Early in my career, I rented a single room office inside a larger therapy office with other therapists. We shared the waiting room and bathroom but we each had 100 square feet of space to call our own. It was the perfect setup for starting out. The rent wasn’t too high and we could furnish the office how we pleased. I paid my rent on time, made friends, and grew my practice.
After about a year, I had my feet under me and needed more space. I wanted more than that office could offer. I wanted a bigger space, a kitchen and maybe a conference room. My colleague next door in the therapy office was also looking to go bigger. We hatched a plan to get a suite together and put it into motion.
Nothing about this was unusual. It’s just business. The man we were renting from by all accounts, should have been happy for us. He had helped us get started! We gave him the proper amount of notice that we were moving out. That’s when the trouble started.
The process of exiting the office should have been straight forward but it soon became complicated. He flooded us with a confusing mix of accusations and complaints. He claimed we kept changing the moving dates and were trying to get out of the lease. He tried to make us responsible for tasks that only a landlord could complete.
I felt misunderstood and blamed. This felt bad. I thought I’d been clear and appreciative. Was he reading the same email correspondence? I responded back defensively, quoting myself from previous emails to prove I hadn’t been playing games. Thinking I could appeal to reason, I went so far as to pull sections of the lease into our discussion. Nothing convinced him.
We went back and forth. His counter argument was to say comments I’d made to him in passing contradicted my written statements. He claimed I was remembering wrong. Was I? Had I said different dates as we were planning the moving process? I suppose it’s possible but at the same time, he was rarely in the office. I don’t know when I would have made these passing comments. I searched my mind for the smallest of details that would prove he was right and I was wrong.
To get the most out of this post, be sure to download the free ebook on early red flags. Learn about the red flag trance, early practice lies, online trickery, noticing by how you feel, what to do in the moment, and what to do next. A special bonus: read quotes from those who have been there.
Moving day came on a Friday at the end of the month. We were cutting it close. We had to get everything out by the end of the day, clean up, and turn in our keys. Since it was just two little offices, it went off without a hitch. We were so enamored with our freedom as well as being tied up with internet and phone installation that day, that we didn’t get back to clean the office.
I doesn’t take much to clean a hundred square foot office. Run a vacuum, dust, a little windex. We could have even left them just how they were. We wanted to do the right thing and leave everything clean. The owner said he wasn’t getting painters in for another two weeks. The office wasn’t even rented out yet. I was so tired from the move that I didn’t go back until Sunday to finish up. I figured no one was in the offices on the weekend so it was no big deal. I tidied up, left the office in “rentable condition” and dropped my keys in the lock box on Sunday afternoon.
That week, I got an invoice in the mail for $40.00 – prorated rent for Saturday and Sunday plus a fee for staying past the end of the lease. My office mate had done the same thing so she got the same bill. I was pissed. It wasn’t the money but the principle of the thing. He was charging me to make a point – that he was in control. I ignored it.
The next week, I got a call from his administrative assistant. She was a meek woman, nice enough, and very apologetic. She was calling on his behalf to collect “debts owed” to him. It was embarrassing and infuriating. I was in quite the position.
Technically, I did owe him the money; I stayed two days past the end of the lease because I hadn’t dropped off the keys. It was a setup. If I argued that any other person would reasonably give me grace, well, you can imagine the criticism he’d have for ‘other people.’ Instead, I said to the admin, “Are you serious? He’s charging me for two days? I wasn’t even in the office; I just hadn’t dropped off the keys yet. And how did he even know?”
My fight wasn’t with her and I knew it. She was stuck in his dirty little game. I felt sick. She responded with, “I know. I know. He just asked me to call you to settle it. What should I tell him?” I felt bad for her. She was setup too. I told her to tell him I would think about it.
In the meantime, my colleague just paid the bill. She had rented from him longer and was afraid of his anger. She advised me to do the same. I was incensed. Here was someone in a position to back me up who just caved to the pressure. Was she right to just pay? She just wanted him off her back and $40 was worth it to her. I saw it as extortion.
I got another call from the admin and let it go to voicemail. The message broke my heart. She was getting desperate. I wondered what sort of abuse he was heaping on her. Still, I felt stuck between giving in and standing my ground. If I just paid the bill would it all be over? Would I be free of his nonsense or would it give him license to find something else to harass me about? It’s a fine line between being a pushover and appearing to be a pushover.
He called me. I was not going to speak to this crazy person. His message sounded like a low growl though it probably was just the way he talked. Over time, the picture of him in my mind was growing shadows. His behavior had seeded a paranoia in me and this phone call watered the new weeds. The image of him in my mind’s eye was bigger than the real person.
He wanted his money. He made vague threats of coming after me financially. He insinuated I was irresponsible and wondered aloud what this meant for my new practice. Poking around at my natural doubts over expanding my practice enraged me. I also felt scared and a little ashamed. In reality, he was more experienced and powerful than I. I didn’t know what he could do. If he had made an actual threat, I could have dismantled and dismissed it with reason and logic. Since he was vague, it left open the door for all the possibilities.
