This is such an important issue to cover in regard to toxic people and relationships. So often the victim themself does play a part in this through their own mental process of creating a fantasy image of someone in their own mind that does not resemble reality. What exactly do we mean by this?
We mean that so often victims of toxic people often “fill in the gaps” in their own mind about what someone is like and make lots of assumptions and projections about their character, without any actual evidence. When a disastrous relationship is picked apart afterwards, we often find that image of someone as being a “good” person was something we created entirely in our own mind and had no basis in facts or reality.
In the absence of actual hard evidence, we often fill in the gaps of how we perceive someone in order to fit what we want them to be, hope them to be, or expect them to be. We can also take one tiny little cue, such as one smile or gesture of kindness, and exaggerate that to be the basis for how we judge a person as a whole, without any other evidence.
This is especially true for romantic relationships, and is the basis for the old cliche that falling in love with someone is not the same as actually loving them. We can fall in love with a fantasy image of someone which bears little resemblance to the reality of who they are and how they treat us. We can also fall in love with the idea or concept of something, like the Disney fairytale mainstream idea of romance, marriage, happily ever after etc.
In the case of character traits, the more malevolent toxic characters like psychopaths also well know that this projection of virtue is going on, and love to play on it to their own ends. They know that virtuous, empathic people in particular like to assume the best of others and project their own virtues onto others. Psychopaths who possess no real virtue themselves are only too happy to play along with this charade.
This is why it is so important that any evaluation of a person’s character is purely facts and evidence based, with no fantasy or projection on our part. This is for all relationships – romantic, friendship and workplace.
When we start going beyond the evidence and filling in the gaps ourselves, then we are immediately open to manipulative people taking advantage of this to play on an image which has no bearing in reality.
Jocko Willink on Trust, Betrayal and Creating a Fantasy Image
“That person that you’ve assembled in your mind – they don’t exist”
Motivational speaker and author Jocko Willink covers this topic perfectly in the embedded video. His delivery tone and style can a little brutal and blunt for someone trying to get over some form of nasty toxic relationship, where heartbreak, betrayal and wounding is involved, but the advice he gives is spot on.
He emphasizes again and again in the video this aspect of someone creating an image of someone in their mind which has no resemblance to the reality of who that person really was, or how they behaved and treated others. The greater the divergence between this fantasy and the actual reality, the more painful the betrayal and hurt from toxic relationships often is.
People will often make endless excuses for the person who betrayed them – “But he/she was….”. Willink rightly cuts off that line of thinking – “No! It was all in your head!”. In the absence of any real evidence (or even to escape from evidence to the contrary) that someone is a good person worthy of trust, it is so tempting for us to fill in the gaps with our own imagination.
The video above is a great way of grinding into your sensibilities the fact that the image you have created of someone who betrayed you is just that – an image. Once we realize this, it becomes much easier to take ownership of our role in letting a toxic person into our lives and not make the same mistake again.
From then on we base our opinion of someone, as well as how much trust we decide to give them, on facts and data, not on assumptions, projections and our imagination. We also tend to be far more cautious as to who we give trust to and how long we wait before we make our mind up on someone. This is the way it should be in today’s world.
How to Properly Vet Someone’s Character
Here are some simple tips to properly vet someone’s character over time to see if they are really worthy of trust and respect:
- Be aware of this tendency some of us have to project virtue onto others and “fill in the gaps” by creating a fantasy image of them in our heads. Actively resist it and stay conscious and fact based in our perceptions.
- Watch someone’s character and behavior over a long period of time before deciding whether to truly trust them or not. Watch for discrepancies between what they say and what they do. With psychopaths and other toxic characters, they often try to bombard their targets with a barrage of charm right away to get them to let their guard down quickly. However if you just slow down and wait longer, a discrepancy will always start to appear between the facade and the real person over time.
- Watch also for the way they treat others as a crucial clue to their character. Even if they seem to be OK with you at first. If you see them treating others badly, be aware that sooner or later that could be you.
- Watch out for other red flags in character, such as dishonesty, deception, lack of integrity and empathy, glibness, superficiality, manipulativeness, two facedness, evidence of an undisclosed “past”, always living in a shallow “one season world”, running away from suffering and responsibility.
- Pay attention to your voice of reason or intuition which does pick up on these things but which we so often overlook or ignore or rationalize away. Be attentive to that inner voice that’s telling you what’s really going on “Hey, did you see what he just did there?”. “Hey man, did you see the way that area manager just spoke to that guy there? That could be you sooner or later who gets spoken to like that”. “Did you see the way she spoke to you there?”, “Hey, he just kicked that cat against the wall, yet he told you he was an animal lover, did you clock that?”. Little clues like that some part of us does pick up on but which is so often overlooked. Paying more attention to this intuition can save us a lot of pain in the long run.