Under Attack: Learning to Set Boundaries

Arthur Wenk, Certified by OACCPP and EMDRIA

Theravive Counseling


Under Attack:  Learning to Set Boundaries

“Poor self-esteem,” a feeling of “not deserving,” is a phrase that describes many of my clients when they first appear for psychotherapy, regardless of their presenting complaints.  The description arises so often that it might be useful to consider several individual cases and then offer some suggestions for dealing with this common problem.  The following scenarios, with invented names, represent composites of numerous clients.

Alicia complaints about her mother’s intrusiveness.  She telephones Alicia every day and persists in offering unwanted advice about Alicia’s marriage.  Alicia has pleaded with her mother to let her get on with her life as she sees fit, but to no avail.  The mother, lacking a real life of her own, seems determined to live Alicia’s life for her.

Roberta finds herself under attack by a sibling, who shows great ingenuity in making her life miserable.  The sibling ceaselessly uses emails and telephone calls both to attack Roberta directly and to spread rumors about her among all of their relatives.  Lately the sibling has been trying to come at Roberta through her children, including poisonous messages to Roberta along with birthday or Christmas presents for the kids.

Alex is overwhelmed by the demands of his mother and siblings.  He has always been the “go-to guy” in the family, but has been worn down by their seemingly limitless demands.  He can’t understand why the responsibilities for the family always fall on him, since his siblings are at least as well off financially as he is and should be capable of taking on these responsibilities themselves.

All three clients see themselves as doormats, trampled by family members who apparently have no respect for them as individuals.  When I ask them to describe their feelings, I get words like “frustrated,” “irritated” or “annoyed.”  When I try to suggest that anger underlies these feelings, I the clients often demur:  they “don’t do anger,” or “anger wasn’t permitted” when they were growing up, or they aren’t comfortable with “negative emotions.”

My first step in dealing with such clients is to help them reframe their idea of anger.  I suggest that far from being their enemy, anger is a messenger whose information they disregard at their peril.  Among other things, anger warns us that our boundaries are being violated.  Think of the dog eating its meal who growls when you get too close.  The growl says “Back off!”  If you accidently jostle a person on the bus, he or she may say “Hey!,” which conveys the same message.

A person with low self-esteem tends to disregard or override feelings of irritation or frustration or anger.  “They probably didn’t mean any harm,” they will tell themselves, or “It’s not that big a deal,” or “It’s not polite to make a fuss.”  I have such clients try out an unfamiliar voice, a voice with authority and clout that says “BACK OFF!”  Then I ask them how they feel.  Once they get over the surprise that such a voice could ever emanate from their lips, they usually report a sense of empowerment.

The second step is to persuade clients that “you train people how to treat you.”  This step usually takes a bit of time since people with low self-esteem tend to believe that they cannot possibly influence others, that the world denies them respect because they don’t really deserve respect.  In fact, “the world” tends to respond to subtle cues of body language and tone of voice.  If you walk confidently, stand erect, look people in the eye, and exude an expectation of success, most often you will get a positive response.  It may require giving clients an opportunity to experiment with “training the world” before we can move on to dealing with the specific difficult people in their lives.  I feel great satisfaction when such clients return with a smile and report that people really are treating them differently.

The third step is to help clients establish appropriate boundaries in their lives.  (I find Anne Katherine’s book to be helpful here.  See the list of recommended books at the end of this article.)  Some clients seem to lack even the most basic sense of personal boundaries, so accustomed have they become to putting everyone else’s interests before their own.  In dealing with adults with families, I often find it helpful to frame the situation in terms of their children.  Everyone will agree that their children deserve respect; I then ask whether they themselves should not also deserve respect.

Self-respect emanates from the basic messages that children expect to receive from their caregivers:  you are valued; you are accepted; you are loved; you are understood; you are respected.  My clients generally insure that their own children receive these messages that the clients themselves often failed to receive.  Part of therapy involves showing clients that they can supply these messages to themselves as well as to their children.

The fourth step requires devising specific strategies for dealing with the situation that troubles each client.  These strategies, the clients need to understand, consist of defensive measures to protect their boundaries.  They are not intended to—nor can they be expected to—change other people.  I point out that genuine change in a person generally comes about as a result of a cataclysm (such as surviving an earthquake or a heart attack), a religious experience, or psychotherapy.  Absent any of these circumstances, people are unlikely to change.  But you can alter people’s behavior towards you. 

