When a Mentor Becomes Manipulative


This life is all about learning. Doing. Becoming.

So you start down a path. You find others who are a little farther down the path, hoping that they are able and willing to give you a few pointers. You find a mentor; she’s poised, knowledgable, skilled and generous. Maybe she’s a mother, maybe she’s a co-worker, maybe she’s a teacher. She’s enthusiastic that you’ve chosen the same path she did and she’s happy to help you! And as you grow in your abilities, you express gratitude to her for helping you learn.

She’s set her pace, you set your pace.

Eventually, if you’ve chosen to move a little faster, you’ll come along side-by-side with your mentor. Only now, your relationship has changed. No longer is it a mentor-mentee relationship; now it’s a relationship of equals. You look forward to being able to discuss trends, philosophies, continue to grow together. You loved the discussions you had before and look forward to continuing that learning together.

But the mentor doesn’t want the relationship to change. She prefers everything to stay like it was before. When she was the stronger, more knowledgeable one.

She doesn’t want you to know more, or be more; that scares her.

And not just superficially. It shakes her understanding of herself and her place in this world.

She begins to wonder, “Aren’t I still the knowledgeable one? Why aren’t they coming to me for answers anymore? I want to be helpful!” What if she’s not who she thought she was? Or her contribution isn’t valuable anymore?

But she tamps that fear down, because it doesn’t feel good. She doesn’t want to look at it. It’s ugly. And she’s a nice person, a good person; she’s a helper. Helpers aren’t supposed to feel angry when the people they help begin to stretch their wings. So she buries the growing insecurity and puts on a fresh coat of optimism.

Only, those unresolved fears seep out at the most vulnerable times. She makes a snide comment. Then she feels guilty. But the damage is done. She can’t un-say the words.

This comment flies at you, as if from out of the blue. And it cuts.

“What?!” you wonder. “I thought we were both on the same team?”

So she is quiet for a time, hoping that these feelings, the ones that she doesn’t want to look at, and your memory of her words, will just disappear. But every time she sees you stretching more, or making different choices than she would make, she feels growing judgment of her own choices. It’s not a judgment that you’re making of her, it’s a judgment that she’s placing on herself. Each critical thought, a brick in the wall she’s building.

Only she doesn’t realize that it’s coming from herself, because she only feels it when she’s interacting with you; so she associates it with you.

Pretty soon she begins to associate you with a number of negative feelings and experiences, in order to justify her growing animosity. This way, when one of those snarky comments slips out, she doesn’t have to feel too guilty anymore.

You deserve it, after all. And she’s not a bad person, her feelings are justified.

The more she distances herself from you, the more you grieve the loss of the relationship that was, and the relationship that might have grown. It hurts to lose her. You begin to wonder if you ever really had a relationship with her to begin with. Was she ever really honest with you? You just don’t know.

So you distance yourself also.

At this point, we’ve come so far from the original feelings of trust and affection that it’s hard to believe it was real. This is the process that psychologists call the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse in a relationship. And it can be ANY relationship. Those 4 destructive forces are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. But they aren’t irreversible.

However, for a change to happen, BOTH parties MUST be committed to an open and honest effort to rebuild and repair the relationship. And both must understand that a relationship is a living thing that will grow and change over time.

Whether the relationship is one of a Mentor/Mentee, Parent/Child, or a married couple; these dynamics are always shifting. Each member of the relationship deserves to be happy and respected.

Together if possible, or alone if necessary.

YOU have the ability to stand strong and true in your identity. YOU ARE ENOUGH.