This is a very difficult story for me to tell.
This past week, I experienced one of the hardest challenges in my career as a life coach & a very difficult personal lesson about the necessity of setting boundaries.
I share this publicly in hopes that it will offer support to others like me - coaches, artists, entrepreneurs, anyone who connects with their audience online & uses social media as a way to express their purpose, creativity, or business.
Here’s the story.
Last Thursday, I had to remove a woman from one of my coaching programs and block her on social media for repeatedly harassing me over private messages.
Several months ago, this particular woman began following me on Facebook. She immediately began liking & commenting on ALL of my posts.
On one level, someone liking & engaging with your posts is kinda the whole goal of being a “content creator” on social media, right? Isn’t that a good thing when someone appreciates what you’re sharing with the world?
But there comes a point when someone’s constant liking & commenting on EVERYTHING you post starts to feel.. weird. Seeing their name repeatedly popping up under everything you share starts to feel disconcerting, unhealthy, and worrisome.
There’s a behavior pattern getting attention these days called “love bombing”. It’s frequently used in the context of relationships, particularly romantic ones, where one person bombards the other person with “adoration and attention to the point that it gets overwhelming.” This excessive fawning over their new beloved often conceals a manipulative underbelly, which can then quickly turn to emotional abuse. If the recipient of this love bombing begins to push back or pull away, the love bomber is usually quick to ghost the other person, disappearing just as quickly as they once professed their love.
But I’ve also heard this behavior pattern talked about among coaches, therapists, and similar professionals who encounter online followers & potential clients who initially bombard them with adoration for their work or what they share online, immediately want to sign up to work with them, but suddenly turn negative and even abusive as soon the professional sets the slightest boundary or expectation.
That’s precisely what happened with this woman.
After liking all of my posts for weeks, she signed up for my Move Your Body & Soul movement challenge. But even before the challenge started on August 1st, she sent me a private message confessing that she had intensely strong romantic feelings for me & didn’t think she would be able to go through with the challenge. Being a part of a program with me was just going to bring up too many feelings for her.
I was honestly relieved that she was taking herself out of the challenge, since I already had some uneasy feelings about her.
But then she messaged me a few days later, saying that she now had her emotions under control and wanted to go ahead with the challenge after all.
So, here’s where I made a mistake. I should have set a firm boundary right here & not accepted her back into the program. I had already seen enough red flags & my gut was telling me something was off with this woman.
But I chose to let her back into the program. Why? I once heard a man in a men’s circle bring up the term “toxic compassion.” It’s when we are overly nice, overly accepting, overly accommodating to people we perceive to be hurting or suffering, even to the point where we put ourselves into situations that are unhealthy & unsafe in our attempt to “help.”
I think anyone who works in a “helping profession” - teachers, therapists, health care workers, coaches, social workers, etc. - can often fall into this trap of practicing toxic compassion. It can particularly lead us into getting manipulated by people who know just how to take advantage of someone who has a big, open heart and a desire to help others.
I should have set a boundary with this woman and told her No. But instead, I practiced toxic compassion and let her back into the program, hoping that the unhealthy patterns I had seen from her were now behind us.
Boy was I wrong.
The challenge had been underway for a few days when I received another private message from her. This time, instead of wanting to pull away from working with me, she now wants to work with me 1-on-1 with private meditation sessions and life coaching.
Flaming, bright red flags flash before my eyes & loud alarm bells start ringing in my ears. I know immediately that this is a terrible, terrible idea. And this time I tell her so. I write her back and inform her that I don’t think it is a wise decision for us to work together 1-on-1 considering the personal feelings about me that she had expressed before. I was firm, but I also tried to be kind in my message, hoping that it would be received well.
Not surprisingly, it was not received well at all. At first, I received a long message in return, detailing a long life story revolving around how men are always rejecting her & how I was just another man who was determined to hurt her & how men are always hurting women and harming the world.
I wrote back, trying to explain that my policy of not working 1-on-1 with someone when there might be romantic feelings involved (on either side) is my professional commitment to keeping my female clients safe, to making sure that the women I work with know that they are in safe & healing space, where boundaries will be respected and their well-being is my highest priority.