In the case of Alicia, beset by her mother’s constant intrusions, I asked Alicia when she would like to talk with her mother.  “Once a week,” she replied.  “And I’d like to call her instead of her calling me.”  Is there anything else, I asked?  “Yes.  I don’t want to talk about my marriage with her.”  If I were a genie, I would announce, “Your wish has been granted.”  In this case, Alicia must be her own genie, but she will learn a powerful lesson in self-esteem in the process.

I instruct Alicia to call her mother, instead of waiting for her mother’s call, and explain the new terms of their conversations.  In any situation involving a telephone call, it can be helpful to write out a script beforehand and even role-play to get comfortable with it.  Avoid explanations and omit inessential words.  Simply state what you want.  It shouldn’t be aggressive or blaming, but rather a statement about you.  I suggest that she may want to try the sandwich technique by saying something kind or flattering (but also true) then her difficult message, ending with another gentle appreciative statement.  For example, “I know you have my best interests at heart.  But I need to tell you …  I appreciate your understanding, Mom.”  Many clients find this to be a novel and somewhat disconcerting experience, since they have devoted much of their lives responding to what other people want and seldom expressing their own desires.

Alicia anticipates her mother’s protests:  “You’re the only person I have to talk to,” or “You don’t love me anymore,” or “How can you treat your mother this way?”  I explain the need to avoid discussion in response to these protests.  Once you start down the slippery slope of self-justification, you’re doomed, since the other person will always have more arguments about why you should do what he or she wants instead of what you want.

Instead, I advise clients to adopt the “broken-record technique” described in Manuel Smith’s book and elsewhere.  Come up with a brief phrase and don’t budge from it other than subtle paraphrases such as “I understand, but my decision remains.”  In Alicia’s case the phrase might be something like “I hear your concerns but this is what I have decided.”

“What do I do when she calls me anyway?” Alicia asks.  In this case, Alicia needs to repeat briefly the terms she has established, and if her mother prolongs the conversation, simply announce that she needs to hang up and then do so.  The same applies if the mother insists on talking about Alicia’s marriage.  Alicia reminds her politely of the terms, and if she persists, Alicia terminates the conversation.

In the case of Roberta’s abusive sibling, stronger measures were required.  I encouraged her to picture a stockade or a castle designed to keep intruders out.  A resourceful enemy will constantly test your defenses, looking for weak points, so you must be vigilant in reinforcing those areas of vulnerability.  Roberta arranged to have caller-ID installed on her telephone so that she could avoid taking calls from the abusive sibling.  Her husband agreed to screen all e-mail messages so that she would not have to see them. 

A particular challenge arose in dealing with well-intentioned family members who kept suggesting that Roberta patch things up with her sibling, or attend family functions with the sibling.  Often families unwittingly conspire to obstruct or undo the very changes that psychotherapy attempts to bring about.  In such cases, a client needs to make a clear choice in favor of mental health.  For family members who refuse to understand or accept the “new rules,” the only alternative may be to “terminate the conversation,” so to speak, at least temporarily. 

For Alex, the defensive strategy consisted of learning to say “no,” employing some of the techniques outlined in Harriet Braiker’s book.  The broken-record technique proves to be a particularly valuable form of self-protection, since people accustomed to automatic acceptance of their requests may not give up easily.  “I’ve always been able to count on you,” they may say, or “Who am I going to ask if you can’t help me?”  Attempting to rationalize your refusal usually ends in your capitulation.  Instead, I encourage clients in Alex’s situation to write out a brief phrase that they can repeat politely, varying it slightly as necessary so that it doesn’t sound aggressive, until the person making demands finally gives up. 

People with a healthy sense of self-esteem maintain personal boundaries to protect their interests.  Often a therapist’s task consists of teaching clients how to build these boundaries and, in the process, developing self-respect.

Recommended Books

Braiker, Harriet B. (2001).  The Disease to Please:  Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Katherine, Anne (1991).  Boundaries:  Where You End and I Begin. New York:  Simon & Schuster.

McKay, Matthew and Fanning, Patrick (2000).  Self-Esteem.  3rd edition.  Oakland, California:  New Harbinger Publications.

Smith, Manuel J. (1975).  When I say no, I feel guilty.  New York:  Bantam Books.

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