When My Best Friend Conned Me, I Missed A Big Red Flag

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When I met Janna I thought I’d found a kindred spirit, but what I really found was a lesson in red flags I never knew about.

Adult friendship is challenging and recently I’ve shrunk my circle, as many of us have since the pandemic. We’ve started to become more aware of where we want to spend our energy. We want people in our friendship group we can really rely on and trust. But it’s often easier said than done.

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I’ve had many friends who initially seemed great. I connected with them on a deep level, enjoyed their company, and believed we had each other’s backs. Still, many of my strongest friendships ended up turning into the worst ones.

Janna was the first of these types of friends: she was sweet, kind, affectionate, and made everyone around her feel fantastic. She was also very troubled, always a victim of some random misfortune, and in the end, manipulated and even frauded many people out of resources, loyalty, and time, including myself.

I seemed to fall for the same tricks over and over again. When I read new research on the dark triad recently, I started to see what I’d fallen for. When you know about this red flag, you can avoid forming close friendships with manipulators and make time for quality friends instead.

According to the research, people high on the Dark Triad traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy do two things more often than other people: victim signaling and virtue signaling.

Sending out an SOS

There are real victims in the world, so it’s important we don’t misinterpret this. We should always have empathy and show support to those who are victims of abuse, violence, racism, etc. It’s important for victims to speak out, find others who can relate, and stand up against injustices. Speaking up can even bring about change in society.

Victim signaling is not this.

Victim signaling, the research says, is when it, “allows victims to pursue an environmental resource extraction strategy that helps them survive, flourish, and achieve their goals in situations that are responsive to their claims.”

Resources might be practical and material, such as money, a job, goods, or services. Other times the victim signaler is looking for symbolic resources, such as respect, leniency, attention, or affection for example.

My friend Janna frequently victim signaled. By the end of our first conversation I knew she’d been in the hospital for months, the on-off father of her baby wasn’t being kind to her, she had another man overseas she was engaged to but felt misunderstood by, and she’d had a terrible childhood.

Some of these were genuine problems that weren’t at all her fault. She seemed to have constant bad luck. But that’s often the case with victim signaling.

What to watch for

Victim signalers want you to know how hard they have it because it draws people in. We all need support, and these people crave it. They want as many supporters are they can gather with their victim status. A manipulative person will often start to dominate your time and resources.

There are enough rescuers out there — like I was — primed to look for people to support. Rescuers themselves get something from the exchange too. They feel good about themselves when they’re “helping”. They think helping equals love and often have issues around having to feel needed. They can also fall into “White Knight Syndrome,” which in many ways can be very controlling.

The victim-rescue dynamic isn’t a healthy one you want to be in.

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Is it always wrong to help?

There is a healthier side to helping. As the researchers point out in their conclusion, it’s part of our values system and a natural human tendency to help alleviate other people’s suffering. We don’t want to sit by and watch someone in pain when we can help them feel better.

It’s about helping wisely, realizing not all victim signals are genuine, and making sure we help those who really need it. As the researchers say, "When this occurs, well-meaning people might allocate their material and social resources to those who are neither victims nor virtuous, which necessarily diverts resources from those who are legitimately in need.”

Polishing the halo for display

The second thing Dark Triad personalities do is virtue signaling. Janna did this, too. Her home was decorated with multiple religious objects and she spoke often of her faith, quoting religious leaders, books she’d read, and other famous spiritual figures. I have faith, too, and so we connected on that level, but she put hers out on display as much as she could.

Some people are very open with their spiritual beliefs. It’s important to them to be able to talk about their values and faith. It’s part of who they are and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they’re not forcing it on others of course. Virtue signalers have a different motivation than being open. They need you to see them as “good people”.

Virtue signaling, according to the research, is, “the conspicuous expression of moral values, done primarily with the intent of enhancing one’s standing within a social group.”

When we believe a friend is a good person and a victim of some terrible circumstance we’re more willing to sacrifice our resources, time, and attention on them. We drop what we’re doing and rush to their aid when they call. We pay for their meal, lend them money, drive them to their appointments.

The virtuous victim is a powerful combination and a great way to access resources.

Do they know?

Some personalities in the Dark Triad are very aware of what they’re doing. They know they’re using and manipulating people.

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As Sharie Stines, an abuse and toxic relationship therapist said in Time:

“Manipulation is an emotionally unhealthy psychological strategy used by people who are incapable of asking for what they want and need in a direct way.”

They are trying to psychologically coerce people to get what they want and need: attention, resources, sex, money, etc.

But not all people who victim and virtue signal are conscious of what they’re doing.

“People who manipulate have lousy boundaries.”

I don’t think Janna meant to hurt people the way she did. She was a very troubled woman and had been in survival mode since childhood. We can show empathy for people like Janna while still placing boundaries around them in our lives.

“People who manipulate have lousy boundaries,” Stines says. “You have your own volitional experience as a human being and you need to know where you end and the other person begins. Manipulators often have either boundaries that are too rigid or enmeshed boundaries.”

When we know what we’re dealing with, and that it could lead to manipulation, we can choose how involved we get.

Your closest circle of friends should be one you can trust fully. They should be people who love you for who you are, not what resources you can provide them with.

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Kelly Eden has been a writer for over 12 years, she has her own personal essay course, and her own Medium publication. She mostly focuses on mental health, writing, and relationships.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.