Teaching or Learning: How People Treat You
Teaching or Learning
It’s often said in coaching and self-help circles that we teach people how to treat us. It’s equally true that people teach us who they are by how they treat us.
One of the places this shows up in my life is around money. I am very quick to pretend to forget when someone tells me they are going to pay me for something and then doesn’t. Several years ago, I attended an event specifically to help someone who’d recently had surgery. They promised me that they’d cover my part of the room cost and pick my meals up for the weekend when I agreed to come and help them. When the weekend arrived, though, they failed to even attempt to pick my check up at any of the meals. They didn’t directly ask me for money for the room, but they did talk about it and they made no attempt to refuse when I offered to pay.
I often find myself in situations where I pick up the check for a meal and the person I’m with insists it’ll be their turn the next time. And then the next time they’ve forgotten. Or someone will ask me “will you let me contribute towards” something I’m covering the cost for - and they will never get around to actually giving me money.
In situations like these, I recognize that I’m playing a significant role in this dynamic by reminding people when they’ve offered money for something, or when it’s their turn to pay for lunch. Most of the time, a simple comment on my part would almost certainly result in me getting the money. I’m really grateful that I am very seldom in a position where my reluctance to do that means I can’t pay my bills.
If I wanted to teach people not to take me or my generosity so much for granted, I could do that. I don’t do that in part because I don’t have my head very straight where money is concerned, and it makes me very uncomfortable to ask people for money. If I’m feeling at all insecure or bad about myself it’s very easy for the brain weasels to convince me that people won’t want me around if I don’t pay for things, and as an extrovert I really like being around people and as a human I have a visceral terror of being shut out of my social group.
But there’s more to it than that. Some of the people in my life always do remember when it’s their turn to pick up lunch. They make sure if I cover some cost that I end up with the money they intended for me to have. They do that because they pay attention, and they care enough about me and about valuing my presence in their lives to balance this part of the equation. I treasure those people, because I know they care about me in a different way than the people who just don’t quite remember when there is a financial imbalance.
In those cases, rather than teaching people how to treat me, I have learned something about who they are and how they feel about me and our relationship.
The Problem With Feeling In Control
The problem with focusing on our responsibility to teach other people how to treat us is that it can rob us of that opportunity to find out who they are when they’re not being schooled. The idea that it’s our job to make sure nobody ever treats us badly has some additional problems, as well. It puts us in charge of someone else’s behavior, which is something we don’t actually control. It puts us at risk for accepting the old “look what you made me do” trope often trotted out by abusers to blame others for their bad behavior.
There are also some positive elements to the idea that we affect how people treat us by what we allow. Viewing the world through a lens that assumes we have a lot of control over how things turn out can help us stay optimistic and persistent in the face of challenges, and that can help things come out well. It can help us deeply understand that we do not have to put up with damaging or abusive behavior. It can get us out of the path of damaging and abusive behavior.
The Value of the Grey Area
The other problem with being too quick to refuse any bad treatment is that often people who love us and are trying to treat us well can hurt us anyway. The world is a complicated place, and we can get treated badly by people who are trying to do well by us.
Someone doing the best they can is not automatically a reason to accept their behavior. Some people’s best is toxic. Sometimes it’s simply toxic in combination with the particular past history an individual has. The amount of effort and intent someone has put into a relationship or encounter is not a guarantee that they will be someone you can or want to be around.
At the same time I am very reluctant to insist that I cannot be in a relationship with anyone who sometimes treats me badly. Every relationship is a trade off, and every single person who loves me has at some point done something that was hurtful to me. Sometimes this is a little hurt - the equivalent of stumbling onto my foot on accident. Other times there are structural issues in the relationship where something about the way we’re interacting is hurtful over a long period of time. Sometimes the thing I need not to be hurt is not available to that person. Sometimes the thing I need is completely mutually exclusive with the thing I want.
In any of these cases, sometimes the balance of the relationship means that I’m more interested in learning from these interactions than I am in ending them.
Often, people who love me worry a lot about how some of my other relationships are shaking out. They see a systemic pain point and wonder if the pain is worth the benefit I am gaining from that relationship on balance. It’s very sweet when one of my partners talks to me about these things, because they always do it out of love and wanting to make sure that I am not getting hurt.
The thing is, though, life is a contact sport. If I’m going to have the sorts of adventures I want to have in the world, I am sometimes going to get hurt. People are messy, and imperfect, and sometimes they need a snickers bar and a nap before they can treat me well again. I try to be very understanding of that, because heaven knows sometimes I need a snickers bar and a nap before I should be allowed to be around other humans again.
I know people who do not have the ability to tolerate when someone interacts with them in a hurtful way. I know people who simply don’t care to tolerate such things.
For myself, though, I like the idea of creating a life where there’s space for things to go wrong without ending a relationship entirely. I would hate to miss out on all the learning that comes from fixing things that have gone wrong.