xenologer: (Lisbeth)
CaptainAwkward #247: Marrying into a family with awful boundary issues, or, secrets of dealing with Highly Difficult People
Here are some underlying principles that might help you in dealing with Alice.

You cannot control Alice’s behavior. You cannot predict Alice’s behavior. You cannot prevent Alice’s behavior. Alice is gonna do what Alice is gonna do, which is cry and shower displeasure and guilt on her family, who will cheerfully pass it onto you, because that’s how they roll.

Alice is going to throw tantrums and be shitty NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO. I think that is helpful to know. Keep reminding yourself. Alice will find ways to be shitty and intrusive, because she is a shitty intrusive control freak who needs to make everything about her and who will projectile vomit blame all over everyone.

Also, Alice is not going to get better. She is not going to have a sudden revelation of self-awareness and stop this stuff. She may mellow with age and time, but she is always going to be somewhat like this.

Here’s what’s powerful about realizing this: Once a person shows that they don’t give a shit about the social contract and have no shame about throwing adult temper tantrums in public, it kind of frees you from giving a shit about what they think of you. They hold the threat of their tantrum (displeasure, guilt trip, sulk, whatever) over the family if they don’t get what they want, but you have the power to say “Huh” and not really even acknowledge that it affects you. (...)

When Alice throws a tantrum, she wants you to inventory your behavior and wonder what you’ve done to upset her, and she wants you to walk on eggshells and be worried about upsetting her and to actively try not to upset her (Secret: This will always be a mysterious, moving target and you will never figure out how to prevent upsetting her). Her family wants this too – it’s like they are afraid she’ll turn green and bust out into nothing but purple shorts and wreck the secret flying Avengers lair dining room. Once you figure out “Oh wait, what did I do to cause this…NOTHING, because Alice reacts like this to EVERYTHING” you are free of running that little guilt-game on yourself. Alice, like Hulk, is always angry.


I will say that the de-escalation techniques that Captain Awkward mention do work. It is a tried and tested way of talking someone down out of the Crazy Tree to continue talking to them like they aren't having a complete shit fit because eventually they will realize that your ruthless sanity cannot be impacted by their childish bullshit, and if they want their way they're going to have to stop throwing feces and sit down on the ground under the Tree with the adults and actually work shit out like a human.

I will also say that this is fucking exhausting, and some people aren't worth it.


Yeah, I fucking said it.

There's one born every day.

Many of my dear friends are entirely ruled by other people's tantrums. This is because they are nice people with a capacity for empathy and a willingness to constantly re-evaluate their behavior to look for what they've done wrong so that they can be good to people in the future and not make everyone hurt. These people are fantastic friends for those of us who try not to make unreasonable impositions on their willingness to examine and modify themselves to please others.

They're also suckers.

My friends--and even me, when I am falling prey to habits I learned from my unstable parents as a child--are nothing more than easy prey for people who think the world will come crashing down all around them if their emotional incontinence is not treated by everyone around them like a world-ending catastrophe. It's hard for them and for me to say, "You know, actually, I have decided I don't care about your feelings anymore."

That makes us terrible people, right?

Not if you only say it to people who are forcing you to don that kind of emotional armor. If they're going to use their feelings to control you, the only way you can avoid being bound by them is to be willing to get a little callous and say, "Nope! You are assuming that I care whether you are having a total meltdown. Turns out I don't. Toodles, child."

If you were even contemplating making this about how I just don't understand your situation, let me flash my Enabler Cred and tell you that I have actually been party to a suicide pact once, so I suggest you not trifle with me on this.

There has to be a point beyond which someone is just too much of a shit-show. There has to be. If not, you will surround yourself with people who get their way by being the person with the widest and bloodiest blast radius when they've got a problem or a desire. You will be surrounded by these people because they will drive away everyone with enough of an anchor to reality to see what they're doing, and if you don't get wise and leave with that exodus, you're going to be left living in a land ruled by their ability to condition you into obedience with tantrums.

"They can't help it, though. I mean, it's not fair to expect them to stop abusing people."

One thing that helped me with my parents was noticing that each could act right in public but in private would allow themselves to melt down in a way that never happened under the watchful eye of people whose opinions they had either chosen to care about or whose opinions they had no choice but to care about. In other words, they could behave like adults when they wanted to. When it was just them and me, they didn't care enough.

We don't choose the feelings we experience. We don't choose what our neurochemistry does to dick our brains around, particularly in the case of people with mental illness that is not being adequately dealt with. I'll say it again: we don't choose the feelings we experience.

We do choose whether we tear pieces out of the people closest to us because of the feelings we're experiencing.

