Part I: Boundaries in relationships: is that your suitcase?
Recently, I was standing at Pearson Airport in Toronto waiting for my luggage to come off the conveyor belt when I realized that I had made a big mistake buying my London Fog suitcase in black. There was a sea of black suitcases pouring down onto the revolving platform all of which looked almost identical. I had to look at tags to check whether or not a couple of familiar looking pieces were mine and hoped to god that every one else was having the good sense to do the same. I was visiting my sister and all I needed was to end up without any clothes for the next five days! This vivid memory came to mind one week later when I was in session with a gentleman in his early 60’s whom I had worked with for a while. He was talking about his adult son’s problems with gambling and the strain that it was having on his marriage when all of a sudden, he stopped dead mid-sentence, looked me in the eye and said: “I know, I know what you are going to say…it’s not my suitcase.” What he said stuck with me like glue because it brought back the memory of being at that airport and I realized that the suitcase analogy he had come up with was a fabulous way of making a distinction between what stuff belongs to one person and what stuff belongs to somebody else. He had worked with me long enough to realize that not only was his preoccupation with his son’s suitcase ineffective in solving his son’s problems, it was also conveniently distracting him from dealing with his own anxieties about retirement which happened to be part of his luggage at the time!
As a clinical psychologist who has done hands-on psychotherapy for over 35 years, I have witnessed people struggle again and again with the dilemma of trying to sort out what they are responsible for and not in the complex world of human relationships. How do you figure out what belongs to you and what belongs to somebody else? Figuring out whose suitcase is whose can be an especially difficult task when it involves a close family member. I remember working with one couple where the husband had been diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. His wife, who was a lovely person, very loyal and extremely competent, once the diagnosis was made, immediately set about researching cookbooks and recipes for how she could change their eating lifestyle in order to combat the disease. She clearly cared a great deal about her husband and he about her. So why did they end up in my office? Well, major conflict erupted when to her shock and surprise, she found out that he was sneaking off to the greasy spoon down the street for hamburgers and fries when he was supposed to be eating the paper bag lunch that she had carefully prepared for him to take to work. I understood why she had taken so much responsibility and poured herself into trying to help him. She was terrified that he could end up blind or lose a limb or worse still, six feet under far before his time. But how effective can any of us be in helping somebody else to solve their problem if they do not want to help themselves? And if you take somebody else’s suitcase, not only do you get weighed down but you might even decrease the chances that the other person will rally and take responsibility for their life choices!
Now the truth is, some people don’t want to take responsibility for their suitcase. I had one client whose mother would call her every day complaining about this new ailment and that new ailment. If it was not one physical complaint, it was another. The mother would take up all the airtime during these phone calls, seldom coming out of her self-absorption long enough to ask the daughter any questions about how she and the grandchildren were doing. This adult daughter, described time and time again in session feeling pained by her mother’s suffering and trying hard to offer suggestions that might alleviate her mother’s distress. My client became frustrated to no end, however, because her mother NEVER followed any of her suggestions. Therapy can be invaluable in these situations because when you are smack in the middle of a relationship dilemma with someone you love, it is most definitely hard if not impossible to see things clearly. As we deconstructed the interaction between her and her mother, it finally became evident to my client that contrary to her belief, her mother was not looking for advice and that, in fact, her mother was clearly not unhappy enough to want to make any changes. Her mother’s behavior suggested that she enjoyed the attention she got from talking about her problems and was not going to give up this behavior any time soon. So sometimes, we can get lured into trying to take care of somebody else’s suitcase, when in fact they don’t want us fiddling with it at all.
There are people who were trained up from an early age to feel responsible for others. They jump into action to be of service to others without even thinking as if on automatic pilot. These are the over-responsible people in the world. Often, situations early in life shaped them to be that way. Perhaps they grew up with a chronically ill sibling that they needed to take care of. Maybe they wanted to be liked so badly that they were willing to do anything for anybody in order to win approval. Another possible early scenario might be that they grew up with a self-centered parent who taught them that to take care of their own suitcase was selfish and that if they wanted to be loved, they had better look after other people’s suitcases. These are the collectors. They often without realizing it, take on other people’s stuff. While often others come to see them as the “strong ones” and the ones who will take responsibility and get the job done, these people oftentimes, in the end, get so overloaded and end up carrying so many suitcases that they become exhausted and may even become totally burnt out.
We are living in an age where too many parents are feeling overly responsible for their children. Some of us have agonized over our children’s pain, trying to save them from the disappointment of failure, the trials brought on by a tough economy and the hurts of rejection even though a voice deep inside is telling us we should know better. In carrying their children’s suitcases, some parents have even sacrificed their life savings or delayed retirement. More scary still are statistics regarding illness and mortality rates that are showing that these parents are compromising their health and longevity by taking responsibility for their children’s welfare. While our behavior may be well-intentioned, the truth of the matter is that when we carry our children’s suitcases for them, they do not build the muscle necessary to shoulder life’s burdens. Rather than empowering them, we send them the message that they need us to help otherwise they would not be able to manage on their own. If we want our children to be strong, we need to let our children carry their own suitcases and figure out what’s in there. Parents need to question what is motivating them to take responsibility for their children in cases where their children are able. As a parent, if you have not dealt with the painful stuff in your own suitcase, it is hard to stand by and hold the fort while your child suffers through whatever hurt, pain and rejection they need to endure in order to learn their own life’s lessons.
For every collector of suitcases, there are those who don’t want to have to carry or even look at the stuff in their suitcase. These are the “blamers”. These are the people who do not want to face up to things. Some are so sophisticated and shifty that they can convince you that you are to blame even when they themselves so clearly have been the culprit. They will hand you their suitcase over and over and try to convince you that it is your fault things did not turn out well and your job to take care of things. Anger can be used as a club to instill fear and intimidation. When somebody is mean, angry or condemning, how easy it is to start to question yourself and ask: “What did I do wrong? How did I make them mad?” If you have lived with someone like this for long enough, more than likely, you have ended up with little self-esteem and a distorted version of who you are. You get so bamboozled that it becomes impossible to figure out which suitcase is your suitcase. Situations of abuse in couple relationships are often this way. The boundaries get so blurry that in extreme cases the law has to intervene with a restraining order saying: “Don’t you dare touch that other person’s suitcase!”
And yet, there are many situations that are not so black and white. Sometimes the person is unable to carry their own suitcase and without assistance, they will end up flailing. I was talking with a friend the other day whose husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. There are many things she has tried to do to help him yet not so atypically, her husband has refused. What is her responsibility? Should she persist? Can she even make a difference as regards how quickly her husband’s illness progresses? People differ on this point. How much will he and other determinants dictate his fate as opposed to anything she may do or say? How much should she sacrifice her life in order to care for him? Sometimes it is no easy job to determine: How much responsibility do I take? What is my suitcase? While some would like to get up on a high horse of righteousness and claim that they have the right answer, what is right may differ for each individual depending on their health, responsibilities, sense of duty and value system. The job of a therapist is not to dictate to people what they should do but rather to help them see more clearly what is right for them so that they can be at peace with themselves.