Enabling Our Own Exploitation: An Inquiry

Sometimes I write a post, and the words flow with little effort on my part.  It is as if an idea is born into the ether with its own agency.  Sometimes, however, I feel anxiety because I know I’m going to say something that might be misunderstood or easily misinterpreted.  I’m anxious right now.  I might be writing something that could be misunderstood.  So, please, bear with me.  My intention as always is for the higher good.

Have you ever had a friendship just sort of dissolve? It was there one day robust with life and energy and then wilting the next? Suddenly, it’s as if your relationship is experiencing death throes, and you’re not even sure what happened? This happened to me recently, and I’ve not been wont to write about it because I’ve been quiet about most things lately.  I haven’t been writing much at all.

Mostly, I needed to think about the sudden loss and really come to a truthful conclusion about my part in it.  I didn’t feel like I had done anything wrong, and yet I felt so exploited and taken advantage of at the same time.  Why? No relationship comes to a halt and just ends because of one person.  Surely, I had a part to play in it, and, honestly, I did not like that idea.  So, I’m going to step into the light and engage in some real talk in the form of self-examination.  Also, not something I love.  Real talk.  Alas, sometimes real talk is necessary.

If you come from a codependent family with any kind of trauma in your background, then you might be familiar with the idea of the archetype.  Perhaps you have always been the Good Child, the Incorrigible Child, the Bad Kid, the Perfect Child, the Inherently Evil Child, the Helper, the Pleaser, the Too Much but Never Enough Child, the Always In The Way Kid, the Scapegoat, the Fixer, the Invisible Child, or the Too Broken to Fix Child.  You get the idea.  Sometimes we are a combination of a few of these.  You might be something I left out.  And, oftentimes, no matter how much truly meaningful work we do in our lives to put things right, we carry these labels with us into our adult vocations and relationships because, as I’ve learned, we might still have the drive to prove that we are not the labels we got stuck with so long ago.  It isn’t as if we are 100% committed to the belief that we are the embodiment of these familial roles we were thrust into, but, at the same time, at least for me, it has felt like I’ve been trying to prove a point for a long time.  To whom? Maybe myself? It isn’t clear anymore, but this is how it manifested.

In a lot of my relationships, it seems that I will make myself overly available.  I will be the one to count on.  I will listen, show up, and give away my emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and even physical resources without much expectation of reciprocity.  I used to think that this was just how relationships were, but, in reality, this is not how healthy relationships function.  Healthy relationships are not one-sided in which one person gives to the other with little in return–for years.  There is nothing blessed about that.  Even if the other person acknowledges the imbalance and still continues to take, does the acknowledgement make the relationship less imbalanced? Less exploitative, dare I ask? No, not really.  If I don’t tighten the boundaries, lessen the emotional, psychological, intellectual, and physical outflow, then who is ultimately responsible for resultant feelings of exploitation? Me.

So, what’s the real talk here? I was in a friendship wherein I gave away far too much for too long but received far less in return in terms of support and reciprocity.  There wasn’t a consistently mutual exchange, and I knew that.  It felt oddly normal to me.  In retrospect, I observe that I engaged in a form of magical thinking in which I continued to believe that if I invested time and effort–capital if you will– for long enough, when the time came to draw on that capital, there would be a return–not a declaration of bankruptcy on the other end.  And, that’s what happened.  My friend metaphorically declared bankruptcy in the form of saying that she had no capacity for friendship when I finally asked for support during a very real and legitimate time of need.  She essentially spent all the capital I had invested over the years.  It was like a relational Ponzi scheme.  A defrauding.  And I felt deeply hurt and exploited.  That’s not to say that she was definitively exploitative or possessed bad character.  She wasn’t and didn’t.  For the sake of my own learning, however, I can see now that there was a trend; and I discounted it.  And this is worth exploring.

So, who set me up for that exploitation? Me or her?

This is a dangerous question to ask particularly if one has been victimized because there is an unspoken rule when it comes to victims and exploitation: it isn’t our fault.  No one asks to be exploited.  Hear me out.  This is really important.

