October 23, 2020
Dear Drama Observers,
There are two questions that leave us vexed about Drama People, also referred to as emotional manipulators, narcissists, or unreasonable people. Those are some of the more clinical terms. In moments of exasperation, we might descend into the use of dirty terms, many of which were derived from the combination of body parts and cuss words. While the clinical terms may be technically precise, the dirty terms just seem more emotionally gratifying, capturing the frustrations these people elicit in ways the clinical terms never can.
And stop looking at me that way. You’ve used the dirty terms, too.
So, where was I? Oh yeah, the two questions.
The first question has to do with understanding why these people are the way they are. What makes them that way and why do they operate the way they do? As Stanley would sometimes ask Michael Scott, his narcissistic boss on The Office, “What is wrong with you?”
The second question has to do with how to handle them. You can’t reason with unreasonable people, so if you can’t reason with them, what do you do?
The answer to that question usually has something to do with boundaries but that’s not as simple as it may sound. It’s not like you can say, “See here (insert your preferred term), I won’t stand for you treating me that way any longer and you must stop.” And then, they do. Would that it was that easy.
What the boundaries look like vary according the particulars of any given situation, and I spend much time helping clients figure out how to set them—to see what works and what doesn’t.
I had a client once who struggled with how to handle her husband of 40 plus years whose public and private selves were completely incongruent. To outsiders, he was a loving and widely beloved church leader. To his wife, he was a controlling and nasty jerk. She had directly expressed her displeasure to him more times than she could count, all to no avail. What to do?
I told her story in my book and I’ve excerpted (and adapted) that portion below:
The unreasonable person doesn’t like resistance of any sort. If you employ this approach, you can expect him to:
- Falsely accuse you
- Criticize you
- Impugn your motives
- Shift the subject to your faults
- Try harder to entice you
- Elicit others to take his side against you
- Remain clueless about the reasons for your resistance
When such a person encounters boundaries, he gets frustrated, hits them repeatedly, gets frustrated repeatedly, but eventually adjusts to the boundaries to avoid further frustration. His behavior may change in a positive direction, not due to personal growth, but to avoid personal frustration. He may change his behavior without changing his heart, but the change of behavior for any reason makes the relationship easier to tolerate.
For years, she had argued for change but repeatedly found herself reasoning with an unreasonable person. For instance, as they would go through the serving line at church for a fellowship meal, he would quietly snipe at her, demean her, and swear at her about being too slow, eating too much, being too picky, etc. etc. But when they got to the table, he became joyfully engaging, entertaining people with funny stories and portraying himself as the wise leader. This hypocritical display of phony spirituality and unwillingness to acknowledge it made her sick.
On the way to church one night, she calmly said the following: “I need you to understand something. If you cuss at me when we’re going through the line, I’ll sit at another table. Just wanted you to know.” Of course, he barked back that he had no idea what she was talking about. But when they went through the line, he was nicer.
Now, why was he nicer? It wasn’t because he had a sudden infusion of awareness, humility, empathy or any of those things. He was nicer because he was image conscious—he wanted to avoid the embarrassment of explaining why his wife sat at a different table. He did the right thing for the wrong reasons. But doing the right thing for any reason made that aspect of living with him a little easier.
I’ll close this letter about boundaries with this illustration. Let’s say your dog was constantly running across the street and biting your neighbors. Finding this to be unacceptable, you sat down with your dog and said the following:
Now, see here Sparky, it’s just not okay to leave our yard and bite our neighbors. Can you not understand how that will alienate us from our friends? And would you like it if someone bit you? I suspect not. So, I need you to respect my wishes and stay in our yard. Chew on a stick if you need to or drink out of our stagnant pond. But just don’t bite our neighbors anymore, okay? Does that make sense?
No, you wouldn’t waste your time doing that because your dog lacks the capabilities to reason. He’d likely just look at you, tilt his head, and wonder if you were talking about steak.
But what you might do is install one of those subterranean electric fences that would administer a mild shock through his collar were he to ever cross it. He’d be motivated to stay in your yard not by reason but by something more primitive—pain avoidance.
Such is the case with Drama People who lack the capabilities to reason. Effective boundaries administer a “shock” of sorts. They may do the right things for the wrong reasons but doing the right things for any reason makes life with them a little easier.
(Please note: The word “shock” is being used here only in the metaphorical sense.)
Till next week.
Excellent explanation of how to deal with Boundary Busters!
My former partner wasn’t so much overty controlling sub vertly by using her skills as a therapist who was motivated by perfectionism and image, yet when confronted would find fault because of not living up to her standards
Thanks for that feedback, Bruce.