Anybody who straps emotional dynamite to their chest because they're not getting their way could generally do otherwise if they cared. They don't. So why are you ripping yourself to pieces for them when they won't even cease abusing you for your trouble?

That's where I differ with some of the commenters on this entry. They were helped by telling themselves, "This person is like a child having a tantrum and they can't help it." It allowed them to take it less personally when someone started the process of melting down as a way of controlling the people around them, because it allowed them to say, "This is Alice's problem and not anything I caused." If you need to think of it that way, you can. That wasn't my big revelation, though.

My big revelation was that no matter what I did, the person I am dealing with is a grown goddamn adult human being, and nothing I am likely to do could ever take away their control over their own behavior, so it seems way more likely that they just aren't trying.

Acknowledging to myself, "They are just doing this because they're mentally ill!" or "They're just doing this because they were abused!" doesn't really make a dent anymore. I don't actually care anymore why someone is being shitty to me. Buttered Lilies seems to agree in the comments:
“I don’t know if it’s any help, but as a person with a remarkably shitty childhood I can say with confidence that having been abused is not a get-out-of-being-a-jerk free card.” Ditto on this. Partly because, there just aren’t any get-out-of-being-a-jerk-free cards, but mostly because, almost all abusers have been abused themselves at some point. That’s where they learned the behavior was ok in the first place. If you give people GOOBAJF cards for being abused in the past, you will never get to tell any abuser that their behavior isn’t ok, which is obviously total crap.

Just remind yourself that there's no amount of pain or trauma that excuses abusive behavior. There is literally nothing in the world that could happen to someone that trained them to control the people around them with these kinds of fits that means you owe them your obedience. Just because you are a real fucking actual adult with the kind of ruthless sanity it takes to "manage" these people does not mean that you should.

This is extremely important to remember because there will also always be people who would rather rely on you to cope and compensate and manage than tell their friend/relative/lover/colleague/whatever to get their shit together.

Your Abuser's Supporting Cast

There will always be people who will treat you like your job as The Sane One is to be a goddamn bullet-sponge for everyone else.

These people also suck.

Fire them all. Fire them all from your life right now. Yes, with the rational distance that I know you have if you are The Sane One you can acknowledge that they are merely the objects of this abuser's conditioning. They are being abused too, and because they've internalized their abuser's lack of control as a flaw in themselves, they want you to do it. Why? Because they are so scared of tripping this landmine. They're so scared of the next explosion that they will make outrageous demands of themselves and of you in the hopes that they can put it off just a little longer.

Your abuser is controlling them, and they're going to try and control you because that is how scared they are.

But do you really want people in your life who are so scared of an emotional landmine that they'll effectively throw you on top of it because standing up for you would cause the drama that is THE WORST POSSIBLE THING? Do you want friends or lovers who care more about appeasing someone who hurts you than they care about you? Given the option, you probably do not.

"Well, so? This is just how people are."

No, you do have the option. There are enough people with reasonable coping skills that if you bond together only with other Sane Ones, you can live without this in your life.

There is a world without this. There is a life without this.

To get it, just give the same consideration to your controlling shit-show friends and lovers and relatives and neighbors that they're giving you.


They're no more likely to implode without you than they were with you there, because we all know they imploded all the time anyway. They're also never going to learn better skills if they continue being able to successfully train everyone around them into obedience by melting down when they're defied. And trust me, that's what they want. Love? Support? Security or safety? Those don't mean shit if they don't come with obedience.

Don't believe me?

See how loved, supported, and secure they feel when you forget your place. Odds are you won't need to, though. If you have ever lived this situation, I am sure that you can picture it quite vividly in hindsight.

Obedience is all they understand. They don't comprehend love, support, or security in any other form. That's what you're dealing with.

You can give it to them, or not. That is your call.

So uh... maybe think about not doing it.

This is linkable, but if you are linking it anywhere off of LJ or DW, I would rather you link this. Thanks! It should be obvious by now that I have fucked up relatives and I don't need them finding their way here. I am sure you understand.

Date: 2012-07-27 06:02 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] admnaismith.livejournal.com
BEHOLD...the power of Ashley. +10 combat skills against Drama.

Posts like this are a two-edged sword. They remind me both of how to defeat that kind of manipulation, and of the need to show respect for people I care about by not doing it.

I've said before, I'm glad I know you NOW. When I was a teenager, tantrums like that were one of my primary coping mechanism. Surrounding myself with high quality people who weren't about to put up with it was a huge part of outgrowing it.

Date: 2012-07-27 06:33 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
I think the main thing that prevented me from inheriting these habits was that despite my mother's habit of absolute shouting raging wide-eyed weeping loopy hysterics, she had nothing but disdain for anybody that she could make cry.

