October 26, 2018
Dear Drama Observers,
I hate snakes. When I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, I thought Indiana Jones captured my sentiments precisely when he exclaimed, “I hate snakes.”
The house in which I grew up was located next to a small creek that ran through our neighborhood. Having a creek next to my house was a really cool thing for me as a kid, but one of the downsides was that snakes would frequently slither up into our yard for whatever reason snakes do that sort of thing. And I’m not just talking about harmless rat snakes or garter snakes. No, we frequently saw venomous varieties like Water Moccasins or Copperheads. My dad used to warn us to be careful not to step on “Mr. No Shoulders” when walking through the yard. I was never bitten, but regardless, I hate snakes. In fact, I’m having a mild-to-moderate case of the heebie jeebies right now just writing these words.
When our kids were little, we visited an indoor zoo while on vacation. My kids ran up to me and said, “Dad, you’ve gotta come see this.” They took me over to an area that was several square yards in size and surrounded by a waste high concrete block wall. Inside the area were snakes—hundreds of them. It actually reminded us of the pit into which Indiana Jones was dropped in the Raiders movie. My kids, sadistic creatures that they were, just wanted to see my reaction, knowing how much I hate those things. And they weren’t disappointed.
Anyway, this college girl was conducting a tour and when we got to the snake pit area, she sat down on a bench, took off her tennis shoes, put on high leather boots, calmly walked into the pit, and told us about the various snakes—some poisonous, some not. Someone asked her, “Aren’t you afraid?” “No,” she replied, “snakes can only elevate so many inches when they strike, and my boots are higher than that elevation.”
That would not have worked for me. I probably would’ve fainted and awakened looking into the eyes of Mr. No Shoulders, staring back at me while sticking out his forked tongue. But if your summer job involves snake education, wearing boots in the snake pit is the way to go.
We sometimes refer to Drama People as “snakes in the grass,” probably because of their stealth duplicity. Your barefoot stroll in the nice, cool grass of life is unexpectedly interrupted by a venomous strike. Like wearing boots in a snake pit, relational boundaries with Drama People are necessary to keep from being “bitten.”
This past weekend, a client emailed me about her toxic workplace that is heavily populated with human-variety Water Moccasins and Copperheads. Dreading going back to work on Monday, she ended her email with words, “Back to the snake pit.” Being at work feels to her the way walking through my childhood yard barefooted felt to me.
But she’s helped herself by developing boundaries—boots, if you will, that insulate her from her co-workers’ toxic strikes. It’s not been easy, but she’s done it. I could give you many examples of the boundaries she’s used, but I’ll mention a few:
She anticipates attacks. She’s learned through experience that her co-workers will attack her finest qualities. Like unruly sixth graders trash-talking the kid who studies and makes good grades, she knows she’ll be attacked for being honest, diligent, and efficient. That hurts but she’s limited the impact because she never allows such asinine attacks to catch her off guard. She goes to work each day expecting these grownup co-workers to act like children.
She displays no reaction. The most natural thing in the world is to strike back when you’ve been struck. But whenever she’s done that in the past, her reaction is always used against her (i.e. “You say I’m critical of you, but you just criticized me. You’re such a hypocrite.) She’s learned to substitute her impulsive reactions with pre-planned, chosen responses. She’s learned to “be the bigger person,” so to speak, but at the office where she works, that’s a pretty low bar.
She limits her need for observable justice. The treatment she receives from co-workers—the criticisms, the shunning, and the false accusations—is just not fair. Like anyone would in similar circumstances, she’d like to settle accounts, to see them pay a price for their out-of-line behavior. But her company’s management structure unwittingly protects bad actors and punishes those who call attention to the misbehavior. So, the bottom line is that management is not going to correct the situation. She would love for justice to be served, but she’s had to come to terms with the reality that she may never get to see it.
Oh, and there’s one other boundary she’s putting in place I forgot to mention: Geography. She’s looking for another job.
So, if you find yourself a snake pit of drama, wear your boots.
Till next week.
I love the analogy. Thank you for the inspiring words.
Thanks so much for taking the time to reply.
Way to go Alan. ! Important work. I can certainly recognize similar past situations when I’ve found myself biting my tongue. Thanks.
I appreciate your feedback.
I know someone like this,in my OWN family! The hatred and the bitterness coming at me sometimes was more than I could bare. But I loved that person; I’m so stubborn. I didn’t want to give up. I wanted revenge on my family member but then I realized, I had wanted revenge for myself. So I stuck it out with my family member and didn’t give up. He’s doing so much better now. I stuck with him and I’m glad I did!
That’s a great story and I’m glad you shared it. Not playing into the drama sometimes creates the conditions under which the other person will start to grow. Your drama non-participation had a good effect in the long run.