I had a hidden expectation, and that expectation was that my friend was going to come through for me during a time of need.  So, I willingly gave away my precious resources to her banking on a future reality that may or may not arrive.  I was counting on what I believed about her character.  My trust was misplaced.  A case could easily be made that we all trust people and are proven wrong from time to time.  That isn’t our fault.  Blaming ourselves to avoid feeling grief and disappointment is not the proper way to handle the emotional processing of pain.  Agreed.  That’s not what I’m saying.

I’m trying to elucidate something deeper.  Why did I give away everything for free in the first place? Why didn’t I set up a model for a reciprocal exchange? Why was I always there even when it was so far outside what was good for me? What was at play? People will likely take what you offer them.  If it’s free, then they will likely take it. If we value what we are giving to others, then wouldn’t we want something in return? Wouldn’t we ask for reciprocity? Wouldn’t we expect it? Why? Because, as it turns out, nothing in life is really free at all.  Someone is usually always paying for the unreciprocated exchanges be it through the absorbing of inequities, emotional hits, somatic symptoms, and the intellectual energy required to process ideas and thoughts after every interaction.  Plus, our time is immensely valuable.  Doctors, coaches, psychologists, lawyers, healthcare providers, and the like charge for their time and expertise.  The exchange of money adds reciprocity to the entire exchange between a client and expert.  It says, “What you are giving me is valuable, and I am acknowledging that as well as participating in the exchange.”  Eventually, you will be functioning at a deficit if you give yourself and your personal resources away for little or nothing particularly if you do so while magically expecting that someone will one day reimburse you.  It just doesn’t work that way.  You’ll just be continually exploited because there will always be needs in the world that far exceed your resources to meet them.

In a way, it was like I let the water faucet run continuously and anyone could come drink freely.  Why did I expect anyone to stop taking water? Why did I expect anyone to fill my well when it ran dry? I left the tap on and received a huge water bill! So, why expect a different outcome when I never asked for payment in exchange for the water? I never expressed that expectation before.  I simply gave it all away and did so happily. More than that, I expected that when I had a bucket that needed filling–at some point in the future–someone who had been taking water from me for free would have water to give me; or, money to give me to pay that huge water bill.  It sounds absurd when I put it like this.

Why would anyone ever do such a thing? Well, because that’s what Good Children do.  They are never selfish.  They are always generous, kind, selfless, and happy to share everything.  You can always count on the Good Child.  They are perfect in every way.  They can fix anything.  They can solve every problem.  They are boundless.  They become whatever the situation calls for.  Their well never runs dry.  They never tire of doing right.  And, they never say ‘no’.

That was my role.  That was who I was from early childhood until recently–apparently.  For me, this was a very important life lesson.  I saw so clearly how I unwittingly participated in my own exploitation largely because I had internalized the negative beliefs about what a “good person” does in the context of relationships and interpersonal exchanges.  Moreover, I can’t overlook the societal programming of gender roles here particularly of Southern United States gender roles.  Good Southern girls are always a wellspring of helpfulness, good manners, hospitality, grace, and beneficence.

The positive takeaways here are that 1) I can choose what attributes from my Southern upbringing I will keep, 2) I do not have to keep any of those negative core beliefs that define what being “good” actually means, and 3) I can learn what authentically positive relationships characterized by reciprocity look like and cultivate them.  The other positive takeaway from this situation? I stepped away from this circumstance and tried to see what part I played in the relationship’s demise rather than stay in that very old but familiar “victim” state.  The emotional experience of exploitation can be very familiar and, henceforth, triggering to many people who were formerly victimized.  Getting above it, assessing our roles in how relationships are playing out, what might be motivating us and the choices we’re making, and sitting with discomfort are all very key parts of developing distress tolerance which ultimately contributes to our personal development and healing.

It makes us better.

As always, keep going!





4 Comments on “Enabling Our Own Exploitation: An Inquiry

  1. Great article…I relate so much to this and there certainly are others who are capable of filling the well in a reciprocal manner but those who cannot or will not give back can’t be avoided entirely. I think this is where my faith in God helps. When I’m depleted by others, I’m learning to take the time to be alone to read and pray and be refilled. I’m learning to accept that giving to those who cannot or will not give back is a part of learning to be more Christlike…who gave everything because of his great love. It really does hurt to give at this level but instead to giving to the other person, I’m viewing it more as a service to God trusting that he rewards faithfulness in this life or the next.

