Boundaries. What in the world does that word really mean when it comes to relationships?
A boundary is a limit, an edge, where one thing stops and another begins. When someone says, “I don’t have good boundaries,” what do they mean? Generally, they allow other people to manipulate or disrespect their time, their desires, or their values. Or they may actually ignore their own — because they have taken on a “saver” mentality and that’s how they feel loved.
The roles of victim and saver…
A while back I read “The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach To Living A Good Life.” I googled the author, Mark Manson. He’s a mega-blogger, a self-made guru, with millions reading his relationship advice. As I hopscotched through his repetitive use of the f word… (which I expected, given the title of the book…), I was struck by some wisdom he had to offer (I’m all for sharing wisdom, and it’s apparent that many people are liking his very direct, common-sense, albeit expletive-filled delivery).
He made two important points about boundaries and healthy relationships. One, you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself in a good relationship, meaning you claim your strengths and your weaknesses. And two, you don’t want or expect your partner to fix whatever problems you have. The boundary? What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours. You care that the other person is struggling or in pain, you empathize and help, but you understand and acknowledge that you can’t fix it. That’s something only they can do.
He divides people into victims and savers, This is similar to what’s described as the Karpman Drama Triangle in psychology. With conflict, there are heroes (“I”ll save you”), victims (“Help me!”), and persecutors (“It’s your fault!”). Both people can be addictively drawn to each other and the relationship becomes a dramatic off-the-charts roller-coaster. Victims don’t take responsibility for themselves and saviors absorb the needs and expectations of others in order to feel loved.
Manson points out: “The victim, if he really loved the saver, would say, ‘Look, this is my problem; you don’t have to fix it for me. Just support me while I fix it myself‘…. If the saver really wanted to save the victim, the saver would say, ‘Look, you’re blaming others for your own problems; deal with this yourself.'”
I couldn’t agree with him more.
Common responses to setting a healthy boundary…
If you’re a victim, someone setting a boundary with you can trigger tremendous insecurity.
Let’s say a saver is trying to move out of saving mode and into a healthy space where they are no longer party to the circle of drama that they’re creating. They’ll say things like, ‘”I can no longer be as available to you,” or “I won’t be a part of something that’s destructive.”
As a victim, your defensiveness can be intense and you may attack, adopting the persecutor role.
“What do you mean you can’t be as available? I’ve never asked you to do any of the things you do. I’ll be fine without you.”
“What are you saying — that you get to decide when we talk about something and when we don’t? Who do you think you are?”
Or you can become even more of a victim that you were before.
“What do you mean you won’t be as available? You know this is the worst time of my life, I’ve never needed you more.”
“What do you mean “destructive?” You’re the one person who understands how hard it is for me to try to quit drinking.”
“I will die if I can’t talk to you.”
These reactions are emotional escalations. The basic message? You’re trying to change the relationship, and I’m not going to allow that. I’ll come right back at you, upping the psychological ante. It’s not necessarily intentional or conscious.
Manson continues: “People with strong boundaries are not afraid of a temper tantrum, an argument, or getting hurt. People with weak boundaries are terrified of those things and will constantly mold their own behavior to fit the highs and lows of their relational emotional roller coaster.”
Yep. And yep.
How you can begin to identify your role…
When I have a saver or a victim in my office, I’ll offer a scenario and ask what they’d predict someone who has healthy boundaries might do.
“You walk up to a park bench. On one end of the bench there’s someone sobbing, almost uncontrollably. On the other, there’s someone who is dabbing their eyes with a Kleenex, obviously sad. You know for a fact that they are upset about a normal, every day type of disappointment or frustration and not a major life trauma. Who would someone with healthy boundaries tend to approach?”
The saver almost always says, “The one who’s sobbing uncontrollably.“
The victim always says, “The one who’s sobbing uncontrollably.”
And then I share what I’ve learned in twenty-five years of observing people, which is that if you aren’t a victim or a saver, you would go to the other person, the one crying quietly. You’d sense that she or he had at least some capability of soothing themselves and were thus far more likely to be able to receive any help that you might be able to offer.
Healthy people are more comfortable helping someone who can and want to help themselves.
The saver, sitting in my office, may look at me, somewhat astonished, and experience the beginning of the realization of the pattern. “I’d feel guilty if I didn’t help. But I always feel guilty that I’m not doing enough” A victim may begin to realize the impact of their expectations and neediness, and ask, “So how do I learn how to soothe myself?”
And change has begun. That’s the gift of insight. It helps you see a connection, a road that you’ve never been down. You can choose to change the road you’re on.
If you’re a saver, you can begin to recognize your own value, apart from what you do for others. If you’re a victim, you can begin to create new skill sets, and develop habits that bring a sense of self-competence and self-sufficiency.
It takes time, but it can be done.
As a recovering saver, I ought to know.
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Originally published on March 10, 2018; updated and republished on August 22, 2020.