Recently I was introduced to a wonderful show called What We Do In The Shadows. It is a funny mockumentary about vampire roommates that cleverly includes both emotional and energy vampires. The crossover of those concepts sparked an idea in me. I wondered, what are injurious personality features, such as extreme narcissism and emotional vampirism, if not modern monsters?
In the not so distant past, tales of witches, werewolves, vampires were used to control, shame, and ostracize people who engaged in socially ‘inappropriate’ behavior. Today, overused labels like narcissist and drama queen can have a similar influence on members of our society. In our own way, we treat the people that struggle with these concerns as our new crew of villains and monsters. We don’t necessarily make space to rehabilitate these traits. Instead, we disregard the whole person and give them another scary label: toxic.
Where does that leave individuals who exhibit problematic tendencies? Many of us have people in our lives that we love, yet still fear because of their unbalanced and destructive inclinations. I have always been attracted to the old monsters, and as a clinician I suppose I’m equally attracted to this modern incarnation. So instead of telling you how to avoid and run from these people, I think it would be helpful to offer tips on how to be clear with them and prevent (as best you can) the negative trait from being overly expressed with you. Once you’re properly protected, you can love someone who has not yet been able to heal the hurt that led to their problematic attributes.
Onto the good stuff! What would you say is the strength of your no? Can it withstand someone standing at the gates of your property (your body and mind, in this case) crying hysterically? Is it fortified enough to counter a classic guilt trip? Here's a quick test to find out the muscle tone of your no.
How often have you…
stayed MUCH longer than you preferred with family, friends, or partners at their request
received an urgent call for help where you were required to drop everything, but upon closer discussion realized the urgency implied was not required. Did you exit the interaction feeling drained, lethargic, or in desperate need of rest?
spoken with someone who asked for your help, then resisted any and all reasonable solutions or ideas for future prevention, preferring instead to remain stuck in an emotional state and lament about their bad luck (emotional vampire...hiss!)
been in communication with someone where there was little to no reciprocity - in other words they expected attentive, detailed responses from you, but tapped out (phone use, distracted by tv or nearby sights/sounds, or vacant staring) when you discussed your concerns or recent experiences
Truthfully this list could be much longer, but we all have examples of unhealthy or problematic relationship dynamics. To me, these issues all seem like things that go bump in the night, so I see healthy relationship boundaries as modern versions of stakes, garlic, and silver bullets. In other words (for my fellow nerdy people), boundaries are a good mix of salt circles and shotguns full of rock salt. Embrace your inner Dean Winchester.
So how do we define healthy boundaries? An easy explanation: acknowledge and accept full accountability for your own actions and emotions, then establish limits, barriers, and action plans that protect your mental and emotional welfare. The behavior of the other person or their reaction to your boundaries is not your responsibility. When you understand yourself, you can choose to make better decisions on how to tend to your needs and wants. Introspection and effective action allow you to build a sense of security within yourself, which will improve your sense of identity, self efficacy, and esteem. Are you aware of your needs/wants? What promises do you need to make (AND KEEP) to yourself to ensure that you feel happy and stable?
Over time an excessive lack of boundaries can lead to burn out and mental fatigue, but occasional impositions are fine for select circumstances. Once you’ve gotten clear on your moving pieces, you can decide when/where you would feel comfortable giving more grace than you’re normally able. Just be certain that you’re doing it because you want to and not because you’re afraid of the reactions of people you care about. Know your baseline well, so that you can easily feel when it is out of balance.
There are a number of possible boundaries for each individual's unique situation. I simply seek to empower you to become introspective and ask what YOU require. Also, I've included a brief exercise below to provide an action step to help you on the way to building adequate boundaries.
Write down an area of your life where you notice yourself experiencing general discomfort. This can be a dynamic within a relationship, a problem at work, or a pet misbehaving in the house.
Ask ‘what exactly is the other party doing that makes me feel uncomfortable?‘ Examples include a friend asking for too much of your time, a co-worker or supervisor requesting you take on part of their responsibilities, or the dog pooping in the house! Be very specific here, as it will help in step four.
Reflect on your actions and ask ‘what is my contribution to the situation?’ Are you motivated by guilt to spend more time with your friend, so you never say no? Do you feel the need to prove yourself or be needed at work, so you make yourself available for others as a dumping ground? Is it possible you haven’t set a strict schedule of feeding/walks for your dog?
Next, ask ‘what changes am I willing to make to my behavior to reduce my contribution to the discomfort?’ This step may include clearly stating your schedule limitations with room for feedback, no longer accepting assignments that are outside of your scope, or a new feeding schedule for the dog that provides ample outdoor time to prevent accidents. These are the healthy boundaries.
Then, ask ‘how can I communicate my understanding of step two/three and the action of step four with clear compassionate language?’ There are times when you’re not required to communicate step two/three. However, if the problem is in a personal relationship, explaining your rationale can be very helpful to the other person. People often respond a bit better to a boundary when they understand the reason, but keep in mind you’re never obligated to provide it.
Go communicate and make the change!!
Ultimately, we’ve nothing to fear from the world’s modern monsters when we use our best weapons.