5 Ways To Protect Yourself From Exploitative People

Lissa Rankin, MD
9 min readMay 31, 2023

Like many women- and like many children of both genders who grew up in religious upbringings- I was raised to be a good, nice, accommodating, compliant, sweet girl who was pleasing to authority figures and didn’t cause any trouble for teachers, pastors, or my parents. My value was in being a good, spiritual, obedient child who made things easy for those around me, didn’t rock the boat, never caused a fuss or expressed needs, and never, ever rebelled.

This kind of conditioning raises adults who are very vulnerable to being controlled and exploited by anyone who wants something from them, since the indoctrinated default is to self-sacrifice, suppress needs and desires, and even self-harm in order to accommodate and please everyone else. It has its benefits, because people tend to like those who are conditioned this way. It makes us nice, pleasant, helpful, flexible, even-tempered people who are easy to be around and go out of our way to make other people happy, comfortable, relaxed, and pleased with us.

This is a potent adaptation and sometimes necessary survival skill when we’re young. Often, it’s what kept us safe enough, approved of enough, cared for enough. But if we don’t break the habit once our survival is no longer at risk, it can lead to a lifetime of martyrdom, selfless service that makes us sick, self-neglect, and challenges in relationships with people who seek us out as easy prey.

The strategy may work well for a time. We’re likeable, make friends easily, get on well with teachers, bosses, and others in positions of authority, and get a lot of validation for being so accommodating and easy going.

But there’s a dark side that catches up with us over time. Because we’re not protecting ourselves adequately, not looking out for our own needs and speaking up for them, not saying no when we need to, and not asking for help, even from people we’ve helped tremendously, people like this wind up very vulnerable to others who were conditioned to maximize self interest at all costs, no matter how many people they have to exploit and step on in order to achieve their goals, which can sometimes be quite ruthless.

When we’ve been conditioned to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, we may have glaring blind spots when it comes to discerning who is safe and has our best interests at heart- and who does not. We may overlay good intentions on others who do not intend to protect what’s good for us and may even outrightly intend to harm us. We may not spot danger when it’s right in front of us, and then we feel blindsided when someone does something hurtful.

Over time, we wind up wondering, “Who’s got my back?” And after the resentment builds and passive aggressive outbursts add up, we realize that we’re sick and tired of getting fucked with- and we need to learn to have our own backs.

When I hit this point in therapy, my therapist started what she called “ruthless lessons.” She said I had too much “ruth,” and this made me a target for ruthless people and blinded me to the not so hidden agendas of people who saw me as ripe for exploitation. She said that I could find the good in even the most heartless scoundrel, and this made me vulnerable to getting used by people who did not wish me well, time and time again.

I didn’t even know “ruth” was a word until I looked it up. Ruth means “sorry for the misery of another.” It’s synonymous with mercy, pity, tenderness, compassion, and sympathy. People who are lacking in ruth (ruthless) lack feeling sorry for the misery of others. In other words, they lack empathy, cannot extend compassion or mercy towards another, and generally cannot treat people like human beings worthy of respect and dignity.

I have always been able to see that hurt people hurt people, and I find it hard to blame people for bad behavior when I can see that they’re only passing on what they’ve learned from being mistreated. While extending compassion to the suffering of others may seem like a noble quality, it can also make us easy to fuck with- because no matter how ruthless someone might be, we keep extending naïve compassion- which can disable our self-protective mechanisms, such that we wind up protecting ruthless people who have no interest in protecting us, and we fail to protect ourselves.

During this part of my therapy, my goal was to “become unfuckwithable.” This was an extraordinarily difficult part of my therapy, in part because it became clear how many people felt entitled to fuck with me- and they did not like it when I started trying to protect myself and made efforts to set boundaries, say no, ask for what I needed, and cut off people who saw me as a fountain of blessings they expected to drink from.

Because of the nature of my work, I was most vulnerable at work. I didn’t realize how many people saw my medical credentials, respected reputation, and celebrity status as something they wanted to use to get ahead for themselves. Time and again, I failed to spot people who pretended to befriend me because what they really wanted was access to my online platform, an endorsement for their work or their book or whatever, or my undivided attention so they could enlist me to help promote their work, earn them money, gain reputability with my endorsement, or whatever other agenda they had but failed to make transparent to me.

Part of my “ruthless lessons” homework was watching documentaries and films about true story ruthless people, like The Wolf Of Wall Street, fictional characters like The Talented Mr. Ripley, and cult documentaries exposing true sociopaths. My therapist was careful to explain that she was not trying to make me ruthless. She just felt it was important for my self-protection to be able to spot ruthlessness when it was right in front of me.