    • Hi Laura, Thank you for taking the time to write a thoughtful comment. Firstly, I want to say that I grew up in the church. What you say is very familiar to me. I was steeped in this line of reasoning for 30 years. And, it all sounds “good” on paper–we give of ourselves to those “who cannot or will not give back” because it is “part of learning to be more Christlike.” We count this as “service to God trusting that he rewards faithfulness in this life or the next.” I don’t think I’m going to change your mind because a vast majority of Christians believe this–particularly women. Women are raised to believe this in the church, and, consequently, women experience a great deal of abuse in the church as well. So, I’ll pose a few questions:
      1. When did you see Jesus relationally give of himself to someone who would not reciprocate? I’m not talking about his Roman execution. I’m talking about his close relationships within his social group. He didn’t. Whenever the disciples stepped over the line, Jesus had something to say about it. And Jesus expressed hurt. He also only spent limited amounts of time with larger groups of people in ministry. And, he clearly blamed himself when Lazarus died because he wasn’t there with Mary, Martha and Lazarus when he fell ill. You are in no way being like Jesus by staying in relationships with people who refuse to reciprocate. That is simply relational exploitation, and God doesn’t bless any of us for knowingly being emotionally abused.

      2. Where in the Bible does it say that God will reward us for willingly being exploited (which is a form of abuse) if we have the power not to be?
      We are supposed to leave abusive and exploitative relationships. There are explicit instructions in Isaiah to “run from oppression”. We are not to stick around and wait for God to reward us for “taking a good emotional beating” (or beating of any kind) if we have the ability to flee. Service to God does not include allowing ourselves to be exploited.

      3. How is rewarding someone who is exploitative by continuing to give them access to your own resources helpful to them? Is this “Christlike”? Or, does it actually reinforce exploitation and empower further victimization? Is that Christlike?

      I would argue that those people who have an exploitative relational style should be avoided in terms of avoiding relationship with them. Superficial, acquaintance-style relationships are normal, and we have superficial interactions with people almost everyday. I’m not sure who could not reciprocate at all. A gravely ill person, an infant, a person with an untreated severe brain-based mental health diagnosis, a person with an untreated Cluster B diagnosis who is unwilling to seek treatment (and they would most certainly be exploitative/abusive as well), and perhaps a person going through a major crisis. A homeless person. But, we are not seeking meaningful relationships wherein we expect reciprocity with the aforementioned. Clearly, the level of engagement is quite different, and, if one is involved with a homeless person or someone with an untreated brain-based mental health condition who is, for example, rapid cycling, then we are likely advocating for them. Of course, we are not looking for reciprocation. Advocacy work isn’t about reciprocity. And, that isn’t what my blog post was about. I was discussing interpersonal relationships, and I will still emphasize that if we continue to give of ourselves freely, as you suggest, to people who exploit, then their exploitation is rewarded. They will continue to engage in this and go on to hurt others. The emotional “crime”, if you will, will go unpunished–as in there is no consequence be it a loss of relationship or very tightened boundaries–that teaches that actions have consequences, and we are the ones paying for their sins as it were. Now, that could be argued is truly Christlike–paying for the sins of others. But, that is a Messiah Complex, and I doubt that Jesus ever intended for anyone to pay for the “sins” of others if he already did that. That’s not love of our fellow human. That’s codependency.

      My intention here is to offer another viewpoint. And I feel passionate about this subject because I have witnessed so many women endure exploitation which led to further abuse in the church (and their lives) largely because of the idea that people should be more “Christlike and give everything” even if they are only rewarded after death. Jesus, however, never actually tolerated most of what the church teaches should be tolerated by its members today.

      • Hi MJ,

        I completely understand the frustration of having experienced exploitative relationships in the church and in relationships with immediate family members. I wholeheartedly believe in setting boundaries and I’ve learned in the hardest way possible how necessary that is.

        That said, in my own life and around the world injustice still exists and while I do not feel responsible for fixing anyone, as a Christian I am commanded to love and be at peace with everyone so far as it depends on me and that is something I am completely dependent on God for the strength and compassion to live out.

