Boundary is a frequently used self-help genre term. Just because it’s routinely used doesn’t mean it’s well-understood. Some people believe a boundary is something used to control others. It isn’t. Some people think having boundaries will magically change a personality disordered individual’s personality. It won’t.
For example, many clients mistakenly believe creating boundaries (after not having any for months, years or decades) will make a borderline not a borderline or a narcissist not a narcissist. This is just more wishful thinking that occurs during the denial and bargaining stages of grief. Enforced boundaries typically trigger the personality disordered run away into the night screaming, “ABUSE!!!!!” at you over their shoulder.
If you’d had boundaries when you first met the narcissistic, histrionic, borderline or psychopathic partner or ex, the relationship would likely have come to an air bag deploying halt shortly after you enforced your boundaries a few times. Bullies and predators like easy targets. They see boundaries either as challenges to overcome or a threat to their false selves. That’s why boundaries, which develop from self-respect, are just as important, if not more important, than being able to spot red flags.
What’s a boundary?
In the simplest terms, a boundary is like an invisible fence with a locked gate. The fence and lock keep the bad out. Unlocking the gate lets the good in. Good stuff in; garbage out. A boundary isn’t a control tactic. It’s a choice adults get to make in relationships. In other words, others can treat you with the same basic decency, kindness, honesty and respect that you afford them or try not to let the gate hit them on the butt on the way out.
To say narcissists, borderlines and other self-absorbed, entitled, immature, control freak personalities don’t like boundaries is an understatement. Typically, these individuals hate boundaries almost as much as they hate being held accountable. On second thought, it’s probably a tie. Boundaries and accountability go together. Accountability is to narcissists/borderlines as RAID is to insects. It’s repellent to them. To quote a former client’s wife, “Accountability is mean.”
Like accountability, boundaries are experienced as a limit on their ability to abuse, manipulate, exploit and to create chaos and conflict. They can still act that way if they choose, but not in a relationship with you. Narcissists often complain they feel “controlled” when a target has boundaries. What they really mean is, “You’re not letting me do whatever I want when I want without any consequences!!!! WAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!! You’re MEAN!!!”
Why are boundaries so important?
In order for a relationship to function in a healthy, mutually gratifying way, it needs boundaries. Personal boundaries grow from self-respect. Boundaries aren’t experienced as a hardship or personal attack in relationships built on mutual respect. They’re the often unspoken but observed mutual agreement that both parties’ needs, wants, feelings and rights are of equal priority and importance to each other. Everything flows from the presence or absence of this agreement.
Boundaries are only possible when two people share some mutual fundamental principles and personal qualities. Notice I keep using the word mutual! Without these prerequisites, myriad variations of dysfunction are possible. You may already be familiar with some of these principles. Or, perhaps they’re brand new. Either way, they’re well worth considering.
1. The Golden Rule.
All that glitters isn’t gold. For example, a golden uterus or a golden shower. The Golden Rule, however, is true gold. It instructs one to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule is also known as the law of reciprocity. The law of reciprocity is the natural, mutual give and take in adult relationships.
Abusive personalities don’t abide by the Golden Rule. Narcissists and other self-absorbed, entitled jerks typically follow one or more of the following self-serving, non-reciprocal rules:
- “Do as I say not as I do.”
- “It’s different when I do it.”
- “All me, all the time.”
- “I expect everything and give nothing.”
- “The rules don’t apply to me.”
- “The only way I can win is if you lose.”
- “I always win.”
- “You must be interested in everything that interests me, but don’t expect me to take interest in what’s important to you.”
- “I require total understanding, but won’t make the effort to understand you.”
- “There isn’t enough fill-in-the-blank resource for everyone, so I get it all.”
Narcissists and borderlines are often hypocrites who live on one-way streets paved with double standards. It isn’t possible to have mutual, reciprocal relationships with people who are pathologically self-absorbed. Narcissists and other abusive personalities have zero sum, transactional relationships. They only give with the expectation of getting back with interest compounded by the minute in perpetuity. If they pick up your dry cleaning once in 15 years, you’d better be grateful forever. Furthermore, the very occasional act of kindness (or baseline courtesy) means you’re expected to overlook the lies, the cheating, the lack of sex, their selfishness, volatility, hostility, neediness and all their other wonderful qualities!
In reciprocal relationships both parties compromise to find mutual wins. What’s in the best interest of each individual is in the best interest of the relationship. Your needs, wants and feelings are as much of a priority to your partner as they are to you and vice versa. Reciprocal relationships don’t have double standards. Double standards are a way people cheat each other. Eventually, double standards breed resentment in the person who’s consistently on the short end of the stick.
Why is observing the law of reciprocity essential for healthy relationship boundaries? Because it’s the basis of respect, fairness and equity. Transactional relationships are rooted in selfishness, blame, judgment and punishment, covert contracts, ultimatums, and unreasonable expectations. The one-sidedness of these relationships don’t allow for healthy boundaries, which, again are built on respect and mutuality. No one feels good in relationships characterized by false scarcity, zero sum power struggles, score keeping and grievance gathering.
