Over the years, I’ve become a broken record about two things with clients. Self-care and boundaries. Effective boundaries allow the good stuff in and keep the bad stuff out. They separate healthier relationship partners from toxic relationship partners. In Part One of boundary article series, I explain one of the most fundamental boundaries — the golden rule or law of reciprocity. In Part Two, I discuss one of the other most fundamental relationship boundaries — the joy of No.
First, let’s explore common obstacles people (particularly codependent people) encounter when developing and enforcing interpersonal boundaries. The psychological terms for these obstacles are secondary gains (benefits) and losses (costs). Both are unconscious motivators that serve to maintain maladaptive behaviors, beliefs and attitudes, even when the conscious rational mind wishes to change. In other words, secondary gains are what you get out of continuing to have poor or no boundaries, and secondary losses are what you’d likely lose by developing and enforcing healthy boundaries.
Many people insist they want to have healthier boundaries and relationships. Their rational mind recognizes the importance of doing so and desires greater personal well-being and positive, mutually satisfying relationships. Then, these individuals continue to make the same self-defeating and sabotaging choices and engage in the same self-defeating and sabotaging behaviors. Why do some people do this even when they suffer greatly as a result of doing so?
Secondary gains and losses. If you want your life and relationships to be different, it means making different choices, adopting different attitudes and beliefs. It also means tolerating the initial discomfort of what’s new and different. Like relationships with women and men who aren’t personality disordered, for instance. If your idea of fine dining until now has been dumpster diving at McDonald’s; eating nutritious meals from a clean table in a cozy home will be a distinctly different experience. You can adapt!
Secondary gains or benefits of not developing good boundaries:
1. Continuing to see yourself as the Nice Guy or Nice Gal. There’s a big difference between being nice and being kind. “Being nice” can be a strategy, a manipulation and a defense mechanism. Being kind is none of these things. A kind person is genuinely warm and possesses a generosity of spirit. Kind people are also capable of having boundaries. They don’t feel guilty about saying no.
Conversely, nice guys and gals are often conflict-avoidant people pleasers who want everyone to like them. Nice people have a hard time saying no, especially when they really want to say no, because then people might not like them. They let others take advantage of them. Nice guys and gals think it’s selfish to put their needs first. Nice guys and gals like to see themselves as knights in shining armor, heroes or heroines and “empaths.”
In my experience, most nice guys and nice gals are codependent. I’m not saying that nice people can’t be genuinely kind people, too. However, continuing to do nice things for partners who abuse and regularly exploit you is, frankly, nuts. I don’t judge. I was nutty like that, too, in the not so distant past. “Loyalty to that which does not work, or worse, to a person who is toxic, exploitative or destructive to you, is its own form of insanity” (Patrick Carnes, PhD, 1997). There’s nothing “nice” about being someone’s doormat.
You can be a kind, generous and helpful person and have boundaries. Once you understand and practice the law of reciprocity, develop self-respect and exercise better interpersonal discernment, you’ll be on your way. Regarding discernment, don’t be like the tree in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. That little boy grew up to be a psychopath who exploited and destroyed his tree friend!
2. Avoiding FOG (fear, obligation and guilt). FOG is often the glue that keeps people in toxic, dysfunctional relationships. Fear and guilt aren’t feel-good emotions, so people avoid doing things they believe will cause them anxiety and guilt. Even after divorce, fear is frequently a huge reason why many of my clients struggle to create and enforce boundaries with a high-conflict ex who’s still trying to control them, their parenting and their finances.
These men ask for help figuring out boundaries. Then, when I suggest one or two, they reflexively jump to, “If I do that the ex will get angry, take it out on the kids, blow up my phone, withhold visitation, etc.” There’s usually a fearful litany of things the ex might do in retaliation to instituting a reasonable boundary. And, yes, since many of the exes have borderline, narcissistic and/or psychopathic traits, these women likely will explode, rage, get vicious and retaliate in some way.
However, bullies usually only mess with people they’re certain will let them get away with the most garbage with the least amount of push back. In other words, people without boundaries. As discussed in Part One, narcissists and borderlines usually escalate the behavior you’re trying to minimize or extinguish when you begin to implement boundaries. This is called an extinction burst, or a burst of defiance and rage when a child/adult child is denied familiar rewards for bad behavior. It’s basically a temper tantrum. An adult temper tantrum.
They escalate until they experience a natural consequence for doing so and/or get the memo that the old behavior doesn’t work anymore. Even then, these individuals will periodically test to see if your boundaries are in place, have another temper tantrum (often of shorter duration) when they discover that it is, tell you you’re mean, accuse you of not “co-parenting” and then have a nice, victim-y sulk. Wash, rinse, repeat. In this respect, they’re like the Jurassic Park velociraptors, hurling themselves against you boundary fence trying to find a weak chain link.