        Sometimes loving people means letting them go but sometimes it also means showing up every day and being a consistent example of love in the face of irrational unkindness.

        A perfect example of this is a dear older African American lady I go to church with. She explained to me how she marched and protested during the civil rights era and how that brought about change but of course racism is an evil that still exists. She’s had neighbors that fly the rebel flag and appeared standoffish and instead of ignoring them she felt led by God to be friendly like she would to any other neighbor…normal cordial greetings. Over time those neighbors got to know her and trust her which eventually allowed for opportunities for telling them about her faith.

        My friend never deserved to be treated unkindly because of her skin color but instead of avoiding them, with God’s help, she demonstrated kindness and patience and it made a difference.

        There are times when boundaries must be set and people should protect themselves but there are also times when Christians are called to show kindness in the face of injustice and trust God with the outcome.

        I think the serenity prayer speaks to asking God to show us the difference between when we can or cannot change a circumstance for the better.

        I encourage you to consider these scriptures:

        Luke 6:32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

        1 Peter 2: 19 For it brings favor if, because of a consciousness of God, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if when you do wrong and are beaten, you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God. 21 For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

        • Hi Laura,

          I think there may be a misunderstanding. The content of my post is entirely about what you addressed in your first paragraph and nothing beyond that. I am in no way addressing civil rights advocacy or any act of proselytizing–I never mentioned either. I am not talking about how one interacts with the world at large which is replete with every kind of -ism one could attempt to imagine. I’m a Jew. I grew up in an interfaith family. My partner is Asian-American. Between my family history of anti-Semitism and profound family traumas, the great family losses sustained during the grand sweep of the Inquisition and the Holocaust and his family’s history with racism in America as immigrants, I am well acquainted with the spiritual wrestling that goes into how to show up in the world as a person of faith and what it costs–how much kindness and goodness cost you when someone carrying ancient hatred is sitting next to you. This is something I know far too much about. My family and I live this reality daily because we are committed to living out and embodying the kindness and goodness of God–even when someone asks if we drink baby’s blood on Passover or claims that “my people” control the banking systems.

          Alas, I was discussing the idea of relational exploitation in the context of close, personal relationships–not attempting to advocate for my racial identity with racists which is in no way the same thing. I was also alluding to the fact that verses like Luke 6:32 and 1 Peter 2:19 have been used very effectively in the past and recently in Christian settings to rob victims of their rights to seek safety. Women in domestically abusive marriages and occupations have been told to endure their abuse because it will bring them favor with God. Their reward will be given to them in heaven. I simply do not believe that this is true. Are we to “love our enemies”? We are to pray for and show love to everyone, yes, but define “love”. In this context, the word “love” in the Greek septuagint is ἀγαπάω. And, rendered in English means “to have good will towards, to do what God prefers by his discriminating power”. In other words, we are to always think good thoughts toward all people, making no enemies. This is very Jewish. And, in all our interactions–particularly the complex interactions with difficult people–do our best to discern what is the best course of action for that person’s highest good–and ours. For, as it is written, we are to love our enemies as we love ourselves. We, of course, rely on God to support us, but Judaism believes differently about rewards. Believing that we receive our rewards in the afterlife isn’t necessarily a Jewish idea. We are taught to repair the world now because rewards are to be had while we live. This is why it is so imperative to live redemptively–now.

          Of course, regardless of faith and practice, we are all supposed to try to live peacefully with all people. I am in no way stating or even implying that we should do otherwise. My original point is that we can become agents in our own exploitation when we have hidden expectations in our personal relationships particularly when we come from codependent families or hold negative false beliefs that influence our identities. And, we can exercise some control over that by implementing boundaries because we are not supposed to endure exploitation as it rewards the person engaging in exploitation and disempowers us while reinforcing codepedent behavioral patterns. The context for my thoughts was only meant to be within the confines of interpersonal relationships. If my post was vague and unclear on that, then I communicated poorly. I need to revisit what I wrote and edit it for the sake of clarity. Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to convey my thoughts more succinctly.

          I hope that this brings some clarity.

          Best, MJ

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