Boundaries are Kindness in Disguise!
Updated: May 30
This week is Mental Health Awareness week, kindness has been chosen as the theme. I can understand why, it's so important to approach each other with kindness and understanding rather than judgement, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. But kindness isn't always what we think it might be.
What does 'Kindness' actually mean?
Many of the clients that I encounter are kind; they care deeply for the people around them and want to do the best for others. However, they are often struggling with their own mental health because in their attempt to be kind and take care of people, they have neglected their own needs. These people often believe that the happiness of others is their responsibility and this can leave them feeling overwhelmed as they try to carry this heavy and unsustainable burden alone.
These types of people often identify with the role of 'rescuer' because they believe they can rescue people from their pain. This belief usually comes from a noble and kind place. But here's the thing that 'rescuers' don't realise; by trying to save them, they can unintentionally become a 'persecutor' of the 'victim', keeping the 'victim' suck in their victim-hood. If these terms sound familiar to you, it might be because you've heard of Karpman's Drama Triangle:
This triangle depicts a damaging pattern of relating to people that we can and will all experience at some point in our lives. The roles that we take on may move within the triangle, and we will have different dynamics with different people, but we will tend to relate more to one of the roles in particular. The thing about the drama triangle is that once we are in it, it can be hard to escape.
How can the person who is trying to help (the 'Rescuer') become the 'Persecutor'?
Imagine you are struggling with a maths problem, you might be starting to feel frustrated and helpless, so you ask for help. Now imagine that the person who helps you tells you the answer to your problem. Yes, you might feel some temporary relief from the frustration, but would that feeling of helplessness go away? No!! The next time you are faced with a similar problem you still won't know what to do, you will still feel helpless. So the person that was trying to help you actually just re-enforced that feeling of helplessness, and what's worse, they didn't even trust that you had the brains to learn how to do it yourself!!
Sometimes helping simply makes others feel helpless and keeps them stuck in the 'victim' role. This doesn't mean that the 'victim' won't be thankful, and it doesn't mean that they won't come to you again for help, because they have what is called 'learned helplessness'; they no longer believe that they can solve problems themselves. This can create dependency and keep us stuck in the drama triangle. We will stay stuck if we keep mistaking our 'rescuing' for kindness time and time again.
How do we escape the drama triangle?
Once we are aware that we are in this drama triangle we need to stop taking responsibility for other's happiness. Instead of rescuing those that we care about, the kindest thing to do is to empower them to rescue themselves. We don't need to cut people out of our lives to do do this, but we do need to create firm and clear boundaries.
Offer support, but don't do it for them, give them back the responsibility for their own happiness. We can do this by making sure that the support we offer is boundaried.
5 ways to put boundaries in place:
1. If they ask you to do something for them explain that you will sit with them while they do it, but you won't do it for them.
2. If you already have plans when they call, don't cancel them. Explain to them that you have plans and arrange a different time.
3. If they call you with an emergency, ask them if they can do anything to help themselves, how did they get through this or something like this last time? What skills do they have that might help them to help themselves?
4. Set time limits for your time together, maybe you will only speak on the phone for 30 minutes, or only spend a few hours a week with them. Make it clear to them when you are available, and when you’re not!
5. Prioritise your own needs and show them that it's okay to take care of yourself. By modelling self-care and boundaries you are showing them how to pay attention to and take responsibility for their own.
Of course they probably won't like these boundaries at first, they may feel that you are unkind and unfeeling. It may even be that they can't handle these boundaries being in place at all, but this is their choice, after all, they are responsible for their own happiness and their own choices, not you. It's tempting to get dragged back in to the drama triangle if they feel this way, but try to resist it, it's not the kind thing to do even if it feels like it is.
Ultimately, you can't be there for people 100% of the time and take care of yourself. So yes, be kind, but remember that kindness comes in all sorts of different shapes and sizes and sometimes setting boundaries and taking care of yourself is kindness in disguise.