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Sometimes you have to set boundaries

At age 14, I started a babysitting service in my neighborhood. There were loads of young families and parents who liked to party on weekends. I was in great demand.

I took it seriously and maintained a large calendar on the wall of my bedroom outlining my commitments. I was paid 25 cents per hour and double that after midnight. At the time, I focused on saving money for college, but what I earned did not help me much financially — what I learned about human behavior did. And I find myself resonating with those lessons in the current political climate.

For more than a year in my early teens, I regularly took care of two young boys. Arthur was 8 and Gene was 11. They were both bright, energetic kids, but I quickly learned Gene had issues. For example, after a I got to know the boys, I arrived at the home one night and Gene whispered in my ear. “If you see the cookie jar is empty — Arthur did it.”

Later he added, “Unless you did it, Sharon, you’re looking a little chubby today.”

I was perplexed by those comments. Probably a bit confused and hurt. I was 14 years old and knew I was being played and knew it made me feel bad, but I did not know what to do about it.

It happened again. There was a note on the kitchen counter from Gene when I arrived one late afternoon. “Have you seen the cat’s tail? It was Arthur. He cannot be trusted.”

The cat’s tail had indeed been trimmed. It was clearly not Arthur who was untrustworthy.

It wasn’t until I got to college and took a second-level course in behavioral psychology that I understood what had transpired. Those early encounters may have exemplified a psychoanalytic theory termed “projection” — people who consistently “accuse you or others of doing what they have already done or are planning to do.”

They throw out bullying words and uncomfortable accusations because they don’t want to deal with them internally. People who practice projection prompt others to feel unjustified shame and guilt. And they can be very good at it.

I have frequently encountered individuals during my lifetime who use projection negatively. For example, “a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude.” A person who calls you “a liar” is quite possibly a pathological liar.

I encountered this phenomena in dealing with a newly identified relative in my 30s and endured it for years with a work colleague in my 40s. It’s a defense mechanism of sorts for the person using it, I have learned. If you are at the receiving end, it is unbearable at times.

Dealing with it, per some experts, involves distancing yourself. “Set boundaries and stick to them.” Trying to compete and bully back never works. If you can muster humor in a shaming situation, that apparently might have some impact. Completely ejecting narcissistic personalities who have fully incorporated this approach into their way of dealing with the world seems like the overall best approach.

If you were to say, “I know people who plan to do that,” I would say, “Me, too.”

Sharon Johnson is a retired educator. Reach her at sharon@rbtrv.org.