These ruthless lessons were not intended to make me paranoid, although it did frighten me quite a bit to realize how many people I thought liked me really just wanted to use me, even if their exploitation harmed me. I had not realized that my childhood conditioning had made me a target who didn’t know how to protect myself from others who took advantage of the way I was conditioned to behave. The ruthless lessons were not intended to strip me of my ability to extend compassion to people whose traumas cause them to behave in hurtful or exploitative ways. They were simply intended to wake me up out of my naïve trance of idealism that cast even the most exploitative and even criminally corrupt people as well intentioned trauma survivors doing the best they could do, with good intentions. The ruthless lessons taught me I was worthy of protection, safeguarding, boundaries, and a wide berth from people who just wanted to exploit me for personal gain, regardless of whatever caused them to be this way.

Some of my readers and students have been asking me if I’d share what I learned in my “ruthless lessons” and help others who are sick and tired of being messed with take off the rose colored glasses and learn to become “unfuckwithable.” As my wise daughter said to me, “When you wear rose-colored glasses, red flags just look like flags.”

So, by popular request, I’m preparing to teach an online program with guest faculty called “Becoming Unf*ckwithable”- about “ruthless lessons,” how to spot the red flags you need to see clearly in order to stay safe, how to protect yourself and others with healthy, IFS-informed boundaries,

Learn more and register here.

To start you off in learning to protect yourself from exploitative people, let me offer a few tips for your consideration.

1. Don’t automatically take strangers at face value. You don’t want to distrust strangers in a paranoid way. But you also don’t want to just believe everything a total stranger tells you or assume good intentions from people you’ve only just met. Some people feel no remorse about approaching you with a hidden agenda, not making that agenda transparent, and manipulating you to try to get what they want from you, without your expressed consent. Even after ruthless lessons, I still believe most people are generally good. But not everyone has your best interest at heart.

2. Care about your safety enough to practice due diligence. If someone offers impressive credentials or brags about their accomplishments, do yourself a favor and check them out. A quick fact checking Google search can be very revealing. Also, ask for references or ask around and listen to what other people who might know the person better than you do have to say about the person. Look for red flags, like a history of lawsuits, scandals, frequent job changes, broken romances, and family estrangement. If your intuition nudges you to do so, you can always do a background check, especially if you’re thinking of extending a lot of trust, money, or proximity. This isn’t to say that everyone with a shadowy history is untrustworthy. Some people get in therapy or start 12 stepping their recovery and do their work to turn things around. But if someone has a questionable history and no interest in recovery, you may be safest to steer clear or erect very firm boundaries.

3. Be on the lookout for love bombing and boundary against it. Ruthless people tend to be masters of narcissistic love bombing. It’s seductive and can be quite intoxicating, but just like any drug high, the good feels don’t last and aren’t good for you. Love is a long, slowly earned, trust-building connection between two people that takes many months or years to build, whereas love bombing is more like the cotton candy high of fake sucking up and flattery than real affection you can trust. If you didn’t get enough attention in childhood, if you’re lonely and desperate for connection, it can be very difficult to resist the love bombing. But once you realize this is the #1 way people get close to you so they can mess with you, you’ll realize the high isn’t worth it. Once you learn to tell the difference between love and love bombing, it’s quite easy to spot the love bombing and boundary against that person, restricting access as soon as you figure out what’s happening. If you don’t take the hook of the love bombing, those who wish to exploit you will often ramp it up or try a different manipulative strategy. Keep your eyes wide open and clear, minus the rose colored glasses.

4. Pay attention to the track record. If someone is talking trash about former business partners, ex-lovers, or estranged kids, be forewarned. You’re the next one they’ll be talking trash about. Ruthless people are high conflict individuals with a string of broken relationships behind them and little remorse or ability to apologize, express regret, or hold themselves accountable for their mistakes. Healthy people make mistakes too, but they admit them, express remorse, and speak about other people in a humanizing way, even when they’ve been wronged.

5. Ask for agendas to be made transparent. Ruthlessness thrives in the grey zones. If you ask for clarity and transparent boundaries- or call someone out on what you suspect is a hidden agenda, healthy people will be happy to be up front about what they want from you, whereas ruthless people may be taken off guard, and you can sometimes spot a break in their slickness. For example, if you suspect someone is coming onto you and you think they might have a hidden agenda, just ask. If someone seems to be initiating a transaction but they’re not giving you a contract, be blunt. Ask that the terms of the transaction be made clear. For example, if someone who has read my book, who I don’t know well, offers me a generous gift or favor or an invitation to take me out for dinner, I might be inclined to ask what they might be expecting of me in return if I take them up on their offer. Are they expecting one on one time with me? Are they expecting a professional favor? Is it a date? Whatever they’re wanting is fine, as long as they’re being upfront about the terms of an agreement, so I can consent- or not. Exploitation gets exposed pretty quickly in the spotlight, whereas it takes the shadowy realms of grey zones and muddy transactions for manipulation and exploitation to take hold.

I’ve written hundreds of pages about these kinds of things from what I learned in therapy, and I will be including much of what I’ve learned and written about as part of Becoming Unf*ckwithable.

If you struggle with this issue or know someone who does, we invite you to join us.

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.