| || || | It's a dance—move too close, and you get your toes stepped on. Keep people at arm's length, and you might lose contact entirely. Those of us who aren't exactly Fred Astaire trip over ourselves in relationship after relationship, in part because we pick up boundary-setting habits so early that most of us aren't even aware of how we move. Happily, it's never too soon—or too late—to become a better dancer. Here are four common dance errors (a shrink might call them dysfunctional boundary-setting patterns) that may sound as regrettably familiar to you as they do to me. Dance Errors, Part I
The "Please Tread on Me" This is the dance of supplication and submission broadcast by pleasers, folks so desperate to be loved that they'll do pretty much anything for anyone. Pleasers end up being mildly pitied by most people, but narcissists cut right in and exploit the hell out of them. The symptoms of the "please tread on me" syndrome include exhaustion, constant complaining about being used, fear of conflict, simmering resentment, a sense of helplessness, and a history of relationships with demanding, selfish partners. The Herky-Jerky Tango "Why does everyone I date turn out to be a jerk?" This is the classic cry of someone who's doing the herky-jerky tango. This dance is often performed by shy people who are scared to let others near, and so project the message "Stay away!" Often they are a little reserved, even a bit prickly. Normal people follow the shy person's lead, respectfully keeping their distance. Only socially insensitive louts barrel on through to partner them. Signs that a person might have fallen into this rhythm: social anxiety, loneliness, being unable to meet people they really like (where are they?), and feeling they have to settle for unfeeling clods as friends or romantic partners. Dance Errors, Part II
The FOO Fandango As children we learn to fit in with those people who resemble our families of origin (acronym: FOO), the way a key matches a lock. When we meet someone whose behavior matches the social moves we're used to, we fall right in step. This may be great for The Brady Bunch. Not so for the rest of us. The most obvious indication of a dysfunctional FOO fandango is the tendency to repeatedly befriend or date people who share negative characteristics of family members, especially patterns like addiction, abusiveness, dishonesty, and secretiveness. The Kiss Me, Kill Me Two-Step In this tricky and intense dance, people will attach to others they've just met, recognizing one another as soul mates, even beginning to talk, dress, and act alike. At best this bonding phase ebbs into disappointment. At worst it leads to a massive falling-out that severs the relationship and leaves the soul mates bitter enemies. People who take part in this boundary dance often feel instant attraction to certain individuals, a nagging fear of abandonment, a history of feeling betrayed, and the habit of nursing grievances. Get Feedback If any of these descriptions rings a bell, you can become more aware of how you participate in the general dance of life with the help of a therapist. But if you have the nerve, there's a quicker way to get feedback: Talk to people you trust. There is a trick; the less well-acquainted you are with those you ask, the more useful the information.
Ask for feedback from a coworker, a few acquaintances, a 12-step group (obviously, people with whom you feel unusually safe). Explain your boundary issue first, then ask for input. Something like "I keep having the same kind of argument with different people [or dating the same kind of loser, etc.]. Do you see anything I'm doing that's contributing to this dynamic?"
Humans are astonishingly attuned to interpreting one another's social energy, and you'll likely end up with a pretty clear consensus. "You always look down and mumble when I talk to you," they might say. "I feel like you're not interested." Or: "You're so helpful and polite, even to awful people. Frankly, you're kind of a doormat."
One very important caveat: Do not, I repeat, do not rely on feedback from your nearest and dearest. These people are preselected to match your boundary-setting patterns. Your dysfunctions will be as invisible to them as to you. For instance, if a pleaser asks her boyfriend whether he thinks it's normal that she buys him silk sheets, while she herself sleeps on the floor so as not to disturb him, he'll respond that she's the healthiest, most normal person he's ever met. She'd get more helpful data from her dentist. Finding a New Tune There is one thing to remember: Social choreography is endlessly changeable. Unlike dysfunction, healthy intimacy pulls away, bounces back, creates infinite fresh configurations. Trusting the rhythm of each relationship, rather than insisting on robotic consistency, will keep you from panicking when someone's boundaries move a bit toward or away from you. Insist on continuous connection with just one individual: your own self, who knows where to draw the boundary lines on any given day, with any given person.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA