What is Just?, Working With Painful Emotions

How to Know if People are Treating You Badly

This post is about how to know if people are treating you badly.

The Power of Love

I write frequently about people becoming more powerful together by loving themselves and each other. (Love here = actions of kindness, compassion, and respect that nurture the good and heal the wounded in ourselves and others).

If we want to love ourselves, one of the most important things we can do is to stand up for ourselves when people treat us badly. The more we love our self in this way, the more we increase our ability to bring our moral projects into the world. Our moral projects are the unique gifts, talents, and insights we possess because of our personality and life experience.

Sharing our Light

Sharing them consistently with the world in a way that respects others is an expression of moral autonomy (I often refer to moral autonomy on my blog as our “light”.) The more we develop moral autonomy, the more loving and powerful the world becomes.

This is why it is important that we learn to be an ally for ourselves when people are treating us badly. The world desperately needs our light and the light of everyone else.

So how can we tell when we are being treated badly, and what do we do about it?

Ten Principles of Being Human

Before we examine this issue, I would like to establish a few basic truths about human beings in general. I will call these truths Ten Principles of Being Human. These basic principles will help us be better able to identify when people are treating us badly. (If you would like to read an explanation and justification of each of these principles, you can read this here.)[1]

Ten Principles of Being Human

One: Each of us possesses a unique view of the world.

Two: Our unique view of the world is special and important, but it is limited.

Three: No one possesses total knowledge about anything in the world.

Four: Some mistakes and failures are unavoidable and even encouraged. We learn, grow, and move towards greater truth through these failures.

Five: Because we cannot be perfect, all we are required to do is act with the intention of love towards our self and others.

Six: Acting with the intention of love requires that we listen to other people’s perspective.

Seven: No one can live our life for us. Each of us must take responsibility to act with the intention of love.

Eight: The more we act with the intention of love, the more we develop moral autonomy

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Nine: The more we develop our moral autonomy, the more loving and powerful we make the world, which leads to moral community.

Ten: Our goal in all our relationships should be to nurture the moral autonomy of ourselves and other people.

When We Forget the Goal

When people consistently devalue or actively work against the development of our moral autonomy, they treat us badly. This makes it difficult for us to build moral community together.

Of course, we need to understand more specifically what treating someone badly looks like. But first, let’s examine some things it is NOT.

What Treating Someone Badly is Not

When people tell us we are hurting their feelings with jokes we make at their expense, this is NOT treating us badly.

We do not have the right[2] to use someone as the butt of our joke.

When people tell us that we are invading their privacy and they need us to stop, this is NOT treating us badly.

We do not have the right to be intrusive into the private life of adults in matters that do not pertain to our own well-being.[3]

When people tell us that the things we do or say around them hurt them in some way, this is NOT treating us badly.

It is our responsibility to listen to people when they say our behavior is hurting them. We also have the right to explain why we are behaving a certain way if we believe our behavior is necessary and appropriate.

We may also decide we can no longer hang out with a person because our life philosophies conflict.[4]

The point is that while it is permissible for us to disagree with someone or decide to discontinue a friendship, it is, generally speaking, immoral for us to ignore people when they say we are causing them pain.

Some More Examples

When people express concern over ways we may be hurting ourselves, this is NOT treating us badly.

Sometimes we do, indeed, do damaging, self-destructive things to ourselves, and it is right for people who care about us to express concern over these things. Their behavior only becomes a problem when they continue to make comments when we have asked them to stop.

When people disagree with our behavior or words or opinions, this is NOT treating us badly.

People have the right to hold and express their own opinions, as long as they do so in a way that respects the moral autonomy of ourselves and other people.

When people tell us that we are hurting other people with our words and actions, this is NOT treating us badly.

We may disagree with people who criticize our behavior, and we have the right to express our opinion or to discontinue our friendship with them. We also must be willing to accept the consequences of our actions.[5]

When people express their needs appropriate to the relationship we are in with them, they are NOT treating us badly.

We have a variety of mental, social, and physical needs. Expressing these needs and seeking their fulfillment is an essential part of self-actualization, as long as we do this in a way that honors other people’s moral autonomy.

Expressions of Moral Autonomy

When people act in the above ways, they are not treating us badly. They are asserting their moral autonomy, which is right for them to do. It may make us feel uncomfortable sometimes. That is because we feel more comfortable when the world goes our way, when people confirm our own opinions, and when we feel in control of the people around us.

