The Fear of Being Taken Advantage Of | Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

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Many of my client’s fear of being taken advantage of gets in their way of learning to trust someone else. This fear is potent and triggers something primal, I think. No one wants to let other people see that they can be “gotten.” We often choose to miss out on connecting with someone than risk being hurt.

It’s a real fear because people do it to us, right? They betray us, we get “ghosted”—but to deal with all this shame/embarrassment/vulnerability/anger we often swing to the extreme and just say “Eff It! I’m never going to let myself be taken advantage of again!”

This can guard us from getting smothered in an unhealthy relationship as well as guard us against reading into things that aren’t there.

But we really do end up missing out.

How We Learn ‘Basic Trust’ as Kids

This fear gets started early and the psychologist Erik Erikson said the first thing we need to accomplish as babies is to figure out whether we can trust others–or not. If we don’t believe someone will feed us, clean us, or come when we cry/call, then we are primed to distrust the world. We hard ourselves early on if this is the case.

The developing us thinks:

  1. age 2: no one will pick me up from day care,
  2. age 9: dad won’t come to my soccer game,
  3. age 15: my crush will never return my call,
  4. adult: my wife/partner/husband will eventually leave me,
  5. adult: my kids/friends don’t really care about me.

The list goes on and on because as we become self-sufficient (I can get my own food and clean myself, thank you very much) we find new ways to expect to be forgotten about. This haunts us in relationships and friendships and keeps us holding our cards close to our vests.

We become like the Mafia Don who can only sit with his back against the wall so he can see the whole room. There’s a sense that the moment you let your guard down will be the moment the person you trusted is going to pull out that rug.

Maybe your greatest fear is to become Charlie Brown who keeps running toward that football, believing that THIS time Lucy won’t snatch it away.

Learn to Overcome Trust Issues

The trouble with the Charlie Brown analogy is that it’s all about “Or”. Either Charlie Brown trusts Lucy or he doesn’t kick the football. But we don’t need to live in that binary of trust fully vs. don’t trust at all.

Part of relationship building is learning to trust…but slowly.

Learn to see whether this person is worthy of your faith in them. Do they show up when they say they are going to or call if there is a problem? We don’t need to trust them with the big stuff yet, but are we going through the process of building with them?

Feeling like you’re ready to jump in and learn more about your current issue? Contact me here. 

It’s not easy to do, because even sending that first email on OkCupid is letting out a hand that may be slapped. Or worse, ignored–so many unanswered questions in that. How do you manage that anxiety?

And that hurts. There’s talk about the “fragile male ego” and often we have one. Many of us!

It’s good and healthy to be aware when your feelings are hurt, but is that ego

  • stopping you from taking chances?
  • leading you to respond in an explosively angry way?
  • not letting you sit with feeling hurt for a little bit, but still get up again with enthusiasm for the next possibility?

Some of us would rather choose to never engage at all than to slowly take chances and deal with the small bruisings that come with that.

Should You Take the Risk of Trusting Again?

Let me be clear: being taken advantage of sucks.

It does. Big time.

Especially if you’re doing everything “right”. You’re being kind, you’re thinking of others, you’re being empathic, you’re thinking the best of people. It is damned unfair when someone “takes advantage of your good nature” (I think I’m quoting Livia Soprano, but I may have gotten that wrong—sticking with the Family theme, though.)

But what’s the alternative?

Many people move between extremes. We isolate and when that becomes unbearable we move too fast to connect with someone new. Once that person takes advantage of us we are reminded that we shouldn’t trust anyone. Then we’re back to isolation.

Charlie Brown could take Lucy aside and have a talk. He could have Schroeder come along. He could play a game that would let them both have some power and was more equitable. He could build up to the football before just blindly trusting her.

There are people who will take advantage of you. There are lots of people who won’t. You’ll lose out on getting to know that second group if you don’t learn how to weed the others out. And that means you need to take some calculated risks.

What Happens if You’re Too Successful in Avoiding Being Taken Advantage Of?

The surprise is that when we are the most successful at isolating ourselves and we convince ourselves of the illusion of control and when we stop allowing anyone to take advantage of us we often end up lonely and feeling bad about ourselves. There’s a fable of a guy who ties a brick to a bungee cord so when he gets mad he throws the brick at someone and the bungee cord ensures (because he gets mad at people so often he doesn’t want to lose the brick)  that the brick comes back. Trouble is, it usually hits him in the face. The moral of the story is that we need to wonder if our defenses don’t end up harming us just as much as—if not more than—others.

Yes, you can shield yourself from being taken advantage of by not trusting anyone.

But is it worth it?


Do you find yourself in this rut of isolation or over-trusting? Want to give up the Illusion of Control in your life? If you’d like to talk about how you can find your way out of that, please get in touch with me for a FREE 15-minute phone consultation–even if you’re worried you’ll have nothing to talk about in therapy.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.