“God, stop trapping me!” he says. It’s very loud. He’s raising his voice.
I’m starting to feel very small. Very scared.
“Trapping you?” I say. “I just asked you a question.”
“A trick question,” he says.
I’m honestly confused, have no idea what he’s talking about. But something has set him off. I realize then that he’s not seeing or hearing me, the person that I am here with him now. Instead, he’s reacting to something that hurt him in the past.
He’s gotten me mixed up with someone else emotionally. It’s something I’ve done myself before with people. Past trauma sometimes pokes its nose in a place where it doesn’t belong.
True, I’m not a person who explodes in anger or yells. So that’s not how it manifests with me when I overreact to what someone else has said. But other people are different. They have different stress responses.
Unfortunately, his particular stress response is lighting up my fear centers.
“There’s no trick, ” I say softly, hoping to deescalate the situation.
“Like hell there’s not!” he replies. It’s very loud again.
I force myself to get calmer as I feel my blood pressure rise. I try to modulate my voice so it stays even. “Honey,” I say. “I love you. When have I ever tried to trick you?”
At first he glares at me, and then something shifts within him. I can see it moving across his face. He’s silent. Several minutes pass before he talks to me again, during which time I remind myself that he’s probably just calming down still.
“I’m sorry,” he says. He tells me stories I already know. About abusive exes. Interactions with a relative in childhood. I’ve heard it all, but I do my best to listen without interrupting.
Finally, I say, “I know, sweetie. But I want you to know that I’m not them. I don’t do those things. I don’t play those games. If you feel like a question is unfair, you can just tell me. And I’ll restate it or take it back.”
“I know,” he says. “I know that when I’m not in the moment, when I’m not freaking out.”
Something within him cracks, and then he’s crying. He sobs. Begs me not to leave him. Says that there’s some kind of test here he’s never going to pass. That he’s going to emerge as a failure the more I get to know him.
I’m baffled. Because I love him. I look up to him. I feel tiny next to him, like I’m standing in his shadow. In fact, the moment before he yelled at me, I was adoring him rather intensely.
If I’m Going to Be Subjected to the Punishment, I Might As Well Have Done the Crime
The first dozen times this happens, it’s easier to be patient. But as time goes on, he’s not getting any better. If anything, he seems to be getting worse. The ire escalates in the moment. He calls me names.
It’s not always the same trigger either. I’m finding it hard to predict beforehand what will set him off.
When I consult him, he’s not so sure either. He’s had a lot of therapy, but it doesn’t seem to be helping him.
And as I stand there once again assuring him that I’m not trying to trap him, that I’m not passive-aggressive and waiting to stab him, that I don’t have a hidden bitter resentment brewing within me that he needs to be on guard for, I note a small thought creeping into my head, with great alarm: If I’m going to be subjected to the punishment, I might as well have done the crime.
I swallow hard, as he continues to rant.
I’m becoming resentful, I realize. Passive-aggressive. I’m becoming what he accused me of.
It’s an ugly feeling. A shameful one.
But in the moment, even though his fear has been based on lies he’s telling himself, because of his unrelenting commitment to it, it’s becoming quite real.
The Other Side of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Is Projecting or Displacing Things Hard Enough That They Become Reality
I think that’s the other side of self-fulfilling prophecy, the one that people don’t talk about. It isn’t that you simply psyche yourself out into seeing things that aren’t there. It’s that you project or displace those fears onto other people in a way that they start to become real. Until they become part of that person’s emotional reality in a way that makes them suffer right along with you.
If you’re fully committed enough to a self-fulfilling prophecy, you can shape other people into playing those roles you’re scared of.
You can punish another person so much for things they haven’t done that they start to resent you. Or even make them want to commit the crime since they’ve been raked over the coals for it so many times anyway.
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