Paying attention to warning signs

Have you ever met someone who gave you a bad feeling, even though there wasn’t anything overtly suspicious or wrong about them? They might have looked good “on paper,” as the saying goes, but your gut told you that something was amiss. Most of us have had that experience. “I don’t know, there’s something about that guy,” we say. “It’s just a gut feeling, but he gave me the heebie-jeebies.” True, there are times when this feeling turns out to be wrong, and the person proves to be okay. But just as often, and probably more, our gut feeling turns out to be right. Yet often we will ignore what our gut is telling us – at our peril.

I am a big proponent of listening to your “gut.” Whenever it tells us something is amiss about a person or situation, here is what is usually going on: We have picked up on a red flag, a warning sign, but we have not yet become consciously aware of what it is. So it lurks in our subconscious and nags at us to run away from that person or situation. Yet all too often, we dismiss the feeling. We invite someone into our home, or venture into a place that is unfamiliar, in spite of what our instincts tells us. Why do we do this? There are a number of reasons.

One of the most common reasons we ignore our gut is because of a very specific type of fear, a fear that can override common sense and our instinct to survive: the fear of doing something that will cause someone else to not like us. Our inner voice might be screaming, “Run for your life!” But instead of doing just that, we invite someone into our home who clearly does not have our best interests at heart. We justify this behavior with statements like, “Well, I don’t want to be rude,” or, “Everybody deserves the benefit of the doubt.” But if we are brutally honest with ourselves, what we would really say is, “I couldn’t stand the thought of upsetting that person.” So we behave in ways that can put our own safety at risk, just to avoid making someone mad at us. This can be especially true for the individual with low self-esteem.

The fact is, there are predators in the world who prey upon those of us who are nice, who aren’t especially assertive, and who have a hard time bearing the thought of having someone dislike us. These are the predator’s preferred victims, and here’s another fact: they can spot their victims a mile away. Perhaps you have been in a number of situations wherein someone whom you thought was your friend turned out to be anything but, and you paid the price. Again: most of us have had this happen once or twice. But for some individuals, it becomes a pattern that seems to be on endless repeat.

Once, while I was working at a psychiatric hospital here in Dallas, Texas, I sat in on a group therapy session that was attended predominantly by women who had been frequent victims of abuse. One of the women in the group raised her hand and asked the facilitator, “Do I have a target tattooed on my forehead that I can’t see? Because if there’s a perpetrator within ten miles of me, he’ll find me every time.” The facilitator, a talented woman who taught me a lot about abuse recovery, responded by saying something like, “First, let’s be clear that you are not responsible for the behavior of the perpetrator. However, you are responsible for the messages you send out, including non-verbal ones. Take a look around at the people in this group. What does their body language say?” We all looked around, and noticed that many of those attending were sitting in postures that radiated timidity and self-doubt. As the members became aware of what their body language was broadcasting, they began sitting up straighter, and a few even laughed. The facilitator went on: “What do perpetrators want? They want an easy mark. Compare it to the burglar who is looking for a house to rob. Does he want a house that is well-lit, and covered with signs advertising alarm companies? No. He is going to skip that house and go for the one that is dark and isolated. He doesn’t want a challenge. He wants easy prey. Perpetrators are good at spotting the signs of the potential victim. They zero in on the posture that says, ‘I have low self-esteem.’”

I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to simply change our body language, but I am suggesting that we need to be aware of what kind of messages we are broadcasting about ourselves. Unfortunately, the world has many wolves in sheep’s clothing, and we have a responsibility to protect ourselves from them. The same therapist in the above vignette also said this: “When the wolves are at the door, you don’t need to be nice.”

Part of how we protect ourselves is by paying close attention to our gut. When it says, “Danger,” we had better listen. If we do this, we run a good chance of making people upset with us. So be it! As I have said in a previous blog, it’s better to have someone dislike us than to find ourselves tied up and at their mercy.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your instinct tells you that someone is not safe, and you set a firm boundary with them, and they respond by getting mad, then your instinct was probably right. There is a better than fair chance that the person isn’t really mad – he’s just acting mad in an effort to manipulate you with guilt. Don’t fall for it! Trust your instincts. If they turn out to be wrong, well, then you might owe someone an apology. Better to apologize than to be taken advantage of or to put yourself in a situation where you are unsafe.

Just as we give off clues about ourselves that perpetrators pick up on, perpetrators also send up red flags that serve to warn us, if we pay attention. However, perpetrators are generally better at hiding such clues than their prey. They typically don’t wear T-shirts that advertise their intent. So we have to learn to spot them and listen to our gut. Here are a few warning signs the predator might exhibit:


being overly friendly upon first meeting others, including unwarranted flattery

•frequent requests to “borrow” things, or for favors

•poor boundaries, as exhibited by revealing deeply personal information that is inappropriate for an acquaintance

•a pattern of avoiding adult responsibilities or a frequent tendency to blame others, including blaming others for one’s own feelings

•a sense of entitlement, that is, the belief that “the world owes me.”

•threats of violence or temper tantrums

•a lack of real empathy

•a strong need for control

•cruelty toward children or animals


That last one is the most blaring warning sign. The others, by themselves, might not add up to much, but this is why it is important to listen to our instincts. Our logical mind can easily rationalize the above behaviors, as well as others not on the list, but our emotional mind is not so easily fooled. It has an intelligence all its own. If we disregard it, we might just find ourselves in a bad situation.

There is no perfect way to spot predators. No matter how good one becomes at spotting the signs, some people are going to be able to slip past the radar. This will always be true, so the lesson is this: We had better protect ourselves as best we can. To some, this might sound alarmist, or cynical. But as a therapist, I have heard countless stories from clients of encounters with people who presented themselves as one thing, and turned out to be quite another, with costly results. I do not encourage cynicism among my clients; neither do I encourage naivete. The reality is that everyone you meet has the potential to be your new best friend, or a monster. Most will be neither, but we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to the red flags that fire off a warning in our gut. Some people are better at this than others, but all of us can improve our ability to heed the warnings. If this particular skill is difficult for you, a caring and knowledgeable therapist can help to develop your abilities. It’s a fairly large portion of my practice, and it can work for you, too.

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