The Fear of Being Taken Advantage Of | Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

There is little more that I see getting in the way of people risking trusting someone else than their fear of being taken advantage of. It’s potent and it triggers something primal. No one wants to let other people know that they can be “gotten.” We often prefer to miss out on connecting with someone for fear that we could be hurt.

That’s a real fear because people do it. They betray us, they “ghost”—but to deal with this shame/embarrassment/vulnerability/anger we often swing to the extreme and just say “Eff It! That’s never going to happen again!”

Learning Basic Trust Early On…

This fear gets started early and lack of what Erik Erikson calls Basic Trust is the first task we need to learn as humans. If we don’t believe that someone will feed us, clean us, or come when we cry/call, we are primed to distrust the world. We become hard early on—no one will pick me up from day care, dad won’t come to my soccer game, that girl will never return my call, my wife will eventually leave me, my kids don’t really care about me.

The list goes on and on because as we become self-sufficient (I can get my own food and clean myself, thank you very much) we find new ways to expect to be forgotten about and not cared enough about. This haunts us in relationships and friendships and keeps us holding our cards close to our vests. Like the Mafia Don who can only sit with his back against the wall so he can see the whole room there’s a fear that the moment you let your guard down is the moment the person you trusted is going to pull out that rug.

Maybe your greatest fear is to become Charlie Brown who keeps running toward that football, believing that THIS time Lucy won’t snatch it away.

…But Doing it Slowly

The trouble with the Charlie Brown analogy is that it’s all about “Or”. Either Charlie Brown trusts Lucy or he doesn’t kick the football. But we don’t need to live in that binary of trust fully vs. don’t trust at all.

Part of relationship building is learning to trust…but slowly. Learning to see whether this person is worthy of your faith in them. Do they show up when they say they are going to or call if there is a problem? We don’t need to trust them with the big stuff yet, but are we going through the process of building with them?

It’s not easy to do, because even sending that first email on OkCupid is letting out a hand that may be slapped—or worse, ignored.being_taken_advantage_of

And that hurts. There’s talk about the “fragile male ego” and often we have one. It’s good and healthy to be aware when your feelings are hurt, but is that ego stopping you from taking chances? Is that ego having your response to being ignored come out in an explosively angry way? Are you able to sit with feeling hurt for a little bit, but still get up again with enthusiasm for the next possibility?

Some of us would rather choose to never engage at all than to slowly take chances and deal with the small bruisings that come with that.

Trust Via a Calculated Risk

Let me be clear. Being taken advantage of sucks. It does. Big time. Especially if you’re doing everything “right”. You’re being kind, you’re thinking of others, you’re being empathic, you’re thinking the best of people. It is damned unfair when someone “takes advantage of your good nature” (I think I’m quote Livia S., but I may have gotten that wrong—sticking with the Family theme.)

But what’s the alternative?

Many people move between extremes. Isolating themselves and when that becomes unbearable they move too fast to connect with someone new. Once that person takes advantage of them they are reminded that they shouldn’t trust anyone and we’re back to isolation.

Charlie Brown could take Lucy aside and have a talk. He could have Schroeder come along. He could play a game that would let them both have some power and was more equitable. He could build up to the football before just blindly trusting her.

There are people who will take advantage of you. There are lots of people who won’t. You’ll lose out on getting to know them if you don’t learn how to weed the others out. And that means you need to take some calculated risks.

The Irony in Avoiding Being Taken Advantage Of

The surprise is that when we are the most successful at isolating ourselves from allowing anyone to take advantage of or hurt us we are just as successful at ending up lonely and hating ourselves. There’s a story of a guy who ties a brick to a bungee cord so when he gets mad he throws the brick at someone and the bungee cord ensures (because he gets mad at people so often he doesn’t want to lose the brick)  that the brick comes back. Trouble is, it usually hits him in the face. The moral of the story is that we need to wonder if our defenses don’t end up harming us just as much as—if not more than—others.

Yes, you can shield yourself from being taken advantage of by not trusting anyone.

But is it worth it?


Do you find yourself in this rut of isolation or over-trusting? If you’d like to talk about how you can find your way out of that, please get in touch with me for a FREE 15-minute phone consultation.