Cecily and Gwen hit it off on a Caribbean cruise after they realized they lived close to each other. Back home, they began meeting for coffee and conversation. Gwen told Cecily about her troubled marriage, her sciatica, her intrusive mother, the trials of parenting. Cecily told Gwen...almost nothing. Somehow, Cecily's life just never seemed to come up. But one stressful morning, Cecily finally decided to share.

"My dad's got cancer," she told Gwen, clutching her coffee mug. "I'm really scared for him."

"Oh," said Gwen. "That reminds me of the time my boyfriend—well, ex-boyfriend—thought he had skin cancer." She went on to tell the tale, in tragic terms, with herself as the dramatic heroine. Later Cecily told me, "That's when I realized that Gwen is kind of self-absorbed." Kind of? The "friend" Cecily made is an emotional pirate.

You've probably encountered similar brigands on the high seas of life. Some are charming or charismatic, others whiny. But they all have one thing in common: They want others to pay them attention, and they never, ever pay it back. They demand your pity, admiration, and agreement, even when you're in need. And they leave you feeling emotionally looted.

You may think that pirates are simply wounded souls in need of TLC. Listen: Some people like being pirates. They don't want to generate their own emotional well-being. They want yours. Yo-ho-ho, a pirate's life for them! If you don't learn to recognize and defend against these scourges, you're waiting to be victimized. So here's a Pirate Protection Program to keep you safe:

Step One: Always stay shipshape.

Emotional pirates prey on weakness, on ships with tattered sails. To avoid being attacked, give yourself the attention you've been giving the pirates. Notice: Are you physically at ease? Wearing comfortable clothes? If there's any discomfort in your life, take one action to make yourself feel better. Now take another. This is called meeting your own needs, and it's a primo pirate-proofing practice.

Some people balk at the thought of putting self-care over a pirate's demands, but ignoring your needs to pour energy into a self-absorbed person's self-absorption isn't virtuous. It only sets you up to get hurt.

Next: How to clarify what you really feel about people in your life


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