Folks who are in emotional crumple zones are the ones others worry the least about upsetting or hurting. Not because they don’t have feelings. And not because they don’t get hurt easily.
Indeed, many folks in the crumple zone are actually quite sensitive — to their own emotions and to the ones of those around them. But the reality is that their own hurt feelings don’t cause inconvenience to others.
There’s a reason that people spend so much time in therapy talking about their family of origin. Personality is extremely malleable when you’re young (the reason why, until recently, personality disorders were never diagnosed until adulthood). Young brains change quickly. They’re like plants shooting out runners in all directions and seeing what those runners latch on to. Which makes family members so important in the formation of their social identity: They’re right freaking there.
For most people, our first social experiments, in which we toe out into trying things and finding out who we are, are conducted on our families. And in turn, they conduct social experiments on us. It’s hardly the most scientific environment for experimentation. Confounding variables pile up, unchecked. Many of us walk around overwhelmed by new stimuli, absorbing experiences and knowledge and mixing them together without really questioning it.
It’s only later, removed from those early situations, that many of us sit and wonder about those early lessons. By then, we’ve left that first social laboratory and gone on to others: School life, friendships, the work force, and sexual and/or romantic relationships (for allosexuals/alloromantics).
Each place we go, we test out that early knowledge. Many times, regardless of what is actually happening around us, we don’t challenge those beliefs but simply find a way to confirm the findings. Even if that means we have to bend our perception of new experiences to fit our beliefs.
The Meaner She Was to Me, the More I Wanted Her to Love Me
I wasn’t allowed to be particular. Growing up, only two people in my family were allowed to be particular: My sister Alice and my mother.
Alice would often call me “fatso” and her oddly historical favorite, “Bolshevik.” Neither of us knew anything about the Russian Revolution at the time. I believe Alice had heard it in passing and thought it sounded dirty but wasn’t a swear so she could yell it. “Bolshevik! You Bolshevik!”
When Alice was certain no one could hear us, she’d whisper “buttfuck” into my ear and laugh as I cried.
It was a curious dynamic with Alice. No matter how mean she was to me, I always craved her attention. Her approval. Her love. I had that kind of relationship with my other older sister May, hands down, who treated me like a valued companion.
But Alice hated me. (Not an interpretation of her behavior, she’d come out and flat-out say that she hated me. Frequently.) She’d always hated me, and I never knew why. When I’d ask, Alice would tell me, “You’re not worth explaining to.” Or another of her favorite deflection-based insults, “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.”
But I kept on trying. I’d bring a deck of cards to Alice and ask her to play with me. Usually she’d insult me and tell me to go away. But occasionally she’d say yes. And my heart would soar whenever Alice would shock me by accepting. But as we played games together, Alice would rewrite the rules, adding all kinds of obscure exceptions I’d never heard of. Of course, these would always solidify her position as winner. Like Calvinball, where the rules continued to change. Alice would defeat me soundly and then mock me about her victory until I cried, not because I had lost but because she seemed to hate me so much. Which of course Alice would recast as my being a sore loser and a baby.
My parents often left Alice and May to babysit me and my younger brother David (as Alice and May are 6 and 7 years older than me, respectively). When my mother returned, Alice would stuff her babysitting reports with untrue negative allegations about my behavior (while reporting my brother to have been an angel). And no matter how much May would contradict Alice’s reports or try to defend me, our mother would often side with Alice.
Preemptive Strikes, the Mean Kind of Sensitivity
In some ways, Alice was like a miniature version of my mother. Mom was incredibly concerned with appearances, deeply insecure, and seemed to abide by an internal philosophy that it was better to attack other people first than to risk a surprise attack from them later. And the targets she chose were often astonishing.
As I entered middle school, Mom would point out which of my friends were “getting fat” and proceed to make fun of children for normal puberty-based adolescent weight gain. She’d spend hours criticizing our neighbors while peering at them through a side window (having planted trees to block their view of our house from the main road). Gossip about her closest friends in the harshest possible terms the moment they turned their backs.
