Help for Families
Step 4: How to Cope: Set Limits with Love
Step 4 (or Powertool 4) in the Beyond Blame System is about boundaries.When I asked members of my Welcome to Oz Online Family Community, "What happened the last time you tried to set limits with your family member?" they told me tales such as these:
- "I told him he didn't understand my perspective; he told me I didn't understand his. It went in circles endlessly."
- "She accused me of being controlling and telling her what to do."
- "He made it seem like he was being my savior through all this, and at the end I apologized."
But you can learn how to set limits--and observe them!
Step 4, Setting Limits, takes the skills you have mastered in Steps 1, 2, and 3. And they require practice. Yet they are vital. Limits protect us from being or feeling controlled or manipulated. They bring order to our lives. In a relationship, limits ensure mutual respect and create safety.
When limits are honored, each party becomes more willing to share his or her genuine self, giving acceptance and trust the chance to take root. Trust leads to comfortableness, intimacy, joy, and feelings of connection—all those things that people with borderline personality disorder want so badly. So they're critical to your borderline family member, too.
Three Keys to Setting Limits
Most books discuss limit setting as if it were an event instead of a process. Setting limits has to do with mental preparation and planning. The three keys to mental preparation are:
- Steering clear of FOG: fear, obligation, and guilt. FOG also comes up like little wisps of smoke during limit-setting conversations. If you don’t prepare for it, it can blur your vision and make it hard to see and remember what you want and need.
- Trusting your own perceptions, feelings, and opinions—most significantly, those about yourself. You have the right to your own beliefs, even if they are different from those of a family member.
- Refusing to rescue your family member from your limits, which gives mixed messages. If you always change your mind under pressure, you’re setting up a losing cycle.
Planning for Limit-Setting Discussions
Before you set limit’s it’s crucial that you create a plan that will act as road map and safety net. Each of the following five “Cs” is a component of the plan:
- Clarify what your limit is. Be specific and start small.
- Calculate how much does not having limits in central areas of your life costs you.
We are so busy living our day-to-day lives that we don’t keep very good track of the things that gnaw at us. To maintain your limits over the long haul, you need to have conviction that the limit is necessary and appropriate. Conviction comes when you know how much it costs not to have the limit in place. The longer you wait, the more it costs.
- Come up with the potential benefits of having the limit in place (the carrot).
- Come up with consequences that you can put in place when the limit is not respected. A limit without consequences is known as nagging. These are things that you can do for yourself, like leave the room during a rage.
- Consider possible outcomes of each consequence, both positive and negative. Create contingency plans.
This kind of planning before limit setting discussions will give you confidence and staying power.
Here is how Jack set limits with his borderline wife Loreen. Loreen was an alcoholic with a history of suicide attempts. She was under the care of a psychiatrist and taking medications. Jack was also seeing a therapist, who helped him put some limits in place after not having any for many years. Jack says:
Loreen's rages were uncontrollable. She would go from zero to ten over almost anything. Once I went on a business trip and she shouted, "I hope you come back in a body bag." She called me names and said things like, "You've destroyed my confidence in myself," and "You're making me drink because being drunk is the only way I can deal with you."
She threatened suicide all the time, yelling, "You probably want me to kill myself. So maybe I'll just do it and it will be your fault." I was always on edge, afraid of saying the wrong thing. Things got worse and worse.
After I started talking to other family members on Welcome to Oz, I realized two things: first, I was going to have to get strong and stay strong because this was really tearing me apart. And second, I had to start re-establishing boundaries.
One day I found her on the floor after another suicide attempt. The ambulance came and they were trying to revive her. It hit me that even though I had been trying not to offend her for years, she was still suicidal and drinking. Whatever I was doing wasn't working. I was scared.
My therapist explained that her actions were out of my control. That was a harsh thing to hear. Living like this was going to kill me. So I decided to try boundaries. I had nothing to lose.
I told her, "What we're doing isn't working, and things are going to have to change around here." I said if she started raging and calling me names, I was going to leave and pick up the conversation at a different time. That sounds simple, but it wasn't. It just fired her up, made things ten times worse. She screamed that I was a control freak and that's why she was so sick.
But I was prepared. I had convinced myself ahead of time that leaving was the best course of action. It helped that members of her family had told me I had been giving in to her and I needed to be firm.
I ended up leaving the house several times. I just said, "I just can't be here with you" and walked out the door. Some days I stayed away for a day or two. She called me, asked when I was coming home. I said, "I honestly don't know. I've assessed my life and decided that things have to get better because this is destroying me." She knows I am loyal and I would never walk away if there had been any other choice.
Eventually, it started to sink in to her that I was serious. Finally, one day she called me and apologized. This was the first time she had ever said she was sorry for anything. I just about fell off the chair. That's when I started to realize this boundary thing is working. And it did. It took time, but it got better.
She even started apologizing more, saying things like, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that," or "I know I reacted badly to that." She was starting to feel responsible for her actions.
Finally, we got to a place where we could have a real heart-to-heart talk, and I could say, "This bothers me a lot." I had been afraid to do that because she was so volatile. She really started listening to me.
I learned you have to take care of yourself, because BPD is like an incredibly powerful vacuum that will just pull you in, whoever you are. Setting boundaries was a way of saying, "I care about our relationship. If this keeps happening, I can't stay, and I want our relationship to continue."
You have to be willing to accept that things will get worse before they get better. But it may be the only chance you have.