Once I knew of my autism, I spent time trying to determine what single issue, above all else, I wish I had had help avoiding. I brainstormed, made lists, and pondered, and then in a spontaneous moment of insight, I realized it was something I hadn’t even yet considered and it made everything else seem insignificant: safe people.
Even after all of this effort, I almost missed it, and yet, its role in my life has been HUGE.
For me the absolute, hands-down-toughest thing, the thing that has most negatively impacted my life, has been working through the process of learning and understanding which people were safe, good, right people, and which people were not safe, good, right people.
Waaayyyy too many times, I failed to identify those people for whom I should have had firm, really firm, boundaries, or that I should not have allowed in my life at all.
Catastrophic damage and destruction resulted. Allowing these people in my life damaged me spiritually, financially, mentally, emotionally, academically, professionally, etc. I cannot describe the insane amount of damage.
And I had allowed it.
But the most terrifying thing for me to realize was that living in this damaging world had become my normal.
Even more, it hurt not only me, but unfortunately, my daughters as well.
I had to change, and I had to encourage my daughters to change with me.
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
These weren’t people who were wrong in the sense that you could look at them and know. In fact, I don’t think you can judge a book by its cover in this context.
They were the wolves in sheep’s clothing.
They were the people that you have to get to know for a while before their true colors showed. They were people that you would identify and deal with much, much earlier as wrong people if you knew what you are looking for and you knew what to do when you saw it.
It took me too long to learn what to look for, too long again to learn what to do, and finally, too long to be able to actually do it. Once you develop the habit of being a doormat, it turns out it is tough to change.
Tough, but possible!
I can assure you that had I learned early on which people were safe, good people, and which were not, my life would be entirely different today.
We Have to Teach People What They Need to Know about Safe People
So important is this topic to me that I have been working to build a bit of foundation for you.
Last month, I introduced the concept that not all people go through the process of socialization unconsciously and that we, as a society, should be explicitly teaching at least the more important principles of socialization. You can read my post, “Autism and Socialization: When Socialization is a Conscious Process,” for a little more background.
I continued in another post, “Autism and Accountability: When to Hold an Autistic Child Accountable.” Though the title references an “autistic child,” I really think the principles espoused in the post apply to anyone. The gist of it being that we should only hold people accountable when they know something and we know they know it. So, just like with socialization, we have to teach that which we want people to know.
Both articles focus on the concept that people should be explicitly taught as children the concepts they need to know to be healthy, happy people. We can no longer believe that people unconsciously learn all of the things that will enable them to succeed because we know it is not true.
Barring that, if you find yourself as an adult, struggling with this (or any) particular concept, either find someone to teach you, or engage in some self-directed learning so you come to understand it, whatever “it” is for you.
“How Can This All Be My Fault?”
Pretty much a loner growing up, I had friends, but spent lots of time on my own, studying and practicing basketball. During these years, I enjoyed some degree of success in school and sports, however, I still have vivid memories of some of the friendships that went insanely wrong.
In fact, I had so many relationships go wrong, that I blamed myself. One of the churches I attended had a pastor who was fond of the saying that if “every room you are in stinks, you better check your shoes.”
I spent a lot of time checking my shoes.
Was I not nice enough? Not kind enough? Not helpful enough? How was I not enough?
“How,” I would wonder, “could I be trying so hard and not making progress? What am I not changing that I need to change?”
These fears were confirmed as I sat in church and sermon after sermon was filled with the idea that if I wanted my marriage to work I had to be better, more understanding, more flexible, more, more, more….
I felt like a veritable pretzel.
And I never felt like I was enough. Never.
For those of you who follow Her Autism, you are probably seeing from whence my saying comes that “You are enough. Just you.” It came from years and years of feeling like everything in the world that went wrong was about me, it was my fault. And then learning the truth. That I had always been enough.
I Had Self-Destructed
The self-destruction was tremendous, and yet, like my autism, I think it was invisible to others. I think as family and friends read this, they will be stunned to realize that I felt so grossly inadequate.
That is how others describe me to me. In fact, several people told me I so exude those traits that I intimidated them at first.
The Problem Was So Obvious and Yet So Obscure
About twelve years ago, I went to a counselor for the first time. The counselor listened to my story. She then gave me something that would turn my life upside down…in a good way.
Though I felt like I had changed everything that could be changed, there was one thing I had not identified and conquered.
