a church, she introduced herself explaining that she was single, currently unemployed after being laid off during the recession and was actively interviewing for new jobs in other states. After coming again the following week, she disappeared. The group speculated that she'd moved away for a job.
Several months later an email went out to everyone who had ever attended the group, inviting them to a gathering at the home of one of the members. Although Marissa had been long forgotten, her was still on the list and RSVP'd for the gathering.
Upon arrival, she presented the hostess with a beautifully wrapped gift and explained that she'd been diagnosed with cancer right around the time she'd visited the group a few months back, and had undergone surgery and chemotherapy since then.
Naturally, the hostess (a fixer and natural empath) immediately expressed empathy asking why Marissa hadn't let the group know so they could have helped her with meals, transportation, anything she needed.
Thus began the several months-long manipulation of the group who raised thousands of dollars to help with rent, car payments, gas, medication, medical payments, expensive organic foods, repairs—anything she needed. Connections to job interviews were made. This group bent over backwards devoting 100% of their available time and resources to help her.
Over those months, she dripped bits of information about her life that motivated and inspired action in this group that had set a goal for itself that year: loving others through helpful acts. Can you spell v-u-l-n-e-r-a-b-l-e? She not only claimed to have cancer, she also claimed with extraordinarily detail that:
- her husband had died of cancer a few months previously
- her sibling had been murdered within the past year
- she'd been orphaned as a child and had a horrifically abusive childhood
- she had no friends
- she'd sold almost all of her possessions
- she'd raised hundreds of millions of dollars for charities and was now penniless and nearly homeless
- she spent twelve hours every day researching jobs and going on interviews
The most vulnerable members of the group were singled out by Marissa with special attention and gifts. They were the ones that ended up doing the most work on her behalf. In fact, one member commented that he felt like he'd gained a new full-time job worrying about her life and her livelihood. If gold stars were being passed out for following the Bible's instruction to help the widows and the poor, this group received the max allotment.
Eventually, conflicting stories and events began causing confusion in group members. Why, after raising thousands of dollars for necessary treatments, did she refuse rides to the treatment facilities? Why did the doctor take cash only? Hmmmm..... Lots of inconsistencies, but wait, what if she was being truthful? What if this was an extraordinary case? What if they didn't help and something disastrous happened to her? What if she ended up homeless on the streets? Could they live with that?
So they kept on giving . . . until one member became suspicious enough to do some background checking and discovered there was no cancer, no brother, no deceased husband. None of it was true. Even the job interviews they'd arranged were sabotaged by her. They'd been conned, and, they later discovered, other churches across the city had been manipulated by her game.
What did this group miss? Why were they so vulnerable?
- Most were naturally empathic by nature
- They had a theme that year of loving others through helpful acts
- They had an inherent trust in people's goodness
- They were blind to the existence of HCPs, especially those who don't look like terrorists or felons
- They happened to live in an affluent community, making them feel even more guilty if they didn't help.
What should they have done differently?
- Before giving or lending money, time, or anything, make sure the circumstances are legitimate. Ask for medical records, bank statements. Ask to see where they live. Call their last place of employment.
- If you're not comfortable asking someone to show you their medical records, refer them instead to an organization that helps in their particular circumstances. For example, in this situation they should have referred her to the church office that handled giving. Many organizations have guidelines that anyone asking for donations has to meet.
- Be suspicious when you're confused. Confusion is a blatant sign.
- Be suspicious when a story sounds extreme or outside the norm. Yes, some people do have extraordinary things happen to them and we must help, but first we must confirm.
- Be suspicious of gift-givers. HCPs use them as manipulation tools.
Everything on this list can be qualified as "setting limits". We often think that setting limits is something verbal, something we say that makes us feel really uncomfortable. Yes, limits can be verbal, but just as importantly they need to be in the caution we take with others. In fact,
Limits are a gift you give yourself and also to the HCP
Strange as it may seem, when we set limits for HCPs, we're giving them a gift. Because they're unable to set limits on themselves (at least not for long if they even try), they end up with erratic, blaming, manipulative behaviors that destroy relationships and cause problems at work, home, and just about anywhere. It's what they do without even knowing it.
As hard as it is for us to give them boundaries, they need them—desperately. They will push back (expect it) but you must remain assertive and firm with the lines you've drawn. If you don't, and you give in, you're reinforcing and encouraging their bad behavior.
You're also giving yourself the gift of peace, empowerment and confidence.
Curious to know how the story ended?
She complained to the church office that this group had not helped with her dire needs. In fact, she claimed she'd gone well out of her way to help them, but they'd just ignored her. Who do you think she targeted the most? Those who didn't help much or those who helped the most?