Sanctuary for the Abused
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Boundaries & Detachment
Lessons About Emotional Detachment / Boundaries
Part 1: The Incredible Shrinking Relatives
Learning to set boundaries is part of the healing process after any form of abuse. This task can be complicated. It seems there will always be people who want to upset you. They could be family members who deny that abuse took place. They could be the offenders or their allies who are still a part of your life. Their comments, expressions, or attitudes can hurt you and make your life much more difficult.
You handle people like this by using an emotional tool called detachment. Like any other emotional process, it is a skill you can learn. It takes practice. But keep working, and you will diminish the effect these people have on your life.
EMOTIONAL DETACHMENT LESSONSMake Them Smaller
Handling the Rough Stuff
Take Care of Yourself First
Practice, Practice, Practice
Make Them Smaller
The first step to detachment is to "shrink" the unhealthy person.
This equation in emotional mathematics means adding things to your life automatically reduces the space taken up by unhealthy people and relationships. Expand your horizons. Occupy your mind with new ideas. The unhealthy person will occupy a smaller portion of your mind, and therefore your life.
The unhealthy people in your life use guilt to keep you enslaved. When you begin to detach, you are upsetting the status quo, and they will use guilt to bludgeon you back into place.
Resisting this tactic is difficult but not impossible. Learn to recognize the guilt trip. Think about why they are doing this. You are trying to take care of yourself, and some people will go to great lengths to stop you. They want to maintain the status quo.
Accept that these unhealthy people will never grant their approval. This is a vital part of letting go. In fact, withholding approval is a most effective weapon to keep you enslaved.
When you let go, and honestly don't care if they approve of you, they will have a hard time hiding their surprise. Watch as they mentally scramble to think of another tactic to keep you entangled.
Realize that the other person's problem is not yours. One of the hardest lessons to learn is that no matter how hard you try, you can never, ever, ever change how another person acts. The only thing you can change is your reaction to them. You can fight the guilt they inspire. You can take care of yourself.
Stock PhrasesThe unhealthy people in your life often try to catch you off guard, or will try to ensnare you in a hopeless problem. The response to both tactics is to memorize some stock phrases. Some examples: "Hm. Interesting." "Wow, that's too bad." Or my favorite: "Huh. What are you going to do about that?" The last one is very effective, since these people want you to fix their problems. This response turns the tables on them. You express interest without offering to fix the problem, and force them to offer solutions. Then you conclude with, "Well, that sounds like a good plan. Good luck with it!"
When I felt required to fix things for other people, I remember my therapist asking, "Has this person been declared incompetent? Has the state institutionalized them? No? Then they have the ability to act responsibly and fix this by themselves."
This good point inspires another type of stock response: flattery. "You're a smart person. I have confidence in your ability to solve this." How can they argue with that? Are they going to insist that they're not smart?
Part 2: Set Your Boundaries
It is critical to spend less time with the person you are detaching from. You can decline invitations. You can make excuses and stay away. You can claim illness. You can complain about your crowded work schedule, or how busy you are with the kids. Sure, you have been taught that it's wrong to lie. Well, in this case, it's good to lie. Taking care of yourself is more important than showing up every time. Besides, they lie to you all the time, don't they?
Another effective tactic using this point is to complain at length about how busy you are. The person you're detaching from doesn't care about your problems. Often, they want to talk about their problems. If they keep hearing about your problems, they may stop calling.
Handling The Rough Stuff
The person you're detaching from can be very abusive.
Often, the reward they seek is to see the hurt in your eyes and the feeling of power they receive from being the cause of that hurt.
Recognizing this fact will give you unexpected power. The verbal jab is blunted when you know it's only meant to hurt you. And you can deny them the pleasure they seek. Don't debate the point. They want to keep the topic going because they know it's hurting you. Think of the verbal jab as a spitball thrown at you. If you laugh, or pretend you didn't hear it, or do anything else instead of looking hurt, it's the equivalent of ducking and letting the spitball sail by. Shrug off the comment as lightly as possible, and then bring up a topic of your own -- one that you know is distasteful to your tormentor. Doing this will deny them their reward, and give negative reinforcement. Eventually, they will stop attacking you. Bullies like an easy target.
Some examples are in order here. I know a man with verbally abusive parents. He learned to respond -- every time! -- by talking about his brother, who was gay. He described his brother's romantic exploits with enthusiasm, knowing his parents were very uncomfortable with the whole subject.
I know a woman whose uncle was verbally abusive and constantly made comments about her childhood molestation by another uncle. This woman learned to respond by staring at him, appearing distracted (and pretending she wasn't listening), then pointing to a spot on her uncle's face, neck or arms, and asking, "Does that look cancerous to you? Maybe you should get it checked."
Her uncle knew she was saying that as a defense. But he still hated it. And he stopped bothering her.
Take Care Of Yourself
In every life, there are other parts that are good. You have a right and a duty to focus on the good parts. If you have a good husband and child, or sweet pets who adore you, but your mother is making your life a living hell, give yourself permission to focus your time and energy on the good things.
Remember the old phrase, "Listen to your gut?" Don't do that. The unhealthy people in your life use guilt and manipulation to inspire a gut reaction from you. I remember my therapist telling me, "Of course they're good at pushing your buttons! They installed them!" Instead, use your intellect to talk back to your gut feelings. You know that person is no good for you. You know your energies are better spent elsewhere. Take care of yourself. Do what's right for you. Say to yourself over and over again, "Taking care of myself must be my first emotional priority."
There's a book that is very helpful for this step. It's called Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns. Buy it and read it.
Practice, Practice, Practice
When you start this process, realize that you will slip up. You have spent all of your life in your relationship with this person, so give yourself a break. Don't punish yourself if you don't detach perfectly. Learn from every experience and try to do a little better next time. Be patient and persistent.
Detaching is a vital skill to practice on someone you are unable or unwilling to completely shut out of your life. You can even still love that person if you want to, even though you have detached. Your goal is to recognize the relationships that are not good for you, and make them a smaller part of your life. You can still care about unhealthy people, if you choose. But at the same time, you can prevent them from running (or ruining) your life.
KUDOS TO DOUG LARSEN (http://incestabuse.about.com/mbiopage.htm)
Doug Larsen is a trained grassroots women's advocate.
Doug has counseled battered women, rape survivors, handled the Crisis Hotline, and has looked into the eyes of four-year-old molested children. He also chairs a local HIV/AIDS support group.
Doug holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Political Science from St. Olaf College and -- almost -- has a Master's in Business Communication from The University of St. Thomas. He just never got around to writing his darned thesis.
From Douglas Larsen:
"I believe that education and communication are keys to preventing abuse and incest. Whether you are a survivor, friend, or family member, you will find resources available for help. You don't have to be alone."