So now that we know some actions that are not mistreatment, we must specifically examine some behaviors that do constitute mistreatment*. To do this, it is helpful to consider the goals someone might have in relationship towards us that are not related to encouraging our moral autonomy.

Bad Relationship Goals

If someone is not concerned about our moral autonomy, he or she might use us as…

Ego Props: Some people try to use us to prop up their image or reputation or to live vicariously through us.

Control Mechanisms: Life can be really frightening and unpredictable. Sometimes we try to control other people to make us feel like we are more in control of our unpredictable existence.


When we feel vulnerable and hurt, we can show love to ourselves. Or, we may stuff down our painful feelings or take them out on other people. Many people choose the second and third way. They spend their lives trying to control and dominate others (to use them as puppets) instead of facing their own vulnerability.

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Pacifiers or Toys:

As I mentioned above, it is perfectly fine for people to have needs. It is perfectly fine for people to express needs to others. In addition, it is okay for us to meet other people’s needs if we desire to do so. This is certainly why family, friends, and partners are so important to us. We help to meet each other’s needs in a variety of beautiful and loving ways.

The problem occurs when people pressure or force us to meet their emotional, mental, or physical needs without our consent or in a way that degrades our moral autonomy. This is what constitutes using people as a pacifier or toy.

Whether people use us as ego props, control mechanisms, puppets, or pacifiers/toys, they  turn us into objects instead of nurturing the development of our moral autonomy. This is mistreatment, and people might express this mistreatment in the following ways:

Some Examples

Pressuring us to do what they think makes them look good, rather than encouraging us to develop our own talents, opinions, and passions.

Discouraging any deviance from their plan.

Refusing to listen to our opinions, needs, feelings, or wishes.

Mocking or shaming us when we disagree.

Telling us we are too sensitive.

Violating our body or emotions.

Telling us we take things too personally.

Dictating to us how we should live.

Continuing to do things that hurt us, even after we have asked them to stop.

Continually making their own needs, preferences, feelings, desires, and wishes more important than our own and discouraging us when we try to share ours.

Shaming or mocking us for our dreams, hopes, passions, and hobbies.

Trying to run our lives.

These are Examples of Mistreatment

All of these actions are examples of mistreatment. When people act this way, they treat us as an object, and they discourage us from developing our own moral autonomy.

When people do this, we have the right and responsibility to stand up for our self. Sometimes people have no intention of violating our moral autonomy. Just bringing it up to them is enough to motivate change.

At times, however, people have developed entrenched misbehavior. In these cases, more drastic measures may be called for. You can read more about this here.

In conclusion, I want to tell you that you are neither an ego prop, control mechanism, puppet, nor a pacifier or toy, Friend. You are the bearer of an essential light, and the more you develop your moral autonomy, the more you strengthen yourself, others, and the world.

We need you.


If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful, please consider sharing on social media.

You might also like this post:

A Brief Guide to the Difference Between Self-Love and Selfishness



*In this post, I consider mistreatment to be behavior that consistently harms others in some way, degrades their moral autonomy, and contains some kind of conscious ill-will.

For example, let’s say someone intends to compliment me but unintentionally triggers a painful emotion with her compliment. I would not consider this mistreatment unless she continues this behavior after I have informed her of the problem.

As another example, someone may genuinely try to help me, but her help undermines my confidence in my abilities. This is not mistreatment unless she continues after I ask her to stop.

More Endnotes

[1] While the specific articulation of each of these principles is original with me, I am indebted to the work of Rousseau, Kant, Paulo Freire, and bell hooks for informing the ideas behind them.

[2] In using the word right in this post, I run the risk of communicating that our responsibilities to ourselves and to each other resemble a type of contractual or legal obligation. Moral and loving behavior is much more than a contractual obligation. But the word right can be helpful because it communicates a basic standard of appropriateness.

[3] Of course, we could debate all day long about which actions pertain to other people’s well-being. There is no way I can resolve that debate in this post. I will note, however, that there is a degree to which we are inescapably interdependent.

Some Actions are More Consequential (Endnotes continued)

In some way, every decision I make affects another human being. Despite this undeniable fact, it is also undeniable that some of our actions have a much greater, more severe, and long-lasting impact than others on people in our life.

Figuring out such matters is only something we can determine in caring dialogue with a wide variety of people. This is one reason why acting with the intention of love (and developing moral autonomy) is so important.

[4] For example, someone may tell us that the way we talk about economics or religion or politics or sports (or whatever) is hurting him (or her) in some way. We have the right to explain our opinions. In addition, we have the right to decide we can no longer hang around that person.

