Article by Quercus
I used this image on a previous post (Cold Comfort or Change?) and realised it was the perfect prompt for a post on "Setting Boundaries".
I like to start my posts with my credentials just so everyone's aware I'm not a therapist or a psychologist or an expert in mental health in any way.
For this article, I'm also going to mention that I'm not a skilled setter of boundaries! Far from it! Like many ACoNs, I essentially lacked any boundaries; I could manage to say "No" to someone, but it was difficult, and I had to be absolutely certain that I should. After saying "No", I'd then spend the rest of my time apologising for having to say "No", explaining my reasons and petitioning the other party's approval of my actions.
Sad, I know.
In the past year, I've learned all about boundaries. Actually, that statement is a little deceptive; I already had a fantastic understanding of other people's boundaries! Particularly those of my parents. But of my own boundaries - they were effectively unguarded and ill-defined. I had been raised to roll over and submit.
"Setting Boundaries" is difficult for me to define, not being a therapist or anything. Let's start with my understanding of 'boundaries'.
Psychological boundaries are the self-defined limits you have for your own person and your own mind. They can be physical (I don't like it when people I don't know put their hand on my waist; I won't 'put out' on a date just because he wants it), and they can be mental (I don't want to have to answer that invasive personal question; I don't need to justify my thoughts to anyone).
For me, I can easily envision a 'bubble' around myself to define my 'personal space'. Everyone has slightly different requirements and preferences for personal space; someone living in a city might be used to having to rub shoulders with a stranger on a subway, whereas someone from the suburbs might get weirded out by that closeness. This can be context-dependent as well; I will be comfortable half-pressed up against someone on a crowded subway car, but I get really uncomfortable when the person behind me in line is within 2 feet of me (human tail-gating!). I know that my personal space boundary extends about 2 feet behind me, and is dependent on the circumstances.
Enforcing personal space boundaries with a stranger is awkward; you can step forward (and usually the tail-gater will follow suit), or you can ask them to back off, nicely (if anyone has any polite phrasing for such a situation, please share it with me!).
But knowing my where my psychological boundaries lay is more difficult for me. If they're difficult for you to define too, I think the best way to know is to "follow the uncomfortable". If something someone just asked or said or did made you feel yucky, you're onto a 'boundary violation'! And sometimes it's your actions that feel uncomfortable - if the scenario doesn't feel right, take time to dissect it in your brain. What about the scenario makes you uncomfortable? Are you doing something you don't want to do? Why are you doing it? Did you feel you had to say 'yes' to this job? Could you have said 'no' and avoided this altogether? Really examine what it is that made you get the 'yuckies'.
Establishing and defending boundaries (or 'maintaining' them for a less confrontational view) is not easy for someone like me who was punished every time I attempted to erect a boundary. If I didn't want to hug my mom, then for the next . . . I was going to say week, but I think it's more accurate to say "for the rest of my life", I had to deal with a snarky, cold and petty mom. Shouldn't a child have the right to say no to a hug?
To a narcissist, the answer is "No!", even though they may phrase it slightly differently. Their needs come first. To withhold a hug is cruel, they say. You must not love me at all, they weep. And they'll never forgive you. This is all stemming from a sense of entitlement that is grossly inflated, of course.
Establishing and defending boundaries against your narcissistic parents as an adult is a wretched (but necessary) experience. You'll likely have trouble putting your foot down thanks to their years of brainwashing you into believing that you're being 'cruel' to them. You'll equate asking them to email instead of phoning to ripping their heart out and stomping on it. You'll see telling them to not show up to your house unannounced as comparable to beating a small, helpless child.
In short, if you attempt to construct realistic, normal and healthy boundaries against your dysfunctional parents, you'll likely have to battle yourself as much as them. You'll see yourself as the abuser, the aggressor, the cruel one. It's going to be a major challenge to take a calm, sobering breath and try to rationally address the situation in your mind. Because the truth is that asking someone not to just pop over to your place whenever they feel like it isn't mean. It's just not. And any normal, loving parents will gladly abide. (Although one might argue that you wouldn't have to ask normal parents to change their behaviour if it wasn't weird to begin with). Asking for space, restricting the number and length of their phone calls - again, hardly a terrible thing.
Remember that as you set and enforce boundaries, you're going to see it from two points of view, likely simultaneously:
- This is a perfectly reasonable and normal request to make. I am entitled, as a human being like any other, to ask politely and expect that this boundary be respected. If I asked my neighbour to do this in the phrasing I've used, I would expect that everything would work out just fine for both parties, no big deal.
- I'm killing her, oh my gosh, I'm ripping her heart out! This is going to destroy her! She'll be weeping on the floor! She'll starve herself! Oh, she'll tell all my family how horrible I'm being! I'll have to deal with Auntie so-and-so and the rest of my family shunning me! Imagine asking your mother not to call you! Your own mother! She'll have a heart-attack or a stroke! I'm an awful person! I can't bear hurting her like this! (and on and on and on.....!)