She seemed to understand this & apologized for her previous message. Again, this could have been a moment where I decided to end this professional connection & remove her from the program. But I ended up giving her one more chance. Why? Perhaps I didn’t want to live up to that image of being yet another hurtful man in her life. If I just unceremoniously kicked her out of this program, won’t I just be more deeply confirming this story she carries of harmful men?
It only took until the next morning for the final line to be crossed.
She had been continuing to make daily posts in the private Facebook group for Move Your Body & Soul (making those posts is a part of the challenge), but I had largely been ignoring her presence in the group. She had already caused me so much emotional grief that I was just content to ignore her & focus on the other members of the challenge.
Then I wake up to a message from her that begins: “Why are you liking everyone else’s posts but not mine? What do you have against me?”
Then she proceeds to tell me that I’m a horrible coach, that I’m dishonest man, that I’m prejudiced against her, and a whole host of other terrible accusations.
This time, I had no more hesitations about setting the firmest of boundaries.
I send her a very short message, telling her that our connection was clearly no longer psychologically healthy for either of us, that I was removing her from the challenge, and that I did not want to hear from her again.
I then banned her from the Move Your Body & Soul Facebook group & blocked her from my personal Facebook account.
This is definitely the most extreme action I’ve had to take with an inappropriate client or online follower.
But sadly, this is not the only example I’ve dealt with in this coaching work of people acting in incredibly inappropriate ways.
I’ve dealt with women who had booked discovery calls with me, spent an hour telling me their stories & their struggles, but when it came time to talk about signing up for a coaching package, they say “Oh, sorry, I don’t really have any money to invest in coaching right now. But would you like to go out to dinner sometime?” I’ve had a man who also informed me that he didn’t have the money to pay for my services, but would message me in the middle of the night asking if I could get on the phone with him & “hold space” for him. When I told him I couldn’t do that, he informed me that he was suicidal and that if he hurt himself, the blood would be on my hands.
That’s not even to mention the random negative messages I sometimes receive online, like the man who posted on my wall on my birthday last month to inform me that I was clearly a narcissist because (in his eyes) all my posts were self-centered examinations of my life that no one cared about and (my theory) because I had posted a shirtless photo of myself to celebrate my commitment to health & exercise this past year.
Or the woman a few months ago who accused me being greedy, selfish & upholding all the evils of patriarchal capitalism for charging money for the work I do.
And in all of those cases I mentioned above, I was often really shaken up by these experiences. I would spend days feelings really angry at the person involved, but more than that, I would be filled with so much self-doubt about myself and my purpose in this work. I would allow their words to get in my head.. letting myself believe their accusations, becoming fearful of expressing myself online in a vulnerable way, and sapping all my confidence to do this work I so dearly love.
But when I look at all these situations, I can also see how my lack of setting healthy boundaries & my own patterns of toxic compassion have left me vulnerable to manipulative, inappropriate behavior.
And I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles to set boundaries & to properly protect myself from this kind of online harassment.
So I say this for myself & for everyone with similar experiences….
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SET BOUNDARIES.
You have the right to psychological protect yourself from manipulative behavior, even when that behavior is coming from someone hurting and in need of help.
You have the right to say NO, to unfriend, to block anyone online who is harassing you, making unwanted romantic advances, making horrible unfounded accusations about your character, your beliefs, your self-expression, or your professional work.
And let me take this moment to set these particular boundaries for myself & my work as a life coach.
I’m not here to be the recipient of your projections.
I’m not here for you to feign interest in my professional work just to flirt with me.
I’m not here to be accused of being greedy just because you can’t afford me.
I’m not here to judged as lacking compassion or humanity because I won’t “hold space” for you in the middle of the night for free.
I’m here to be my true self.
I’m here to express my soul’s purpose.
I’m here to do the work of life coaching which I dearly love.
If something I post, say, or do offends you or bothers you or triggers a story in your head, feel free to unfriend me.
But I am no longer here for your judgments, your accusations, your harassment, your taking advantage of my time, my energy, and my work for your own manipulative ends.
I’m not here for your bullshit anymore.
From now on, I’m taking my power back.
From now on, I’ll be doing the hard work of setting boundaries.