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The Panic Mechanic
Find out how to turn the tide on abusive relationships
Setting boundaries to avoid panic
Sometimes we try so hard to change our environment, using every possible method but never succeeding, that eventually we come to expect to fail. The constant resistance to our efforts to change things, causes us to feel helpless and puts us into panic mode. The best way to avoid panic setting in, is to set clear boundaries and let everybody know your limits.
Boundaries are invisible lines drawn to distinguish areas where your personal responsibility begins and ends. Only you have control over your boundaries. It’s important to point out that no boundary is cast in stone or set in concrete – unless you choose to make it that way. Abusers and co-dependents are known to have weak boundaries. They lack self-control, but we were born with free choice. We are in the position we are in because of choices we’ve made in the past. We made the choice to let someone cross our boundaries, and in doing that, we’ve lost control, lost our freedom of choice, lost our self.
We are responsible for everything about ourselves – for our feelings, values, behaviours, dreams, goals, thoughts, choices, insights, beliefs, and – you guessed it – boundaries. If you keep on letting people trespass, and keep on resetting your boundaries to suit them, then you are turning yourself into a doormat and that is your responsibility. You are allowing yourself to go into panic mode. It is easier to keep the sheep out of the paddock when the fence is fixed and the gate closed, rather than trying to get them out and then mend the fence and close the gate.
Throughout my marriage, I constantly reset my boundaries and moved my limits to avoid confrontation. I was scared of the consequences of saying ‘no’. This made Jason constantly try and cross my boundaries. It became a kind of challenge to him. I felt guilty when I set limits. He made me feel guilty when I set limits. But, I realised that ultimately, I was responsible for my feelings, and Jason was responsible for his feelings and actions. It isn’t your responsibility to make your partner happy or miserable. Your responsibility is to yourself. For years we get taught that being selfish is a bad thing. Maybe, we need to think of another word to use instead of ‘selfish’, one that doesn’t have such a bad connotation. But, looking after yourself by setting boundaries, is a good thing.
When I first moved in with Jason and realised he had an anger management problem, I set a very important limit. I said to him, “If you ever raise your hand to me, don’t ever go to sleep.” Now that might sound a bit dramatic, but I meant it. I don’t know what I planned to do when I said that, maybe hit him over the head with a cast iron frying pan while he was asleep, I don’t know. However, that was one boundary that was cast in concrete. It took him quite a few years to cross that boundary. He probably thought he’d get away with it as I’d let him cross all my other boundaries. The day he lifted a hand to me, punched me on the jaw and then tried to strangle me in front of all his staff at his work, I drove straight to the police station and laid a charge of assault against him. He couldn’t understand how someone who supposedly loved him could do something so mean to him, as to give him a criminal record. A missionary friend of mine said at the time, “He has to learn that what he did was unacceptable behaviour.”
Jason must have had a short memory, as a couple of years later when he was in a severe depression and decided he wanted to kill us all, he beat our then 3 year old daughter black and blue as she was full and didn’t want to finish the sandwich he’d made her. When I got home from work, I whisked her straight up to the police station, only to be told that as he hadn’t killed her, it was too much paperwork to open a case. However, as the bruising from the beating was quite bad, they recommended that I get a restraining order against him. This I did, and when he broke it the very next week, he was locked up and that finally (thank God) signaled the end of our 10 year relationship.
When I set a limit and stuck to it, I had such a feeling of power. It took away my panic, my fear of him and he never frightened me again. The amazing thing, was that he must have picked up on my new sense of power, as on the few occasions I saw him afterwards, he was no longer the bully but a simpering wimp. People who abuse others do so because the Victim hasn’t set clear boundaries. It’s like you teach your children – for every action, there’s a consequence. If they do the action, then they have to experience the consequence, otherwise they’ll just keep on doing it. Set your boundaries and stick to them. Don’t stick to them one day and let things go the next. You have to be consistent, otherwise you’re going to let panic enter again.
It’s human nature to build up feelings of resentment against people who continuously cross your boundaries. How could you ever feel good about yourself when you’re weighed down by all that baggage?
I once had a boss who was a bit of a control freak. He was very short and very fat, but would make snide comments about other fat people. His girlfriend was the director of the company, and she was very tall and thin. He told her how ugly she was and how unprofessional she looked (which she didn’t) and made her change her style of dress, make-up, hair colour, hairstyle and even her make of car! She did whatever he told her to, to please him. He said that he had felt embarrassed when he went with her to meet clients before, as he could only feel good about himself, if his friends and clients were impressed with her. She couldn’t recognise her limits and stick to them, so she lost all her power. In a staff meeting, in front of everybody, the boss told the office manager she looked like an old frump and needed a new look. Needless to say, he had buttons missing from his shirt and food stains down the front of it! When I arrived at the office and saw the office manager sporting a new hair colour, hairstyle, dressed like a clone of the director - all because my boss had told her she looked like an ugly duckling…I thought it was a good time to leave that environment. The office manager had let him cross her limits. When he said what he said in that staff meeting, she sat there with a fixed smile on her face, but inside she was in a panic. She fled the building straight after the meeting, straight to the director’s favourite hair salon. She needed to say, “I’m happy with me and the way I look. If you don’t like the way I look, it’s your problem, not mine. Get over it!”
We can’t change who we are because someone else tells us who we should be. This works both ways. We can’t force our partners to change to fit the mould we want. It’s their personal choice to make those changes. Too many relationships end up on the rocks because of one partner trying to make the other partner fit the mould they designed.
As your boundaries develop, other people’s boundaries no longer matter. A friend had a very attractive and vivacious wife. He was very insecure and used to get jealous if other men admired her. He set boundaries that were related to his jealousy. She was only allowed to drive his flashy car if he was with her. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t using it and it was just standing there. He didn’t want other men to look at her when they were drawn to the car. He was setting limits to try and control her, and the poor woman couldn’t understand why she wasn’t good enough to drive his car without him!
It is definitely a worthwhile exercise to take some time to work out exactly what your boundaries are. How can you enforce them, if you don’t even know what they are yourself? It is also important to work out the consequences if someone crosses your boundaries. If you have worked out in advance what the consequences are, then it is easier to be consistent when you dish out your ‘punishment’ every time you stick to your boundaries.
Part of setting boundaries, is listing the qualities you want and don’t want in a partner. In doing this, you set boundaries or limits for yourself. If you take the time to sit down and work out exactly the type of partner you are looking for, then you might avoid the trap of grabbing onto the first person that comes along because you’re lonely and don’t want to be alone. All too often, our fear of loneliness causes us to grab hold of the wrong person for us. We then condemn ourselves to a miserable relationship for who knows how many years.
I have a friend who married the first person who showed an interest in him. His marriage was very rocky, with occasional separations, a little bit of infidelity, and many full blown fights and spats. To avoid the ongoing confrontation, he retreated into his own little world. Their marriage is more peaceful now, because after more than 20 years, he has resigned himself to the fact that this is his lot in life and they have become more tolerant of each other.
Defecaloesiophobia- Fear of painful bowel movements
Excerpt from my book, Fears, Phobias and Frozen Feet. Should you want advice on a particular issue, please feel free to drop me an email.