If you are mired in the clutches of a narcissist you probably have no idea what boundaries are, let alone how to use them. I am a newbie to boundaries so my information is limited, but I am an expert on a lack of boundaries and the end result.
Boundaries, if you don’t know, are the rules that manage your life.
When you live with a narcissist you are told, repeatedly, that you are not worthy enough to make the rules. If you try to implement a boundary/rule, you are met with some form of gaslighting. You might be told you are crazy, you are a demanding bitch, or you are never satisfied. (Add your own if they differ from mine) This assertion is followed up by action from the narcissist, demonstrating the premise. For example, one of the ongoing issues with my narc was about where he was. He’d claim he was working 8AM till 10PM, but if I called in the afternoon he’d not be there. & usually he wouldn’t answer his cell phone. If I questioned where he was I’d be met with one of several responses:
- why am I checking up on him?
- what am I doing that I have time to check up on him?
- what do I expect from him? He works hard to put food on the table; what is wrong with me.
- do I need therapy?
All of these are bad in and of themselves. All of these responses told me I was wrong, he was right and I had no right to question him. Here though, was the worst:
“I’ll contact you when I’m leaving work to run errands to see if you need anything.”
I suppose this would be no worse than the other statements, if he didn’t ever do it. Usually though, when he pulled out this one, it was because he was worried I was done with him, but he wasn’t ready to be done with me. It is what happened next that made this horrendous: He’d actually do it for a few days. Perhaps even a week.
When he occasionally followed through on this promise, he essentially put me on a variable reinforcement schedule.
If you ever studied Psychology you are probably aware of the work done by B.F. Skinner. A behaviorist, Skinner worked with rats to prove the paralyzing impact of a variable reinforcement schedule.
Boiled down to it’s essence, Skinner proved that variable, or unpredictable, reinforcement leads to the highest rate of response. I doubt many narcissists have studied Psychology but they seem to have an inherent understanding of this, and boy do they use it!
Here’s how it works. You complain about something/bring up an issue/express dissatisfaction. If you are in a normal relationship you know that one of two things will happen: you will have a rational discussion, express your views, and you and your mate will come to a suitable resolution. The second option, in a normal relationship, is that you will discuss the issue and find that it is a non-negotiable to one of you. A non-negotiable is a boundary and rest assured, You Are Entitled to Non-Negotiables!! If the normal couples is faced with a non-negotiable, they will either end the relationship or find a way to honor what is unacceptable.
Anyway, this is not what happens with the narcissist. Occasionally the narc will claim to understand your issue, and promise to change. Sometimes the narc will tell you you are crazy and you have to change. Here’s the dangerous part: Regardless of how the narc initially responds, he will not follow through in the long term.
In my situation, if my narc was worried he was on his last leg with me he’d “promise” to text me whenever he left work to “run errands”, so I could let him know if I needed anything and also be assured he wasn’t screwing around. (Which, by the way, he was!)
If he never actually texted me I’d know this was a false promise. This is negative reinforcement. This action says, in no uncertain terms, I am not going to compromise with you; I will not reassure you. If I know this will always be the response I’ll only confront him 2 or 3 times. I’ll then understand there is no compromise to be made here.
If he texted me all of the time I’d be on a positive reinforcement schedule. Since this worked for me I’d be highly likely to address future issues/complaints. In fact, there would be no reason for me Not To, because I would have learned that expressing concerns brings resolution.
What the narc does is more powerful than both of these options. The narc complies…..sometimes. In my case, the day after a confrontation he’d text me that he was headed to Target, and ask if I needed anything. I am now feeling a glimmer of Hope. Maybe he really isn’t cheating on me, maybe that was my imagination, maybe I was overreacting. In my case he’d text me on and off for several days, or maybe a week. During this time there would be times I’d call his work and he would not be there, despite him not having texted me, and there would be times when I was about to call him only to get a text from him. In other words, I had No Idea what to expect.
Skinner had rats push a lever for cheese. Suppose the rats hear a bell and, every time they push the lever after the bell, they get cheese. They quickly learn that the bell brings them cheese, and every time they hear the bell they push the lever. Conversely, suppose every time they hear the bell they push the lever and get no cheese, but if they push the lever without a bell they get cheese. They quickly learn that they will achieve their goal by pushing the lever when the bell is silent Either of these schedules, these predictable reinforcement schedules, teach the rat what behavior will lead to sucess.
What if there is no relation between the bell and the arrival of cheese? Let’s suppose the rat hears the bell, pushes the lever and Sometimes gets cheese. Yet many times there is no bell and the rat pushes the lever and there is cheese! What is the rat to make of this? Skinner found out that in these situations the rats followed the same pattern. Initially they pushed the lever over and over, to the point of exhaustion, understanding, on some level, that any push of the lever might bring them cheese. Eventually the rats reach the point of exhaustion. At this point they simply surrender. They don’t care if they get cheese. Having no connection between their behavior and the delivery of cheese, eventually they learn that it doesn’t matter what they do. Their fate [delivery of cheese} is completely out of their little paws and all they can do is acquiesce to the whim of their master. This is what the narc does to his victim.
As I write this I am suddenly aware of why I hate surprises! The narc renders his victim powerless and, more importantly, always on edge. Imagine those poor rats, sitting in their cage waiting, helplessly, for the arrival of cheese. Eventually they go crazy, sitting in the corner of their cell, knowing they can do nothing but bend to the whim of their captor.
As victims of the narcissist, we learn that there is little point expressing complaints or issues. Eventually we (I) become quivering shadows of our former self, sitting in a corner wondering what is coming next; wondering if it will be good or another detour to some hellish existence.
I digress. The point of this blog is boundaries. After years of living this life of variable reinforcement, the victim (me/you) learns that they have no rights. In the same way the rat had no right to a steady expectation of cheese, we have no right to expect…well, anything. This translates into a lack of boundaries. We sit in our corner waiting for our narc to tell us what is and what is not acceptable. There is one thing we have learned really well: we have no right to implement any type of boundary. In fact, I used to listen to women say “my mate has to be x,y & z” and I’d think they were crazy!! What right did they have to demand such a thing. Surely, if they were to persist with these non-negotiables they’d end up alone, living a life of misery, because the role of the individual is to yield to another.
I have been practicing using boundaries at my new job, & in some personal relationships. I’ll be the 1st to admit: I am still lame implementing boundaries. In fact, I still don’t have a firm grasp on what boundaries I have a right to. Until I have a full understanding of this my boundaries will be incomplete at best.
But here is the interesting thing about this. The more I implement boundaries, the more I say to my boss “that is too much work for the time you’ve allotted” or “I don’t feel comfortable doing that” the more I’m able to engage with the world. Weird, eh?
A year ago I walked through my life with my head down. Literally. If I went to the store, or yoga, or a Dr’s appointment, if I wasn’t feeling really, really good, I’d keep my head down. If someone tried to strike up an interaction I’d pretend I didn’t hear them. I shut myself off from everyone, because I had no way to protect myself. Boundaries, it turns out, are self preservation. They are the way we tell the world “enough, this is too much, I can’t take anymore”. If a rat could implement boundaries he’d say “I don’t need your cheese, I won’t sit around waiting for it anymore”. Once the rat says this he has free time to find cheese somewhere else. How cool is that!!!
For me, now that I feel like I can protect myself, i.e. implement boundaries, I walk around with my head up. I was in Lowes today marveling at the people who smiled at me, helped me, were patient with me. I started to wonder where they were when I was trapped in a miserable marriage when it dawned on me: They’d been there all along, I just had to look up to see them.