She gave me a lecture about people, about how there are safe people and unsafe people. She told me that she believed I had surrounded myself with unsafe people.
So focused had I been on what was wrong with me that I had not taken a look at the type of people I allowed in my life. I totally missed it.
Without this woman, or someone else with the same message, I may never have seen it.
Don’t get me wrong. I had some really good people in my life, too, just not enough of them to overcome the impact of the ones who were working to isolate me, control me and destroy me in order to make themselves feel better.
This woman also gave me the title of a book, Safe People, written by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I bought it immediately and devoured it maybe more rapidly than any other book. I began talking to my kids about safe people as soon as I felt I had grasped it well enough to share it.
Armed with this information, I truly believed that I would go back out into the world, choose right people, and change my life for the better.
Coincidentally, my (now ex-) husband had just accepted a position in Texas so we were moving. A perfect time for a new start!
I was ready for a transformation.
I just didn’t quite achieve it.
Not the Fresh Start I Wanted, But a Step in the Right Direction
In my new city, I developed new relationships. My friends all came from my church—a really good church. Church people have to be good people, right? Especially church people from a good church, right?
And yet, the patterns continued.
I frequently felt discouraged, insulted, lied to, demeaned, etc. Turns out safe people do not come from any specific place, wear any certain types of clothes, look more or less manicured, etc.
Unsafe people and safe people can look exactly the same.
While I still wasn’t sure what it was about me that so attracted these wrong people, I knew there was something.
I had, however, gotten stronger.
Armed with information and some encouragement, I put an end to a disastrous marriage. A marriage that upon returning to my marriage counselor post-divorce, I learned was so bad the counselor did not think I would succeed in getting the divorce. She thought I would be forced to give up.
But I didn’t. I took a step. A big one.
Another Opportunity, Another Step
As part of the process of starting over, my daughters and I moved to Denver so I could accept a job offer. Minus the job offer, we would not have moved, so I didn’t move to start over, I moved for employment.
That to say, I did see it as an opportunity to try yet again. With MORE information at my disposal and the experience of beginning the end of my marriage I really believed I had it this time.
Once again, I jumped into wrong relationships.
My oldest daughter told me that in regard to one particularly bad relationship she thought God had me in the furnace so that FINALLY I would learn the difference. It took me another two years to believe she was right.
During this period, I not only studied up on “safe people,” but more specifically I studied about narcissism, psychopathy, sociopathy, co-dependence, and lots of other destructive personality disorders, types and issues.
My reading about co-dependence, safe people, and boundaries really were what served to best help me see my role in the recurrence of these difficulties. It was this reading that enabled me to be proactive and prepared for fending off further wrong relationships.
I learned that, like a drug user, I had to actually leave nearly my whole old life behind and start over. Anything less seemed to result in my being pulled or sucked back into behavior and relationship patterns that were not good for me –that were not only bad for me, but that were destroying me.
After all of this reading and learning and two years in a job in which I felt mistreated, undervalued, and worthless, I finally stepped away from all of it. Another step. An important one.
One Step at a Time, I Made It
Toward the end of this journey, just before I really decided to leave it all behind, I launched Her Autism. In so doing, I began to once again feel successful. I began to once again feel valuable. I began to once again like myself.
I read a note from another entrepreneurial, single mom that the thing that most helped her overcome her former abusive life was starting a business. That the feeling of building something out of nothing healed her in ways that counseling never could have.
A proponent of counseling, I agree with her that the building of something has been a huge, huge contributing factor in my successfully moving my life forward, but I also acknowledge it was those caring counselors who helped me start down the path to get strong enough to be able to even think about beginning a project.
No more am I a magnet for wrong people. Slowly, I have built friendships with encouraging, warm people who also have good boundaries. People who do not lie to me, insult me, or discourage me.
My life is totally different. The extreme exhaustion I lived with my entire adult life disappeared. My feelings of inadequacy and shame—gone. Not since the years of being pretty much a loner have I felt so empowered and capable.
I finally achieved the best of both worlds, I both like myself and am beginning to again feel successful, and I have people in my life who want that for me.
I did it.
But I wish I had never had to.
And, if I can help it, you (or your kiddos) will never have to go through what I went through, or if you are already there, maybe you will see that you don’t have to stay there.
How I Believe I Became a Wrong People Magnet
I believe it happened to me as the result of well-intended people who knew nothing of my autism teaching (or not teaching me) principles that did not translate well into my autistic life.
