The One Quality I Look For in People More Than Anything Else: That We Both Have Each Other's Backs

Have you ever read "The 48 Laws of Power?" I was recommending it to a friend the other day who was incredibly stressed out because she received a review at work and said she felt "set up."

May 7, 2013 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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My dog has not read "48 Laws of Power" but boy does he have my back.

When I asked my friend why she felt "betrayed" and "set up" by her boss, she explained that she had been asked by her chief executive officer what her biggest strength was, and then her words were twisted as a negative during her review. What my friend said to her boss, verbatim, in response to that Biggest Strength question was: "I think I'm good at promoting the company to everyone I meet."

During my friend's review, her boss then chided her, throwing her words back dishonestly as a withering critique: "I think you're too concerned with self-promotion and appearances. I mean, you admitted as much to me -- if you remember when we spoke."

What the what?

My heart sunk for my friend when she relayed the anecdote.

You can't win with someone like that. All you can do is protect yourself and stop feeling crushed each and every time -- and get better at "predicting" seemingly "unpredictable" behavior so you can work around it, rather than letting it get you down, or expecting a shady person to suddenly mea culpa and admit their faults and humanity.

Then I recommended my friend read "48 Laws of Power." Not for her to use, mind you, but for her to realize exactly what move was being employed against her so she could take better care of herself. So she could not take personally what was essentially a management and psychological power play strategy on her boss's part.

I honestly think the book is essential reading for every person trying to navigate the workplace or just life in general as a young adult. I stumbled across it when I had to write a story about how the Machiavellian tome was a favorite of many people in Hollywood.

One of the principles that unravels many supposedly scary individuals -- including my friend's boss -- is Law No. 17: "Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability."

We've all had this friend, colleague or relative. One day the love and the praise is almost uncomfortable in its ebullience, and you develop a warm, high, safe opinion of the person based on rules of vulnerability and trust, such as those explained by researcher Brene Brown in "Daring Greatly." The next day you are shamed and humiliated for similar actions that earlier had garnered you praise and affection.

You're left confused and saddened and shamed, and the other person (if you don't see through it) now has a firm psychological hold on your need to win back affection. It's an angle. Plain and simple.

And so much less scary when you can see it for what it is. Like someone else's choice to wear a little black dress. It's about as meaningful as that. If you don't base your self-worth on other people's undulating opinions, you don't need to let it affect you, and instead can figure out workarounds to take care of yourself.

See how powerful that is? The only thing my friend's CEO's frenetic behavior translates to is an attempt to keep her in suspended terror and to cultivate an air of unpredictability.

And once you make like Weezer in "The Sweater Song" and unravel the thread as they walk away, it's not so scary any more. You see the behavior for what it is: A move. And moves really aren't that scary; they're just moves. The same way a bully terrorizes a nerd in middle school by making them feel self-conscious and stupid and wrong. Think: The Martha Dumptruck scene in "Heathers."

Of course, as a younger person, you may not be aware it's a move, and you may not have confidence in who you are to know that whatever is being communicated to you says everything about the other person -- and very little to absolutely nothing about you.

To be fair, I absolutely recognize that there are critical times when someone who has established a foundation of trust will provide terrific (and sometimes hard to hear) criticism and teachable moments. Ideally, however, they're coming from a place you recognize to be of love and honesty, rather than manipulation.

These aren't moves proffered to make you second-guess yourself or feel shame (as happened with my friend, who had her vulnerability thrown back at her), but opportunities for the two of you to grow together in your friendship or whatever the collegial bond may be.

I related very much to my friend's situation from past experiences working in the cutthroat culture of newspapers and as someone who grew up in a somewhat dysfunctional upbringing, which can lead to comfort with abuse -- the "claws fitting wounds" dynamic. Because of this, I am incredibly hyper-vigilant about people's motivations and intent in this way. I did not feel safe for a lot of my life as a child, and I used to toss and turn about everything, no matter how slight the slight, fretting about the slitted glare from the little blonde boy who sat in front of me in 4th grade homeroom. It was yet another confirmation of my inherent lack of worth.

I knew why. I knew he glared because of me. I knew that I was bad. I knew that I was wrong. I was wrong and bad a lot, and maybe I could learn how to fix the new thing I had done that was wrong and bad and people might like and love me more. Maybe I could figure it out. Maybe if I dressed different. Maybe if I talked less. Maybe if I didn't look up in class.

Through a long process, I slowly started to learn I was not bad and wrong. I didn't need to hate myself, and I did not cause people's reactions to me. I was not always responsible for that.

For a time, I think I would scrappily fight against situations that I sensed were old shaming moves -- or what my therapist has called "hitting on old tapes that play from when we are younger." But I had a come-to-Jesus moment a few years back when I realized that I did not need to fight unwinnable battles. All I needed to do was continue to take care of myself in sussing out what level of trust I accorded people.

I always notice when people have my back -- and I've reflected on times when I have not had other people's backs and very much regretted the actions on my part. I wrote a short post about the Reese Witherspoon arrest where I was struck by her husband seemingly throwing his wife under the bus to the officer, saying he had nothing to do with her. To me, it read as cold and a team divided -- worst of all, it was when it mattered, which matters most.

And it made me think of a specific fight I had where a cop was present, and I brought up incendiary words that my ex had said about the crazy person who had attacked and threatened him. I recounted these words in front of the cop. Totally unnecessary and if anything, potentially harmful to my ex, as if the attack on him could have been provoked.

I justified my behavior in a million ways at the time (I was terrified) but I look back and think how betrayed my ex must have felt when I brought in any element of doubt in the cop's mind. I was in a state of shock, and I was pissed at my ex for riling up a psycho, but if I had really had his back I would have STFU. I would have supported him. That's what you do when you love someone.

I wish I would have had his back, and I've let that experience be a teachable moment for me.

I hope my friend can use her upsetting performance review as a teachable moment for her life as well. Next time, hopefully, she will not accord her CEO with the same 100 percent level of vulnerability she initially did, without ensuring that he has actually earned it. She will know better than that.

It doesn't mean she has to be hostile or angry or resentful or paranoid or suspicious. She will simply take care of herself. She will be aware that the "48 Laws" exist. And if she chooses, she can make the most powerful move of all. She can detach with love.

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