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Set boundaries and stick to them

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, so I was in great demand. I took it seriously and maintained a large calendar on the wall of my bedroom outlining my commitments.

I received payment of 25 cents per hour and double after midnight. 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 revisiting those lessons in the current political climate.

As background, for over 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, I arrived at the home one night and he whispered in my ear, “If you see the cookie jar is empty — Arthur did it.”

He later added, “Unless you did, Sharon, you’re looking a little chubby today.” I was a fairly naïve adolescent, but I knew I was being played.

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 term called “projection.” It’s used when people 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 for a multitude of reasons ranging from low self-esteem to “an exaggerated need for status, recognition and power.”

People who use these kinds of accusatory approaches lash out, deceive others for pleasure or personal gain, and distort the truth. They are particularly good at it.

As examples, “a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude.” A person who repeatedly calls you and others “a liar” is quite possibly a pathological liar. I encountered this phenomena in dealing with a relative in my 30s and endured it for years with a work colleague in my 40s. If you are at the receiving end it is, at times, unbearable.

I am now in my 70s, and “projection” and its more deeply manipulative behavioral companion “narcissism,” or “malignant narcissism,” seem to be broadly in evidence. Someone who is narcissistic is “arrogant, self-righteous, grandiose, lacking in conscience, manipulative.” The descriptors are many — none are very becoming.

Dealing with this kind of personality disorder, according to most 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 might have impact. Completely eliminating encounters with anti-social personalities with these kinds of labels/behaviors is the professional advice most frequently put forward. Accent on “completely.”

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.