Woman under a doormat
Photo: Ann Cutting
If Nu Nu had been bigger than a doorknob, someone would have shot him. He was like a tiny chain saw with fur, a snarling, fang-baring nightmare of a Chihuahua who viciously attacked anyone brave enough or crazy enough to go near him. Tina Madden, Nu Nu's owner, was as saintly as he was diabolical. She never sank to Nu Nu's level by reprimanding, much less punishing, him. She simply showered him with love and tenderness, believing that taking the high road would eventually dissolve Nu Nu's wrath.

I've had clients who took a similar "high road" approach with difficult people in their lives. For example, Yvette stayed politely silent when a coworker, Fred, brazenly stole her ideas. Janae cleaned up pizza boxes and drinking glasses left by her college-age daughter, Emily, as uncomplainingly as she'd once changed Emily's dirty diapers. And Cynthia and Rob's romance was based on lots of give and take: Cynthia gave—back rubs, compliments, gifts—and Rob took full advantage without ever reciprocating.

All these women were as long-suffering as Tina Madden, and the people around them responded just as Nu Nu did: by exploiting the living hell out of them.

The problem is that trying to change unfair behavior with submissive niceness is like trying to smother a fire with gunpowder. It isn't the high road; it's the grim, well-trod path that leads from aggressive to passive, through long, horrible stretches of passive-aggressive. The real high road requires something quite different: the courage to know and follow your own truth. If anyone in your life is exploiting your courtesy and goodwill, it's time you learned how all of this works.

Next: How to tell where your relationships are going