Step Three: Mount antipiracy defense measures.
Some pirates make themselves obvious. Their arrogance or neediness is like a skull-and-crossbones flag. Others are very subtle. They can lie so effectively that your first signal of something amiss may be your own anger, frustration, or lack of energy. But as soon as you recognize an emotional pirate, try these maneuvers:
Quietly sail away: Once Cecily knew that Gwen was a pirate, she began spacing their coffee dates farther and farther apart, and finally stopped calling Gwen or answering her messages. If you can end a relationship with a pirate this easily, do it. You may be met with anything from disinterest to a flurry of phone calls to a tantrum. If the pirate throws a fit, proceed to the next tactic.
Batten the hatches: To perform this maneuver, be civil, but don't ever offer the attention the pirate craves. Limit yourself to bland, noncommittal comments. Instead of "You poor thing!" or "Tell me more!" try saying, "Yeah, that's life," or "Onward!" When pirates realize your attention hatches are truly battened, they drift away.
Hide your treasure: This powerful approach will baffle and confuse emotional pirates. Remember, attention is your treasure, so instead of pouring it onto the topics pirates bring up, focus on something that interests you: cooking, carpentry, cat burglary, you name it. Ask questions you want answered. For example:
Pirate: You won't believe what my ex said to me!
You: Hey, how do chickens sleep? Do they lie down, or what?
The more random your comment, and the more unrelated to the pirate's topic, the better. Again, persistence is key! Continue to focus on your real interests, no matter what. Share no treasure, and the scurvy knaves will be gone.
Step Four: Head for calmer seas.
You may be one of those warmhearted, codependent people who attract many pirates or who have let one pillage them for years. (This usually means you were raised by parents with piratical tendencies or fell into a romantic relationship with a pirate before you realized what was happening.) If so, the tactics above will feel awkward, especially at first. Hang in there! For motivation, recall that while you've given many hours of intense emotional energy to your pirate, the pirate would not notice if you were on fire.
The moment Cecily fully realized Gwen was a pirate, she began implementing the maneuvers above—gradually. A naturally giving person, she found it hard to simply take a cutlass to the relationship. And that's okay. If you know you've allowed a pirate into your life and you continue to let yourself be plundered for a while, don't beat yourself up. Go at your own speed. But take notes. Later, back among crewmates who pay as much attention to you as you do to them, you can entertain one another with tales of the lawless looters who pillaged your energy long ago, before you really learned to sail.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).
More Life Lessons from Martha Beck