Do a balance sheet of your relationships. Are you getting back as much as you give? Do you express your feelings about relationship imbalances? How does the other person respond? Do they become angry or dismissive? Do they go on the attack? Do they make empty promises that things will get better? Do they take steps to make things better?
If the Golden Rule isn’t at play in your relationships, it’s healthy and reasonable to end or distance yourself from those relationships. There are adults who are capable of mutual respect, reciprocity and will work with you to create a balance healthy relationship rather than undermining you and the relationship and then declaring themselves the Victim-Winner.
Think about that. Narcissists, borderlines and other underdeveloped personalities believe they win if they’re able to declare themselves victims. Do you want a relationship in which you both get to be lovers and partners or a relationship in which one of you is the victim and the other the inadequate villain? Triangulation is comprised of three roles: Victim, Villain and Rescuer. The narcissist has exclusive ownership of the victim role. After your brief stint as the rescuer, you will be vilified. It’s inevitable.
2. The Joy of No.
Or, as I like to say, feel the guilt and say no anyway! If sorry is the hardest word for narcissists (obscure Elton John song reference), then no is the hardest word for codependents. Contrary to what you may believe, you can still be a nice guy or gal and tell people, including your significant other, no. You can say no without having to defend or explain yourself (JADE), without worrying that your partner will become mad and stop loving you. Well, that’s if your significant other is an emotionally mature adult who’s capable of respecting your boundaries.
Narcissists and other chronically self-absorbed immature people don’t like being told no. Telling narcissists no typically enrages them and triggers adult tantrums, threats to end the relationship, the silent treatment, guilt trips or victim playing.
The word NO is a boundary. It’s the first boundary we learn as children. No, we aren’t hungry. No, we don’t like carrots. No, we don’t want to wear the purple shirt. We want to wear the blue one. No, we don’t want to go to bed. Good enough parents allow their kids age appropriate no’s. It helps kids to develop boundaries and develop personal autonomy.
Example 1: Norm (short for Normal) meets Crazy via Match.com. Crazy wants Norm to attend her sister’s wedding on their second date. Norm declines because they just met each other. In other words, too much too soon. Rushing relationship stages is a common example of someone who lacks or has poor boundaries. Crazy goes bonkers, accuses Norm of being a selfish commitment phobe who’s “afraid to love.” Norm smiles politely, tells Crazy they’re not a good fit and wishes Crazy the best.
Norm doesn’t feel bad for telling Crazy no. Nor does Norm feel guilty about blocking Crazy on his phone and social media accounts in response to Crazy’s text and private message bombs that rapid cycle through blame shifting apologies, unfounded accusations and name-calling. Norm shrugs it off, doesn’t take it personally and gets on with his life. He also gets to do the Blocking Dance.
What’s the Blocking Dance? The Blocking Dance is done to the tune of the Chicken Dance — Dun-na-nun-na-nun-na-na!-Dun-na-nun-na-nun-na-na!-Dun-na-nun-na-nun-na-na!-BLOCK!-BLOCK!-BLOCK!-BLOCK! Try it. It really does add an element of fun to blocking. Don’t forget to make the swiping motion. As an addded bonus, Norm also gets a super funny dating anecdote to share with friends after blocking Crazy.
Example 2: Cody (short for Codependent) meets Crazy at the gym. Crazy wants Cody to attend her sister’s wedding for their second date. Cody thinks, “Oh my gosh! Crazy must be really serious about me!!! Yeah, I’ll go!” Cody marries Crazy 4 months later, has two kids and is now in the middle of a high-conflict divorce, hasn’t seen his kids in 6 weeks and is facing false abuse allegations.
Example 3: Cody meets Crazy via Bumble. Crazy wants Cody to attend her sister’s wedding for their second date. Cody experiences an inner wave of panic and dread. Cody really doesn’t want to go to the wedding, but worries Crazy won’t like him anymore if he declines. Cody spends several days working out how to justify, defend and explain saying no (JADE), or devising a lie about having a business trip or prior family obligation that weekend. Cody hesitantly and nervously tries to tell Crazy a family wedding seems a little fast for a second date.
Crazy goes bonkers, accusing Cody of being a selfish commitment phobe who’s “afraid to love.” Cody feels horrible and agonizes over whether or not he’s really afraid to love. Cody feels guilty about Crazy not having a date to the wedding because everyone in Crazy’s family wants to know when Crazy’s going to get married! What’s the big deal, right? It’s just a date with food, dancing and a band.
Cody doesn’t stop to wonder why Crazy would want to take someone she thinks is commitment phobic and love avoidant to a wedding much less continue to date at all. Cody goes to the wedding, marries Crazy 4 months later, has two kids and is now in the middle of a high-conflict divorce and facing false abuse allegations.
See the difference? All it takes to avoid the disastrous outcomes in Examples 2 and 3 is to say no and feel okay about saying no. Even if you still wrestle with guilt when you want to say no, that’s alright. Feel the guilt and say no anyway! Guilt won’t kill you, but marrying and having kids with a narcissist or a borderline just might. Just because you initially feel guilt doesn’t mean you have to base your decisions on it. Same goes for feelings of fear and obligation.
People with healthy boundaries don’t enable other people’s pathology. There’s a big difference between helping and enabling. Enabling is doing for someone what they’re capable of doing for themselves. Helping is providing someone with tools to do for themselves and then letting them. Enabling is cleaning up a person’s mess so they can avoid the consequences of their behavior. Helping allows a person to experience consequences so they may learn and make healthy changes.
It’s more helpful to teach someone to fish rather than give them a fish everyday. Teaching a person to fish helps them to become independent. Giving a person a daily fish makes them dependent. Cleaning up a borderline’s or narcissist’s messes doesn’t help them. It teaches them that they can be as reckless and impulsive as they wanna be and you’ll keep paying the tab and pushing the broom behind them. It doesn’t fix anything. Unless you consider enabling your own abuse an accomplishment.
Many codependents help first and ask questions later. Meaning that codependents often step in and try to fix, rescue or help others before even being asked to do so. Maybe you’re wondering, “What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it good to be helpful?”
Helping without being asked robs a person of their ability to do for themselves. It deprives them of feeling autonomous, capable and a sense of accomplishment in being able to manage their own lives and whatever problems may arise. Enabling fosters dependency, as in a codependency. Volunteering without being asked to help is evidence of your lack of boundaries. It calls to mind the phrase, “Stay in your own lane.” Staying in your lane on the roadway is a real world boundary with real world consequences if you deviate from it.
Healthy adults don’t need “rescuing.” Healthy adults don’t want you to step in and do for them. This is why kids say, “Me do!” during the Terrible Two’s. Personal agency feels good. Healthy adults want equally healthy and responsible partners. Leave the fixer uppers to Ty Pennington and Extreme Personality Disorder Makeover Edition.
Codependents need to be needed. Many codependents mistakenly believe being needed is the pathway to love. It’s not. Many codependents were parentified as children. They didn’t feel loved or accepted unless they were taking care of their parents emotional and physical needs. Parentified children are rewarded (or avoid punishment) for ignoring their needs and wants and sacrificing themselves to their parent’s pathology. Parentified kids may grow up to replay this in their adult relationships. When they do, it manifests as codependency.
Being needed and being loved are two very different things. Need arises from a sense of lack, deprivation, fear and unworthiness. Love arises from a sense of wholeness and “want to be” rather than “should be, have to be or need to be.” The former is a thankless depletion of one’s internal and external resources. The latter is energizing, life enhancing and source of joy and contentment.
Much has been written about the abandonment fears of narcissists and borderlines. Codependents also have abandonment fears. It’s expressed differently in the personality disordered vs. the codependent, however. Narcissists, borderlines, histrionics and psychopaths make their partners dependent on their approval, which they miserly hoard after the love bombing or idealization stage ends and save it for emergency Hoovers. Codependents make their partners dependent upon them through enabling, acts of service and tolerating their manipulations and other abuses.
A former client said his goal in his intimate relationships was to be the best doormat he could be so his borderline and narcissistic girlfriends wouldn’t leave him. He consciously engaged in this. He deluded himself into believing that if he could show those women that he was “good” and would “treat them better” than other men that they’d eventually see his value and treat him better.
I pointed out that what he defined as “good” was his willingness to tolerate abuse and exploitation. And that tolerating and rewarding his abusers didn’t make him better than other men. All it did was guarantee him more abusive girlfriends. No one respects or loves a doormat. You may pity a doormat, but that’s not love either.
Everyone has issues. You have issues. Your sister has issues. Your boyfriend has issues. Your wife has issues. Your adult kids have issues. Your best friend has issues. I have issues. An individual’s issues belong to him or her. Your issues belong to you. Your brother’s issues belong to him. My issues belong to me.
As such, we all have a responsibility and obligation to ourselves, our loved ones, our colleagues and our communities. A responsibility to manage our own issues instead of dumping them onto whomever is most convenient and willing. It’s okay to help and support a loved one with their issues. That’s very different from enabling their issues or allowing yourself to become a scapegoat or dumping ground for their issues. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is let others experience the consequences of their choices. That includes you.
If you want to have better boundaries, I encourage you to consider your experience with the concepts discussed in this article. Where are you lacking? What needs improvement? Where are you stuck? Are your current relationships thwarting your efforts to develop healthier self-respect and boundaries?
If so, some people may need to go. Boundaries are a good way to weed out the toxic people in your life. Having boundaries doesn’t obligate your significant other, friends or family to respect them. If they choose to disrespect you by ignoring your boundaries there are choices you can make. Do you want to stay in relationships with people who don’t care about you, your needs and feelings? Or do you want mutually respectful, reciprocal relationships? It’s your choice.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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