- How DARE he/she say that?! To his/her own mother! I'm his/her MOTHER! I deserve to be respected! I wiped that little sh*t's butt for years and years and put up with all the grief and suffering that comes with having children and THIS is how they repay me?! Well I'm not going to take this, no sir! I can do what I like! They have NO RIGHT to tell me when I can and can't call them. I OWN them! I brought them into this world, I wiped their butt, I breastfed them 'til my nips bled - we'll see about this. THEY OWE ME. And I own them. And I'll make them pay for this insolence if it's the last thing I do!!! NO ONE talks to me like that!
- I'm going to milk this for everything it's worth - wait 'til I tell EVERYONE what a horrid son/daughter I have! No one's going to side with them! Oh - this will get me all sorts of support and pity and attention! THEN who's the popular one?! Then who's the one with all the power?! Ha! I'll show them - they'll have cousins and aunts and grandparents phoning them, SHAMING them into proper behaviour! I WILL have MY WAY! Muwhahahaha* (*maniacal laughter added for dramatic effect).
So now that you've seen my proposed thought process for your Nparent, does it make it any easier to see why your #1 thought process is the one to hang onto? Can you really bring in the default #2 thought process that sees yourself as the abuser, when we can all see who really wields the power in your relationship?
Boundaries are essential to your psychological well-being. Here are some helpful "I"-phrases to make setting boundaries easier. I recommend practicing this in front of a mirror, or at the very least out loud to yourself. Imagine you are a stage actor rehearsing a script - you've got to nail the execution in front of a tough audience! Leave no room for error - get comfortable with your lines and posture and timbre of voice!
"I've come to realise that I'm not comfortable when you drop by my house unexpectedly. Please don't come by unannounced; we'll set up a time that works for both of us to meet up somewhere we can both agree on."
"Both myself and my (husband/wife/roommate/coworker) find it unpleasant to receive so many phone calls. We much prefer communicating by email. I'm going to ask you to email instead of calling our phone. It gives us more peace and quiet, and allows us to communicate at times of our choosing that are convenient for us."
"I feel bullied when you pick apart my looks or complain about my weight. I understand that you're 'only trying to help', but I did not solicit (ask for) your help or your opinion. If you want to continue to have lunches with me on the second Tuesday of the month, you're going to have to keep your opinions on my looks to yourself. Good or bad, I don't wish to discuss my physical appearance."
"I am feeling smothered by you - up until just recently, I've always felt that you wanted nothing to do with me. And I got used to that. And now quite suddenly in the past two years or so, you want to spend quite a lot of time with me, doing things that I do with my own age-group and my own friends. I'm not comfortable with this arrangement - I feel used, as if I'm here to provide you with fun. The truth is I'm not here to provide you with anything; we're separate people. If we are to have a good friendship, it has to be balanced. And the way things are at the moment won't work for me any longer. We need to find a compromise."
Getting a narcissist to agree to a compromise is about as difficult as trying to thread a needle in the dark. So here's a few tips on what to do when your Nparent has heard the above speech that you struggled through and practiced and practiced 'til you were hoarse, and has blatantly ignored your boundary! (If it hasn't happened yet, it will! You're in for a treat . . . that was sarcasm, just to be clear):
"Last month (be specific about dates and times and locations - show you haven't forgotten a single detail) I very plainly told you that you were not to come by my house unannounced. You came by unannounced, claiming it was an emergency. Grandpa had had a stroke. However, it was a mild stroke, and Grandpa was already stable in the hospital and getting ready to be discharged. In this case, I saw no reason why a phone call, or even an email, wouldn't have been sufficient. I feel as if you saw Grandpa's stroke as an opportunity to challenge my boundary. If you will not respect my needs, I'm not sure we're going to have much of a relationship down the road."
This is likely going to start WWIII, so be prepared with the following.
"I can see that you feel very angry that I am enforcing this boundary. I don't understand what is making you so angry. It's very simple - I have asked you to call ahead and arrange to meet instead of popping by unexpectedly. I'm going to go inside now, and we can discuss this again in two day's time over email. Goodbye for now."
And then follow-through. If you say you'll do something, you HAVE to do it! It's like raising children - if they realise your threats are empty, anarchy will ensue! Stay calm, appear as unemotional as possible, and be unwavering. It'll drive your Nparent batty, but it will, in time, work.
You might end up with more than you bargained for (i.e. the silent treatment, or being disowned), but you'll be better off knowing that you stuck up for yourself. Mom and Dad aren't going to stick up for you, so someone's got to do it! You're an adult now - act like one. They ought to too.
Best of luck in "Setting Boundaries"! Again, the best advice is to see a therapist or counsellor and have them help you through this process (they'll probably have much better suggestions that I have!). There are many books on 'setting boundaries' in the self-help section of bookstores as well.
One of the most useful books in dealing with my parents (ironically) is "How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk". It was recommended by another ACoN for parenting purposes, but I've found that this classic applies to people who act like children, too!