I must admit that I did not know the definition of the word “boundaries” until four years ago. Of course, I knew about geographical boundaries such as those between nations and states. I also understood the boundaries as the limitations we place upon ourselves by defining ourselves according to our careers, religious affiliations, relationships, and abilities.
I had heard the word “boundaries” bandied about by people talking about their personal problems on talk radio and during podcasts. Popular advisors and pop psychologists used the word in self-help books and newspaper articles as if everybody already inherently understands what boundaries are, just like everyone knows what nighttime and daytime are.
I’d read or heard about boundaries but I didn’t know what they meant, but I wasn’t curious enough to look it up. To me “boundaries” was just a generic buzz-word that some people said when discussing difficult life events.
Then I became personally acquainted with a self-proclaimed expert of psychopaths and narcissists. In a matter of months, she subjected me to a crash course on sociopathy and narcissism. I was immersed in a sea of buzz words she sprinkled into her conversations. I found out then, that there is a large subculture of victims and counselors who focus on narcissism, psychopathy, and co-dependency. There was a lot of talk about people like Ted Bundy and Donald Trump. This was the atmosphere in which my acquaintance told me her definition of personal boundaries.
She said boundaries are the personal limits and guidelines that an individual sets up for interactions with people and the levels of intimacy we have with others. These limits are subjective according our personalities, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and past experiences with others. Some of us are good at “enforcing” boundaries and some of us are not.
Why wasn’t I taught this at a younger age? Somehow I missed learning this in college psychology 101. This would have cleared up a lot of questions I’ve had about my interactions with family, friends, and employers. According to my expert acquaintance, I have been a doormat for most of my life. She said that the reason so many aggressive narcissists have come into my personal circle is because I had set “poor boundaries”. This was partially due to me not knowing the definition of boundaries.
This set off a wave of soul searching along with Internet searching. I watched videos by Dr. Sam Vaknin who describes narcissists from the first-person perspective. Ross Rosenberg explains such behavior from another point of view. A major player is Richard Gannon who has recorded dozens of videos and regularly hosts seminars regarding “narcissists” and “psychopaths”. There are plenty of other experts who inform the subculture of victims and people who are interested in these types of subjects.
My on-line research about narcissism and codependency coupled with my daily interactions with my expert acquaintance caused me to do a lot of overthinking. I began to suffer “mild” anxiety and one panic attack. A “crazy moment” from my acquaintance triggered an epiphany.
It was while we were driving to Omaha in an SUV she had rented for one of her monthly shopping trips to Costco. She had promised that we would visit a Goodwill Outlet Warehouse as a favor or payback for my regular help with loading and unloading purchases from Costco. I eagerly looked forward to the Goodwill visit because I’d never been to one of those warehouses.
About half-way to Omaha she flatly announced that we would not be stopping at the Goodwill. There was to be no discussion about it because of time constraints. Naturally, I was shocked into silence. I mentally mulled over her decision and repressed the anger I felt.
I must have been silent for quite awhile. She then glanced at me and mentioned how quiet I seemed. Was I getting sick? Then she “jokingly” said something I’ll never forget. “You know how sensitive to germs I am. If I ever catch anything from you, you realize that I’m going to have to murder you.” Boom! Then she laughed an ominous sounding laugh. None of this came from a place of healthy humor, nor did I find her statement even remotely funny.
During the rest of the trip to and from Omaha I kept a wary eye on her while mentally piecing the meanings of other past events with her together. Once again, I had fallen under the sway of an aggressive, controlling person.
The following day, we definitively ended our friendship. I have not seen nor heard from her since then. The sense of relief I felt after the parting was liberating. I felt reborn. I also realized our very flawed friendship had taught me an important lesson about boundaries. So even though I’m glad I walked away from that friendship alive, I’m thankful for her stark lesson that taught me why boundaries are so important.
It was wonderful to step back from her drama and piece together my life again. Now, I’m much more careful to evaluate potential friendships.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders something from psychologist Dr. Adam Grant. “Being a nice person is about courtesy: you’re friendly, polite, agreeable, and accommodating. When people believe they have to be nice in order to give, they fail to set boundaries, rarely say no, and become pushovers, letting others walk all over them.”