No information. My first discussion with anyone about safe and unsafe people occurred around the time I was 35. For most people, not just autists, that’s too late. Far too many life decisions have been made by then, and rather than proactively making life choices, you are put in the position of cleaning up wrong ones.
Misinformation. Taught that you have to “be a friend to have friends,” I was regularly sent back to situations where I had reported being treated badly and told that if I just continue to be nice to people they would eventually “come around.” They don’t.
In addition, because I was continuously sent back, I never learned to protect myself in relationships.
As an autist, I live by a set of rules. For me, the above lessons became rules. Never do I recall being told to stay away from people who treated me poorly.
Several additional factors contributed to my difficulties. I am certain that (especially when I was younger) I missed cues I would have looked for had known to. I hear that autists miss cues and “can’t see them,” but I think they can often see more than anyone realizes, especially if they are taught to do so.
In addition, I was often made to do things that were contrary to what I wanted or needed. What happened when this occurred was that I stopped listening to myself, and I started listening to others.
This combination, I believe, made me the perfect target for wrong people.
I became a wrong people magnet.
I Sought It, Identified It, Learned about It, and Changed It
Now, I proceed with caution.
I mentioned a few ways I believed my autism contributed to my difficulties here, but I also think there are some strengths I possess as an autist that helped me recover.
As an autist, I am good at patterns. Once I understood the patterns of behavior of wrong people, life got infinitely easier. Learning these patterns helped me avoid developing new wrong relationships. (Remember, someone taught me!)
These patterns also enabled me to develop a mental checklist of warning flags which tell me to take steps to protect myself either by avoiding the relationship or by placing firm boundaries around it. They include:
- Having several interactions with another individual from which I leave feeling discouraged;
- Experiencing feelings that I am being lied to or that make me uncomfortable;
- Feeling like someone is trying to become too close too soon;
- Believing someone just wants something from me;
- Having any feelings of confusion after interactions (check out this information on cognitive dissonance);
- Hearing blame being placed on me repeatedly for things that I haven’t done or that are not my fault;
- Experiencing too much conflict/drama in the relationship;
- Noticing that I am beginning to become isolated from others or encouraged to distrust others.
I don’t necessarily cut off all contact with someone after one flag, but I carefully consider how many flags have been raised and how often, whether asking clarifying questions resolves my concerns, and how I feel after each interaction and in the relationship as a whole.
It Is Avoidable
Which brings us back to my points about socialization and accountability because we can teach this stuff.
Even to autists.
Especially to autists.
As a society, we can reduce the impact of unsafe people by explicitly teaching young and old about them. Again, the process of socialization has to be taught explicitly.
In my life, many of my mistakes occurred before I knew of my autism or of safe/unsafe people.
Hopefully in regard to the point of accountability, you have heard me saying throughout this post that this journey was my own. Likewise, my mistakes were mine. Even though I was young when I made many of my mistakes, I hold myself accountable.
As an adult, I came to realize that if I wanted change in my life I had to hold myself wholly accountable and learn and grow and make changes.
How to Get Started Learning about Safe People
Like any worthwhile journey, this one takes work, persistence and, frankly, support. You may be wanting to learn about right versus wrong people for yourself or you may be wanting to learn how to teach someone you love about them.
Here are some resources to consider regardless of which path you are on:
Books/Internet. Books and articles like Safe People provide a great starting point in teaching or learning about who to spend time with and who to avoid.
Professionals. Talk to professionals about whether this issue may be one you need to address.
Rules/Boundaries. If, like me, you are an autist that lives by a sort of set of rules, developing good rules is critical, or if it is too late, changing the rules (which is understandably tough) may be necessary.
Prepare for Guilt. If you are in the same position I was, prepare for the feelings of guilt you will feel when leaving people who need to be left, for holding your ground where before you may have caved and for the shame you may feel if you fail to apologize for something that is not your fault. Though those feelings are real, they will pass. (If you are feeling these things, really make sure you have professional assistance if needed!!) This statement may sound crazy, but it is the most accurate thing I may ever have written.
Ready yourself for success. If you successfully travel the path I just described, prepare yourself to achieve at levels you had not before. And plan to enjoy it. Every minute of it!! Celebrate!
Whether you are reading this in preparation to begin the journey of learning about how to resolve wrong people issues in your life, or to comprehend the importance of teaching someone you love about right and wrong people, know that I applaud you. Taking on this issue may be the most important thing you ever do.
It was for me!