From my point of view, it often seemed like both Mom and Alice had a deep emptiness inside of themselves that they were trying to fill with approval. But they were so sensitive, in this case meaning that they felt emotional pain deeply and couldn’t seem to tolerate it at all.
On their way to approval seeking, they couldn’t risk attracting disapproval (a natural risk of such an endeavor, the quest for external validation).
In that way, they seemed even more sensitive than May or me (we both grew into huge softies, the doormats of our little family).
Somewhere along the way Mom and Alice had been deeply hurt and disappointed by other people and had built up defenses that sensed threats that weren’t even there yet (most of them false alarms). They’d learned to strike first.
And they’d also learned that the way never to risk ending up a crumple zone was to turn other people into crumple zones. The best way to get their way was to insist on having their way. To bully and berate.
We were all dysfunctional, all four of the women in our family. The two bullies and the two crumple zones. But in an odd way, it kept the house balanced.
Always Outside of the Bubble of Acceptance
I kept trying, but I could never really get into either difficult woman’s bubble of acceptance. Mom was fickle and would push you out the moment you stepped over some invisible line. And once you were outside of the bubble, she’d find the most hurtful way possible to punish you. I spent most of my adolescence as a latchkey kid, one who primarily lived at other people’s houses.
And with Alice, I gave up on the day of her wedding when I left the reception in tears. It was an odd breaking point. Nothing new had really happened. Alice hadn’t said anything to me. And I suppose that was half of the point. I was a non-entity to her. She hadn’t even wanted to invite me. Alice’s large wedding party had involved her new sister-in-law, many of her groom’s relatives, and distant friends. She’d never even asked May or me if we wanted to be involved. Even after repeated pleas from my mother who was aghast at the break with tradition and the pointed exclusion of our family and the inclusion of the groom’s, and how that would appear to other people. (Boy what a stand-off that was. They warred for months, two difficult personalities. Eventually, Mom got exhausted first.)
It was Alice’s big day. And 100% her right to exclude us. She didn’t even want to invite us at all but eventually caved to my mom on that piece, agreeing that it would look funny to other people to not invite her sisters. And I don’t know that I’d wanted to be in the wedding anyway (it likely would have be excruciating, my social anxiety was terrible in those days). But for some reason, it gave everything a finality the way that the years of insults, triangulation, and mumbling under her breath as she walked away from me had been easier to deny.
I would never be her sister. It didn’t matter what I wanted.
Those Difficult Family Relationships Shaped Me to Be an Easygoing, But Neurotic, Crumple Zone
Those difficult family relationships turned me into a person who was well liked in other houses, by other families. I grew up easygoing. A little neurotic, maybe. But I’ll eat practically anything. I view being too comfortable with suspicion. Not a lot of things bother me. I’m not easily annoyed. And rather than being terrified of criticism, I expect it.
When I was younger, this meant a lot of negative self-talk. I beat myself up relentlessly. Essentially my mother’s voice had crept into my head and was judging everything I did. Putting things in the worst possible light.
And I feared that everyone was like my mother or Alice, just with more tact. That behind their open smiles lurked secret disdain. That I’d get close to them, vulnerable, only to discover that I’d mistaken their begrudging tolerance for love.
I worried that “good” people were just better pretenders.
And I became the perfect crumple zone.
Difficult People Find Easygoing People Terribly Attractive… and Love to Weaponize Self-Help Speak
Later, I’d go on to other situations and run into other people who’d remind me of Alice or my mother. The people who would make the loudest fuss over something. Who’d insist on getting their own way. To Hell with other people.
I kept running into them, for two reasons:
- There are a lot of them out there. It’s rare that you walk into a room of people without finding a few.
- Difficult people gravitate towards easygoing people who will give them their way. Our ability to capitulate makes us utterly irresistible to them.
The only difference between them and the relationships of my early years was that these people seemed to be better at shaping the stories they told themselves. Instead of owning their own selfishness, they’d come up with nobler-sounding reasons.