We Cannot Force People to Accept Our Behavior Without Qualification (Endnotes continued)

What we cannot do is foist our presence on the other person and continue to behave in a way that is hurtful to them. Of course, if the person voluntarily chooses to associate with us despite our difference of opinion, that is another matter and requires a different kind of negotiation.

[5] For example, if someone tells us we are hurting other people, we have the right to disagree with them and continue our behavior. We don’t have the right to the other person’s continued friendship, conversation, respect, and support, however.

28 thoughts on “How to Know if People are Treating You Badly”

    1. Tony, that is so kind. A lot of this grew out of my work I did in grad school, so I have been thinking about it for a while. I am so pleased you found it thoughtful and compassionate. That is wonderful.

  1. Great piece, Shelley. Given the direction politics is heading, whether left, right, or anywhere in between, the ten principles of being human that you laid out, and particularly those first 4 as a basis could go a long way. Too often we find ourselves thinking that the way we believe things are is the ultimate truth, which has led to a growing demonisation of those who see things differently. This “I know the truth of things” attitude without any humility, I would say, is a major reason why there’s such polarisation in society, and why we’re becoming more willing to harm one another.

    Good stuff, Shelley!

    1. David, thank you so much for this comment. Your insight about politics is right on. Our political turmoil was definitely in the back of my mind as I was writing this. I have had so many instances in my life in which I assumed I knew much better than people who were very different than I was. Once I began talking to them, I realized I had so much to learn. I still have so much to learn. We all do.

  2. Wow, Shelly, this is a really powerful piece.
    I like how you clarify what is not poor treatment first. In my experience, the dominator in a relationship likes to claim they are the victim once they have been called out, and every one of your false mistreatments resonated here.
    I have done a lot of thinking around coercive control, but have never heard or thought about the pacifier function. This is exactly the dynamic I experienced. This almost made me feel sorry for the person who treated me badly. It takes some of the power out of their behaviour and shows them as pathetic and sad.
    As always, I am blown away by your clear thinking and ability to express such emotionally complex materials in a way which makes sense and will stay with me.

    Thank you, guiding light.

    1. Ali, this is such a kind and generous comment. You are very right. Dominators often do play the victim card when they are called on their behavior. I am so sorry you were used as a pacifier. Being used in any of these ways–prop, pacifier, or control mechanism is so painful because often we sense something is off long before we are actually able to figure out exactly what the problem is. As always, Friend, thank you for your encouragement and appreciation of my writing. It means a great deal.

  3. What a thoughtful piece. It’s refreshing for me to read about moral autonomy although the word ‘moral’ conjured some form of collective -shared understanding.

    1. Jenni, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I definitely understand your concern about a “collective-shared understanding”. In a pluralistic society as diverse as the U.S., so many problems arise when we just assume our morals are the right ones that everyone should follow. This is definitely one reason why I think listening and love are so important. Thanks for reading and commenting, Friend.

  4. A huge amount of thought and humanity has obviously gone into this excellent piece and it will be worth re-reading from time to time. When I was very young, I found myself being used as an ‘ego prop’ by my mother – not to a huge extent but enough so that she was never happy with me just being ‘me’. It forced a distance between us which eventually healed but still did damage. And being an ‘ego prop’ is exhausting! (Especially when someone has ambitions for you that you don’t share…)

    1. Ann, I am so sorry to hear this. You are so right. Being an ego prop IS exhausting because the prop is never allowed to just be. I am so glad your relationship eventually healed, but I am sorry for the pain it caused. This is understandable.

      1. Thanks Shelly – I can sort of understand why I was needed as a prop, but that’s with hindsight. It would have been useful/a relief to have understood it better at the time.

  5. I don’t understand what necrophilic being used in this context means.I thought it meant a person who…likes dead people, so, this is confusing to me.

    1. Hi Friend. Thank you for reading and for your comment. Your confusing is understandable. Usually necrophilia does indeed mean what you say–a person who has an attraction to dead people, literally. The philosopher Eric Fromm uses this word in a more metaphorical sense to describe someone who likes to control other people and feed off their energy by dominating them. Fromm takes it that when we try to control and dominate people, we are turning them into objects or dead things–not literally but figuratively because we don’t allow them to have their own wishes and hopes and dreams and goals. I hope that explanation helps clear things up a bit.

    1. So kind, Friend! Thank you for reading and commenting. I study philosophy, and so I guess I do indeed tend to think about things a lot. I am so glad you find my posts helpful, and I am very pleased to meet you.

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