Like, she was one of those, "That won't work on me so you might as well stop it right now," parents. This is what I internalized, so that eventually when she'd cry, all I could think was, "That doesn't work on me so you might as well stop it right now."

That's why I loved Estella in Great Expectations so much when this shit went down:
Estella looked at her with perfect composure, and again looked down at the fire. Her graceful figure and her beautiful face expressed a self-possessed indifference to the wild heat of the other, that was almost cruel.

"You stock and stone!" exclaimed Miss Havisham. "You cold, cold heart!"

"What?" said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; "do you reproach me for being cold? You?"

"Are you not?" was the fierce retort.

"You should know," said Estella. "I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me."

The crying thing aside, it went that way with a lot of things. She was the one who taught me to fight a lot of awful things, but she's also the one who gave me the most practice. So... I don't know if that's a wash or what.

Date: 2012-07-27 06:24 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] sorayuy.livejournal.com
Damn straight, and I'm sharing that original article with a friend of mine whose family has been having trouble with the (second) wife of the father of most of them. She's even at the point where she thinks she's perfectly justified chewing out people over what turn out to be imagined slights, and making one of the sweetest people I've ever met cry. They definitely need this...

Date: 2012-07-27 07:00 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
Feel free to link someone the entry on DoaW.

Date: 2012-07-31 08:27 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] sorayuy.livejournal.com
DoaW? Also, for some bizzare reason, I didn't get the reply email until today. LJ must be acid-tripping again. X.x

Date: 2012-07-31 08:33 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
At the end of the entry I said that it's linkable but gave people an alternate link to use that doesn't lead to my personal journal.
Edited Date: 2012-07-31 08:33 pm (UTC)

Date: 2012-07-31 10:11 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] sorayuy.livejournal.com
Oh! Right, I missed that for some reason. Actually, I originally linked the article you did, in this case, because I feel the two I shared this with need to start with the basics in their respective cases. If they need further help, then I'll definitely use the other one. (I've tended to be a little wary of direct-linking journals without asking, anyway, even though I rather doubt anyone I know would have direct contact with some of your relations.)

Date: 2012-07-27 10:18 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] chasingtides.livejournal.com
ext_21906: (Default)
I love you and I love this post.

I've been playing Supporting Cast to some drama of friend's drama with a person who is severely mentally ill and everyone is playing "If she's having (x) issues, ALL MUST BE DROPPED SO WE CAN GO FIX IT." Not to downplay the seriousness but since there's also a lot of the attitude that you're talking about and that I've seen in my parents, I've taken up the "It's distressing. I will see you after work and we can discuss that fact that faulty brain chemistry needs more adequate help, but I'm walking when you start screaming at me."

I've dealt with emotionally and verbally abusive people. When I'm supposed to rewrite my life around them and follow their tantrums and being screamed at (because she's ill, ok?), I've got boots and a walking stick. I don't need to stay.

So thank you for reassuring me that this is just normal behavior on my part, that I'm not inhumane or superhuman. (I've alternately been told I'm being a dick and I'm some kind of bad ass with a level up in coping.)

Date: 2012-07-27 06:52 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
I think that I would have had a much lower-drama life if someone had told me when I was younger, "You are doing the wise thing. You are doing the healthy thing. You aren't doing the heinous callous asshole thing. You are doing what healthy people do."

Now I am at the point where I don't care anymore whether my Brain Weasels tell me that I am heartless and don't care about anyone but myself because I have come to understand just how important it is to refuse to play this game. Now that I'm at this point, I am hoping to turn around and give other people the validation that I didn't get.

Hopefully this helps. You're not less than human or more than human. You're just a human who actually sees where things are going and has honestly evaluated whether you want to be there. That is the definition of what sane adult humans do.

*validates validates* =D

And thank you for your validation, btw. Just knowing that there are other people out there who are treated... well, you put it perfectly. To enablers we're either inhuman or superhuman--never human. Just knowing that there are other people out there who are hearing those same things makes me feel loads better.

And I do need that. Entries like this happen partly when I am reassuring myself that I am doing the right thing, because I still have that voice in my head telling me, "But you are so tough and rational and you can be sane enough for everybody SO YOU SHOULD." It really helps having people reply to me like you did.

Date: 2012-07-27 11:16 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] sparkindarkness.livejournal.com
My gods I think I have 6 or 7 Alices in my family - and my mother is one of them. It is EXAUSTING to run the maze of their emotional mine field (mixed metaphor ahoy!) of week or month long sulks when you have no idea what caused them, of the constant egg shell treading.