Firm, consistent and robust boundaries are the best protection from an abusive, intrusive and meddling ex. Again, it’ll likely get worse before it gets better once you begin boundary enforcement. So don’t assume you’re doing something wrong when it does. The intensity of the ex’s rage is proportionate to the appropriateness of your boundary. The subsequent sullenness and victim-caterwauling is proportionate to how effectively you maintain your boundary. In other words, the angrier and pouty-ier the ex becomes, the better your boundary is. So gird your loins, batten down the hatches and get some noise cancelling headphones!
Secondary losses or costs of developing good boundaries:
1. Losing existing relationships and potential relationships. Developing healthier boundaries may very well cost you some relationships. However, the people who exit your life will be the users, abusers and other unhealthy types who probably haven’t been particularly good friends or partners anyway. It’s like an alcoholic who decides to get sober. His old drinking buddies may snub him. Alternatively, his drunk friends may not seem so great once he’s sober. Even so, it’s still a loss.
A codependent’s painful childhood fears are activated when your needs are in conflict with another person’s needs – especially with someone you love or from whom you desire love. When this occurs, you forsake your needs and well-being out of fear of what might happen if you don’t do what’s asked, expected or demanded of you. You fear your adult relationship partner will become angry, withdraw love, reject you, be cruel to you, retaliate or abandon you. If you’ve chosen adult partners who are similar in nature to your parent(s), or personality disordered, those fears are likely well founded.
It’s not just a loss of friends, a spouse and, quite possibly, certain family members, it also represents a loss of your old unhealthy self, beliefs and relationship roles. Substance abuse recovery programs talk about “mourning the loss of the drug.” Unhealthy, abusive relationships have much in common with drug addiction. You love that which is destructive to you. Even though the old exploitative relationships were unhealthy, they provided you with something. For example, affiliation or a sense of belonging, physical companionship, sex (maybe), of “having someone” and the illusion that there was someone to rely on.
In addition to losing these unhealthy relationships, there’s also the fear of the unknown. How do you build healthier relationships? How do you become healthy enough to be able to build healthier relationships? What if you don’t find a new tribe? If you’re more introverted and socially awkward, it increases the fear of loss because it’s inherently more challenging to make new connections. Combine that with residual trust issues due to the old relationship trauma, feeling like there’s “something wrong” with you and other vulnerabilities, and it can be a very scary cost to becoming healthier.
2. Letting go of the old relationship identity or false self. This means giving up the false self of the codependent, which includes the rescuer, fixer, hero, good boy/good girl, martyr/savior, people pleaser and/or helper persona. Codependents try to obtain love and maintain relationships by behaving selflessly, care-taking others and having no boundaries. To be clear, selfless knight in shining armor is a false self, okay?
It’s how you want to be seen by others, particularly love interests, so they’ll want to be in relationship with you. It’s also how you try foster a dependency to avoid abandonment. I’m guessing you didn’t feel so knightly after the love bombing stopped and the devaluation stage began.
This is not your authentic self. Neither is “nice guy” or “nice gal.” In the different iterations of the codependent false self, you’re not being honest about your feelings, needs, preferences and opinions. When you forsake what few boundaries you have by agreeing when you disagree, doing something you don’t want to do and or allowing others to take advantage of you out of fear of losing the relationship, you’re being inauthentic!
But you really are a nice person! You genuinely like helping people!
If selfless doormat is your authentic self, why do you feel resentful and angry when people mistreat you “after [you’ve] done so much for them!?” Think about it. You’re upset because they don’t appreciate your “niceness” and treat you like a selfless doormat even though you’ve invited them to do so. “If I’m nice to others they’re more likely to be nice to me,” isn’t an unreasonable expectation. It’s one of the things we learn in kindergarten.
Expectations aren’t laws, however. If you continue to have no boundaries and doormat yourself after being repeatedly mistreated, it’s your choice and nothing will get better until you own that. It’s unfair? Sure, it is, but that’s irrelevant. There are people out there who will exploit your codependency – like narcissists, borderlines, psychopaths and self-absorbed, entitled, toxic people. Developing boundaries is one way to build self-respect and keep exploitative people out of your life.
This means figuring out who your authentic self is. Do you know how to build relationships without riding to the rescue or volunteering help? What are your best qualities? Your strengths? What do you bring to a relationship? And for the love of god don’t say, “I like to help people.” If you do my head will explode.
If you don’t know who you are, what you specifically want (including what you will and won’t tolerate), it’s going to be next to impossible to figure out who could be a good partner for you.
The joy of no, or feel the guilt and say no anyway!
If sorry is the hardest word for narcissists, then no is the hardest word for codependents. No is one of the first and most powerful words we learn as very young children. Two-year olds gleefully and emphatically tell parents, “No, I don’t like carrots! No, I don’t want to stop playing! No, I don’t want to wear that! No, I don’t want to go to sleep!” Try it. Smile and petulantly shout, “NO!” See. It feels good.
Telling parents no is the first triumphant step toward personal autonomy and boundary development. Good enough parents allow their kids age appropriate no’s. Authoritarian, dysfunctional and/or personality disordered parents don’t tolerate their children telling them no. They also don’t tolerate their children having boundaries.