That was the advice I got from everyone around me. What’s the big deal, it’s forty bucks? But you know, it was so much more. It was permission to control me. It was leaving my front door open and saying, ‘Fine, come in and loot me if you wish.’ Ultimately, the responsibility was mine. I stayed past the lease, taking just a little of the grace that is usually extended freely between people. I didn’t inconvenience anyone or mess up someone else’s schedule for moving into the old office. I didn’t think anyone would even notice. We all do this sort of thing from time to time. I extend grace to others without even thinking about it. We’re not perfect humans and so we need some wiggle room to get by.
Disgruntled, angry, and shameful, I pulled out my checkbook and hurriedly wrote out a check. I didn’t dare write anything provocative on the check for fear of further retribution. I’ll tell you what I wanted to write in the memo: “Extortion payment for Suite 100” or “Blood money” or “I hope you’re happy, you miserable fucker.”
My only message was no message. I mailed the single check with no explanation; an early attempt to starve the narcissist without even knowing what I was doing. I didn’t hear from him again. I would hear of him though. His former employees would cautiously let slip some comment about their frustration or bitterness. Notably, neither them nor I would ever say anything directly. No words could ever be quoted and could get back to him. The vague fear of what he could do followed him everywhere.
I’ve since learned that he got into some minor trouble and is now doing something else. I imagine being held accountable for his behaviors was too great of a wound and instead, he cut loose for greener pastures. Even still, I’m cautious about what I say because I think to myself, “What if he read this article and sued me for defamation of character?” Nothing I’ve said here is untrue or even specific but can I legally prove it? Likely not and frankly, he’s a charming and motivated millionaire so if he wanted to destroy me financially, he could. My only safety is to cover my bases and lay low as a target. It’s not enough to tell the truth.
I have to trust that we teach people about ourselves all the time. He is teaching people about his ways and making his own bed – whatever that ends up for him. I don’t want to live like him. I believe in something different. That may mean that I don’t get some of the things he gets (like a lot of money) but I also enjoy deep relationships, joy, and can sleep at night. I have no idea what his personal life is like but from what I observe of his behaviors and their effects on others, I can’t imagine he gets the same benefits from life that I do. I trust that my choices are teaching others good stuff about me.
Looking back, if you evaluate the actions by the outcome, then yes, I did the right thing. I still stand by it. It’s important to note that I did it deliberately. It was my choice and it was not fair. I was in a bind. The trap this narcissist set was unavoidable after a certain point. I didn’t want my actions (or inactions) to then allow him to justify abuse on another person.
He put his administrative assistant in a position to be squeezed. If she didn’t comply with his wishes, she was a bad employee. If she did comply, she was a bad person. She had to find middle ground. I also had a choice. I could resist paying. If I kept on fighting, the admin would be forced to turn on herself and no matter what, the narcissist would win in the end. Why would he win? Because he had the motivation to keep fighting to the end.
Narcissists aren’t weighing the usual reasons for and against in their decision process. For you and I, we weigh how much something matters, how much it costs us, how big of a deal it is, and so on. The longer an issue goes on, especially something trivial, the less we care because the effort chips away at the importance to us. For a narcissist, almost always, the argument has triggered an old wound. It becomes a fight to the death, symbolizing all the control, esteem, and importance the other person is threatening to steal away from them. If you win, they’ll be obliterated. If that’s how you thought about something, you’d fight like that too.
For this man, there were several wounds that were triggered by me and my colleague. The first was our desire to leave him. After all, hadn’t he been so generous in giving us our start? He’d shared his lovely office with us and now we were rejecting him. We were telling him we didn’t value what he had and by extension, didn’t value him.
Then there was overstaying the lease. How dare we continue to take from him after he’d been so generous and we’d rejected him. We had to pay. He would get justice and extract his due. The request for payment was deeply motivated. It wasn’t just the $40; it was payback for our thoughtless rejection.
You can imagine what refusing to pay the debt means and why he’d get personally involved at this point. He couldn’t stand the mounting fear and shame in himself so he had to give it to me. Holding my ground, those feelings became even more intense in him. He wasn’t able to transfer them to me through the proxy of his administrative assistant. The need to release that tension puts him at risk. He is The Great Oz, hiding behind the curtain and to up the ante by threatening me, he’d have to show his face. The charming mask slipped off to reveal the rage monster. It’s only a matter of time for anyone like this.
My decision to pay him was based on the sense that he’d continue to escalate. His style of conflict resolution is win-lose whereas mine is compromise or zero-sum. He wasn’t trying to get the money, he was trying not to lose his perception that he controlled me. I was trying to be fair. While I care about being fair, I can’t always make it happen. He cares A LOT about control and would make it happen. When I plotted out how I thought the negotiation would go into the future, I could see that I’d continue to lose. So, I decided to send him the lousy forty bucks. In the end, I think I won.