And as a mentally ill person, I reject the idea that my mental illness would justify me treating people like that, or that people are obliged to endure my shit because I refuse to develop any coping strategies. But if I could not cope and couldn't stop it - then no-one has the duty to stay and endure it nor do they have a duty to take it seriously or run my maze. Being mentally ill doesn't give me a carte blanche to abuse folks around me, nor does it give them a duty to take my shit no matter what

Date: 2012-07-27 06:55 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
I think that's one thing that definitely helped me: finally meeting mentally ill people who don't claw other people to bits with their Issues. It took me until I was an adult to meet someone who was mentally ill without being abusive about it, and it went a long way toward adjusting my expectations and standards in a more reasonable direction.

Until then it was all, "Well why do you make me act a fuckin' fool when you know how I get? You're the sane one here so get compensating!"

Afterward I can look at people like that and think of the people I know who have chosen not to be abusive and make much better decisions about who deserves my time and energy and effort.

Date: 2012-07-27 07:08 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] sparkindarkness.livejournal.com
One thing that strengthened my resolve was less "I'm mentally ill and I don't inflict it on others" (apart from anything else, Beloved may protest :P) but the retort "I'm mentally ill so WHY do I have to put up with your shit as well?!" and from there there's the inherent unfairness and sheer wrongness of inflicting one's issues on others on top of what other baggage them themselves have to cart around.

It also didn't help that, on the joyous internet, I saw repeated, endless examples of someone being misogynist/homophobic/racist and then pulling out a mental illness as an excuse - which again feels like "I don't care what painful issues you're dealing with - mine trump yours". And it annoys me, because it creates the impression that mentally ill people are in capable of being responsible for our actions (which, yes, in some cases they aren't - but that's an extreme) which leads so much to voices being dismissed.

If you have a mental illness that causes you to repeatedly attack people you need help, you need care, you need coping measures, you need something - what you don't need/don't DESERVE are complicant victims.

Date: 2012-07-27 11:36 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] veronica-rich.livejournal.com
This reminds me of a boss I once had - he was a good guy, but damn, he could be a small child when he ran into a problem. I got blamed for shit I didn't do or didn't know to do. So after about 3 years of dealing, I started ignoring it, which is to say I would briefly answer or address the problem in a loud voice like you would use to override a yelling 5-year-old, then turn away or walk out of his office and shut the door loudly, proclaiming that *I* had to go back to work. If he kept raising his voice, I'd ignore it until he resorted to a more acceptable level - AND IT EVENTUALLY STOPPED. It was the most amazing thing. Life after that was far calmer.

Actually, even more surprising is that 5 years after I quit for a better job, he still calls me about once every couple of months to tell me local political gossip and chat. Sometimes, I guess, people respect you for not putting up with them? And then you have my grandmother, who hasn't spoken to me in three years because we called her on decades of bad behavior. Spectrum bookends. Oh well.

Date: 2012-07-27 06:57 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
Yeah, the relationships that survive a refusal to enable (and continue training in) bad behavior tend to come out way better than they started out. They don't all or even mostly survive, but the ones that do?

Well, some people who threw nasty horrible tantrums as a way of controlling others will find that actually they enjoy adult relationships now that they have been forced to have one.

Date: 2012-07-27 02:17 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] charlycrash.livejournal.com
This has always been a difficult thing for me, because I have a tendency to blame myself for everything and I always want to make everyone else happy.. but yeah, unfortunately you're bang on the money here.

Date: 2012-07-27 06:58 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
Yeah, I feel you. Sometimes the very things that make you a wonderful friend to non-abusive people are... well, they're the very same things that an abuser will exploit. And when I say "you" I definitely mean "us."

Date: 2012-07-27 07:04 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] charlycrash.livejournal.com
Yeah, totally. I actually prefer being the sort of person who blames themselves for everything because it means.. well okay it doesn't have to be this black and white, but it means you're not the kind of arrogant asshole who goes round ignoring everyone else's opinions and is blind to your own failings. But yeah, it's not hard to see how an abuser can just march right in there and totally exploit that.

Date: 2012-07-27 07:05 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] charlycrash.livejournal.com
Oh, and <3 :)

Date: 2012-07-28 01:38 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] inverarity.livejournal.com
ext_402500: (Default)
Wise words. Reminds me painfully of someone in my own past, and I wish I did have the self-possession and awareness then that I do now.

Also, I love that owl ion, and would like to know if I can borrow it?

Date: 2012-07-28 01:41 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] virginia-fell.livejournal.com
Absolutely! It's bigger than that at full size, though, just so you know.

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