After learning a bit of self-help speak, they’d weaponize it. They’d insist that they were setting boundaries, and in a way they were, but they seemed to not understand that others had a right to set their own as well. They were great at drawing lines in the sand but often ignored the boundaries set by others, trampling over them.
They were happy to be surrounded by emotional crumple zones. People who catered to their every whim that they could treat as expendable. People who certainly had feelings of their own — but who didn’t inconvenience others in quite the same way with those hurt feelings.
And the moment you stood up to this new brand of difficult person on something that was just a bridge too far, they would insult you for being a crumple zone. Armed with half-learned (in truth, usually less than half-learned) pop psychology, they’d call you “co-dependent” paradoxically at the very moment you stood up for yourself, insulting you for dysfunctional behaviors that they normally were happy to benefit from, precisely at the moment you were breaking from them and actually exercising independence.
“The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease”
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It was something my dad always said. Which at the time seemed to mean, “Kid, if you want something, you’ve got to ask for it.”
Well, kinda. Usually Dad said it when I’d roll my eyes because Mom or Alice had once again been rewarded for bad behavior, by one of us. Usually Dad, me, or May. The resident doormats.
Dad had a good excuse. He wasn’t around most of the time. Gone for noble reasons: His job. Dad’s hours were insane. Working at the largest non-union construction outfit in Maine, a state with low cost of living and wages, he often spent months away from home at a job site across the state, the country, and occasionally the world (for example, he once spent a few months in Finland). Since it was often cheaper to export an entire team of non-union Mainer laborers and their managers (which Dad was) to somewhere else than to hire local help for the project.
Dad worked really hard, and when he was home, he never complained. He was a stoic. And my hero, although he was mostly a mystery to me, and I didn’t really get to know much about him until later in life.
And whenever Alice or Mom acted up, sometimes he’d look at me and shrug and go, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” explaining it all with that one line. That it was easier to go along with them.
On the rare occasion that someone else in our house took a stand, it was short lived. And we usually didn’t get our way anyway after the dust settled. We couldn’t sustain that volume for very long, outmatched by those two marathon complainers.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It’s something I’d catch myself saying for years, resigned. Any time someone difficult had unfairly been rewarded for making the lives of everyone around them miserable.
For years, it seemed inevitable. Like there was no getting around it. I did as my father did. Shrugged. Gave in. Moved on with my business.
Occasionally when it was a really damaging concession, I’d think it as I sobbed in private. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
And I’d feel miserable. It was the thing I liked the least about the world: Difficult people seemed to be constantly rewarded for being shit heels.
I Couldn’t Say Yes to Everyone
Looking back, I can see how I wasn’t doing myself any favors by not advocating for myself. In some ways, I was suffering needlessly and expecting to be able to trade my hard-earned martyr points for fabulous cash and prizes. Getting confused that there wasn’t a redemption center or an opportunity to be somehow compensated for the suffering.
I got stuck in this pattern and perpetuated it, completely unaware of what I was doing and unable to really effect any change.
But over the years, something eventually did change. For me, this switch-over happened when I’d been polyamorous for a few years. Keeping with my earlier pattern, I’d predictably attracted multiple difficult people, who were now all lovers. And I suddenly was in a position where no matter how much any given wheel squeaked, their desires often conflicted. I began to encounter situations where I couldn’t say yes to everyone:
It wasn’t until I experienced multi-commitment as a busy poly hinge and discovered my previous level of self-sacrifice was untenable that I started to figure autonomy out. What it meant to me. To tease apart complete dependence from complete independence and foster a sort of healthy interdependence in relationships.
Because while my normal instinct when monogamous had been to just go along with what my partner wanted, as a busy poly hinge, I couldn’t do that anymore. I ran into situations where I couldn’t say “yes” to everyone.
And rather than self-destruct on the spot like a robot stuck in a logical paradox, I was forced to appeal to a higher court to help break deadlocks: What I found reasonable.
And after circumstances forced me to do this enough times, I gradually came to do so instinctively.
