My favorite therapist taught me something I call the "three strike" rule: If you not only have a bad experience with a person but also hear worrisome reports about that person from three totally unrelated sources, you need to carry a protective grudge that says, "I don't quite trust you."
For example, I was once approached by a freelance TV producer I'll call Fred, who wanted to create a life-coaching reality show. During a meeting with a network executive, I was startled to hear Fred lie. Later he explained breezily, "You have to say what you have to say." This, as my daughters sometimes put it, did not gruntle me. But despite my disgruntlement, I dismissed the incident.
Within a week, by pure coincidence (or was it?), three people mentioned to me that they knew Fred. One was a woman he'd dated, another a colleague, a third his sister's high school buddy—and all of them delicately mentioned "honesty issues." Three strikes, plus one bad experience of my own, meant I put on a psychological Kevlar vest. I told Fred I'd decided not to work with him, and immediately felt much more relaxed.
I've learned through creepy experience that when I start inexplicably doubting myself around a specific person, it's time to hold a good constructive grudge. Me? I doubt myself constantly (rethinking impulse purchases, lying awake listening to myself wrinkle, and so on), but what I'm talking about is a much more unsettling self-doubt: the kind that surfaces when reality seems to bend and sway around a certain someone, when my recollections don't jibe with what that person claims and their stories glide smoothly around any factual inaccuracies I may point out.
Flurries of this dizzy sensation surround individuals who have secrets and hidden agendas. Psychologists use the term gaslighting to describe this type of systematic lying —an allusion to an old movie in which a man drives his wife to question her sanity by telling her odd lies and manipulating the level of gaslight in the house so that she keeps seeing lights dim for no reason.
When this happens to you, you've officially reached a "hard hat" area. If you don't bear a protective grudge against a gaslighter, you really might go nuts.
Consider Cindy. She worked alongside Danielle for months before noticing she felt strangely ungrounded at the office. "I doubted myself in ways I never had before," Cindy told me. "Eventually I realized that I always felt most confused after dealing with Danielle." Things got so bad that Cindy (feeling sheepish and paranoid) called one of Danielle's former employers to ask how he'd interacted with her. Surprise! Cindy discovered that the job on Danielle's résumé never existed. Kicking into sleuth mode, Cindy discovered that much of Danielle's résumé was fiction.
Now, this took place in a corporate environment, which explains what happened next: nothing. Cindy's supervisor, not wanting to admit she'd hired a deceitful loser, advised Cindy to ignore Danielle's flagrant fraud. "Don't hold a grudge," said the boss. Cindy disobeyed. Thenceforth, she worked with Danielle the way a bomb squad works with explosives, always questioning Danielle's fishy-sounding versions of the truth rather than her own sanity. When Danielle (inevitably) did get fired, the manager who hadn't wanted to deal with the problem caught a lot of heat. Cindy, thanks to her light but resilient grudge, was scorch-free.
Next: Two more groups to be wary of