Boundaries

Have you ever met someone that you just can’t feel compassion for, although they must deserve it?

I had a friend in high-school who ended up like that. Cheerful, smiley, she sucked you in, and then bam! drama that she was the center of. She ended up dating another friend and he finally broke it off because the drama got to be too much. I invited him for a casual home-cooked dinner because she had so stressed him out. She called in the middle of dinner, in tears, looking for him. She needed a shoulder. Both of her middle-school aged brothers had just died in an accident. Right. Drama queen.

Except they had. Why they let middle-school kids on crabbing boats in the 1980’s, I don’t know. It wasn’t like it was their father’s boat or something – they had gone to Alaska for the summer to make easy money, the way so many kids did from my town. The boat had gone down and they were dead.

Only by the time I found this out, it was too late to go back to her and apologize for calling her whatever I had called her that night when I thought she was faking.

Someone I met this week reminded me of her. Larger than life, with problems galore. In the past month, in-laws dying, spouse dying of cancer, other relatives dropping like flies, financially victimized by a dishonest corporation who cut a pension due a justified workers comp claim, oh and sexually abused since infancy. All this I learned within 15 minutes of meeting this person, who was providing a service in the home.

Why was it so hard to feel compassion for this person? Why did this horrible tale of, at best, bad luck, cause me to feel instead, distrust.

I am a not a nice person (that’s not the reason, that’s just a statement). I try to make thoughtful decisions, to be a helpful person, a generous person, a compassionate person, a fair person. “Nice” isn’t something I aspire toward. Another high-school friend – this one a minister’s daughter and one of the purest people I know in the best sense of the word – and I found comity when we discovered that we shared a nightmare of evil voices out of the darkness whispering at us, “nice nice nice nice nice” until we awoke screaming.

I bring my lack of niceness up now because I, at first, assumed that was the reason I couldn’t feel empathy for this person’s truly awful life. But then I learned that other people, far better people than I, with more generous bones in their bodies, also distrusted this person. And other good, grounded people, who had heard less than a third of what I had heard, and that by text or phone, also distrusted this person.

Does that mean that this person should not be trusted? Other people, people we did trust, who knew this person better than we did, and had known this person for years, praised the person’s professional work and said the person’s intensity was just OCD.

Why did this person’s overt misfortune cause such distrust? Is it because this person’s demeanor just plopped these intimate facts out in front of us like so much dirty laundry and that felt wrong to us based on how we were raised? Is it because of some lizard-brain thing that caused us to (unreasonably and subconsciously) want to avoid this person to avoid catching the bad luck?

Or does it touch a nerve to us? Do we all have areas of our lives where we feel the victim? Maybe we suffer from something out of our control. Or maybe we ascribe our misfortunes to someone outside us, a family member, a coworker, a spouse, a government employee, a teacher – someone who is out to get us, who victimizes us.

Don’t get me wrong – no one deserves bad treatment at the hands of others. But sometimes we ascribe the bad things that happen to our lives to actions by other people instead of to how we responded when those actions occurred.

My aunt, a psychiatric social worker, sent me an article once about a dependency triangle that sometimes happens. Someone needs something from someone else. When it’s given to them, the person who gives it becomes the rescuer. That implies that the first person is a victim. But the victim can quickly become the rescuer’s tormentor, if they abuse the gift, thereby making the original rescuer a victim in their own right. And the rescuer can become the original victim’s tormentor by withholding future gifts.

To be more concrete, let’s say I come to a test without a pencil. So I ask to borrow yours and you agree. You are now my rescuer, rescuing me from the victimhood of pencil-less-ness. If I then break the pencil or throw it out the window instead of returning it, I am now your tormentor and you get to be the victim. If I then complain that I can’t finish the test because I am no longer in possession of the pencil, and ask to borrow another and then refuse, you become the tormentor and I return to being the victim. If I then complain to the proctor that you are causing me to fail the test by refusing to loan me a pencil, you then become the victim and I am the tormentor. And it just goes on from there.

As I recall, the point of the article was to say that the way to escape the triangle is to put yourself in the tormentor’s role by refusing to rescue and then get the hell out of dodge. [If you’re reading this and recognize this theory of whatever, and I have it wrong, please excuse – I read the article only once many years ago before someone took it away from me, which was probably a good idea at the time.]

So what’s the point and what does this have to do with this person I met?

This person was determined to be the victim – not from the horrible things that had happened that I described above, but also the things that happened during our working relationship. Somehow, what we did tormented this person and allowed them to become our victim as well. I was encouraged to “rescue” the situation by changing the parameters of the job, stretching time, getting more money, whatever. I stood firm: No. It was what it was and they’d have to make it work. If they wanted more money for materials, they’d have to show me receipts.

Boundaries are paramount when working with drama queens.

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