When I Began to Self-Grease and to Pay Attention to Quieter People Who Rarely Complained, Everything Changed
I began to hear that inner voice that I’d ignored for so long: What I wanted. What I thought was fair.
And when I did, I began to self-grease. To start attending to my own needs. And to not jump to grease up every little squeak I heard from others behind me.
If it seemed more like a request motivated by control or ego and less like something that the person was asking for help with in good faith, I just let them complain.
I never really began to squeak much per se — and I don’t know if becoming a squeaky wheel is in the cards for me. But I started to find I didn’t have to, if I just paid attention to different things.
As I began to quietly grease my own wheels and also to ignore the unnecessary squeaking of the most demanding people in my life, other quiet people noticed. And as I stopped frittering my attention away on people who didn’t really deserve it, I was able to see that these quiet people were in a similar state to my own. That they’d been quietly suffering for years, greasing spoiled and entitled squeakers while neglecting self-care. I turned to them and applied grease to their wheels. And they reciprocated.
Predictably, the squeaky wheels pitched large fits in the face of my new relative neglect of them. But I continued to ignore whatever exaggerated noises people were making and instead looked carefully at what seemed to really be going on. I started to focus primarily on the issues themselves rather than the size of any given person’s complaints.
I stopped dumping unneeded maintenance into systems that should be working just fine, if everyone acted in good faith and didn’t treat other people as crumple zones.
Sure, Some Things Fell Apart. But They Were Things I’m Happier Without.
I’ll be clear: This switch in my thinking wasn’t without stressful consequences. Many of those past relationships (whether friendships or romantic partnerships) didn’t make it. And if you want to hear noise, you should hear how a squeaking wheel whines when you stop babyproofing their life.
But if you can ignore it in the short term, it’s so much lower stress long term. The world is much different when you can actually hear yourself think.
And as I look around at my life now compared to my life then, the difference is striking.
I’m surrounded by people who make a good faith effort to take care of themselves.
In a manner of speaking, sure, we do “squeak” every now and then. We do ask for help when we really need it (arguably, we all do it more appropriately than before because over-squeakers aren’t monopolizing everyone’s time and attention). But there aren’t any constant drains on resources. And as I look at my close friends and lovers, there aren’t any bullies or crumple zones to speak of. Nor are there any people who will drop everything to cater to a bully, as I once did (over and over).
It all started with a conscious decision I made not to prize the squeaky wheel. To dole out care and concern to people who seem to need it the most (regardless of whether they were a person who tends to suffer loudly or silently) and not just the person who was making the most noise. And especially to stop attracting bullies by rewarding behavior I didn’t want to see again.
It’s not always easy. I have to make sure to check on people. To look at and listen to the more subtle shifts.
In some ways, it was more straightforward as a helper to simply respond in a knee jerk way to loud invented — or at least greatly overblown — crises. To coddle the person who is screaming over their papercut while another partner lies in quiet agony with a gunshot wound in the shadows.
It takes a different kind of attention and vigilance to cater to non-squeakers. But I’ll take this over what I lived through before. Any day.
And these days, when someone close to me is asking for help, they usually really need it. And I’m better able to hear it without all that unnecessary background screeching.
Occasionally when I date someone new, especially someone who hasn’t known me as a friend for a while, they’ll mistake my kindness for weakness. They’ll see the old tells, the remnants of my crumple zone and wrongly assume that I’m an easy mark, like in the old days. Respond with shock and horror as I don’t take the bait that they lay down so confidently before me.
I’ve had that particular breakup a few different times now.
At one point in my life, I would have interpreted that as failure. But now I know that breaking up isn’t failure. It can be its own form of success.
I’ve made a conscious decision to not automatically prioritize people based on the volume at which they tend to complain. To not cower to bullies or reward passive-aggressive baiting (which is simply loud squeaking conducted in a slightly more covert way). To make my life one place where the squeaky wheel doesn’t automatically get the grease.
It’s one of the best changes I ever made.