As a child, you were likely implicitly or explicitly told saying no and having boundaries was mean, selfish and/or bad. If your parents shamed you, made you feel guilty or terrorized you for attempting to have boundaries, it’s no wonder you haven’t developed healthy boundaries as an adult. Alternatively, if at least one of your parents is codependent, they probably didn’t have boundaries of their own to serve as an example. If you’ve partnered with women and men similar to your dysfunctional parents, this compounds the problem.
Having boundaries is neither mean nor selfish. Boundaries are part of being a responsible adult. Healthier, emotionally mature adults can handle being told no or no thank you. Why? Because they have boundaries and are able to say no without guilt and fear.
Toddlers, narcissists, borderlines, histrionics, psychopaths and other bullies and emotional predators often tantrum and rage or withdraw their love and friendship when told no. In fact, telling a new love interest or friend no and observing how she or he reacts can provide some good insight about the kind of person she or he is. Kind people can and do say no. They do so with kindness and/or forcefulness when necessary. For example:
Example 1: Norm (as in normal) encounters Crazy in the dating pool. Crazy wants Norm to accompany her to a family wedding for their second date. Norm declines because that’d be too much too soon. Crazy loses her marbles, accusing Norm of being a selfish commitment phobe who’s “afraid to love.” Norm smiles, tells Crazy the two of them aren’t a good fit and wishes Crazy well.
Norm doesn’t feel guilty or bad for saying no. Nor does Norm feel bad about blocking Crazy once the text bombs and private message bombs that rapid cycle through blame shifting apologies, unfounded accusations and name-calling begin. Norm shrugs it off, doesn’t take it personally and gets on with his life. He also has a super funny dating anecdote to share with friends.
Example 2: Cody (as in codependent) encounters Crazy #1 in the dating pool. Crazy #1 wants Cody to accompany her to a family wedding for their second date. Cody thinks, “Oh my gosh! Crazy #1 must be really serious about me!!! Yeah, I’ll go!” Cody marries Crazy #1 four months later, has two kids and is now in the middle of a high-conflict divorce and facing false abuse allegations.
Example 3: After divorcing Crazy #1, Cody encounters Crazy #2 in the dating pool. Crazy #2 wants Cody to accompany her to a family wedding for their second date. Cody experiences an inner wave of panic and dread. Cody really doesn’t want to go to the wedding (not after what happened with Crazy #1), but worries Crazy #2 won’t see him anymore if he declines. Cody spends days working out how to justify, defend and explain saying no, or lying about having a business trip or prior family obligation that weekend. Cody hesitantly and nervously tells Crazy #2 that a family wedding seems a bit much for a second date.
Crazy #2 loses her marbles, accusing Cody of being a selfish commitment phobe who’s “afraid to love.” Cody feels h-o-r-r-i-b-l-e and agonizes over whether or not he might really be afraid to love and commitment phobic. Cody feels guilty about Crazy #2 not having a date to her family wedding because everyone in Crazy #2’s family wants to know when Crazy #2’s going to get married. What’s the big deal, right? It’s just a date with food, dancing and a mediocre band.
Cody doesn’t stop to wonder why Crazy #2 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 #2 four months later, has two more kids and is now in the middle of his second high-conflict divorce and facing false abuse allegations once again.
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.
Just because you feel guilt, at least initially, doesn’t mean you have to base your decisions on it. Same goes for feelings of fear and obligation. On the other hand, Crazy just might kill you, or at the very least, cause you to develop serious emotional and physical health problems.
The only thing tolerating bad or abusive behavior will get you is more of the same. A boundary is your line in the sand in terms of what you will and won’t accept from others, but that’s only half of the equation. Boundaries are meaningless unless you enforce them, in other words deliver a natural and appropriate consequence when someone violates your boundaries.
Start by practicing saying no to friends and colleagues you know and trust to be sane, reasonable people. You can even be transparent and say, “This is really hard for me to say because I’m worried you’ll be angry with me. No, I’m not willing to help you with your work project. I’m behind on my own stuff and don’t want to fall even further behind. I usually say yes because I thought if I didn’t it might ruin our friendship. I hope you understand.”
Again, a sane, decent, reasonable person isn’t going to end the friendship or lash out in a fit of rage. They might feel disappointed, but that’s okay. The first few times (or first few dozen times!) you exercise your No boundary might feel highly anxiety-provoking. That’s okay, too. It’s perfectly natural. The anxiety is due to your old stuff. In other words, how the unreasonable selfish people with whom you were previously in relationship reacted to being told no.
Telling someone no is also a great vetting process when establishing new friendships or romantic relationships. If a new friend or potential partner has an adult temper tantrum or tries to guilt and shame you for having boundaries, it’s a legitimate reason to discontinue the acquaintanceship or friendship.
C’mon. Do really I have to say it? With friends like that . . .
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 email@example.com.
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