This is a great topic. The discussion about reinforcement is an essential one, because it is not just a tool but an umbrella concept. For example, one reason we let boundaries/limits slide is that we get negatively reinforced when we try to set them.
**But the biggest problem is this: I would guess that the majority of non-BPs in some way actually positively reinforce their borderline family member for violating their limits.** ONCE LIMITS ARE SET, POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT IS 99% OF THE BATTLE.
I'll give you an example of how a mother sabotages her own boundary.
Tacy has told her adult daughter Betsy that she cannot call her at work more than three times a day unless there is an emergency. Betsy is living at home and is supposed to be looking for work. This scenario happens the day after Tacy set the limit; Tacy is at work and Betsy is home, not feeling well.
* 8 a.m. to 12 pm: Betsy calls Tacy twice for various reasons.
* 1 pm: Betsy makes her third phone call of the day. Tacy reminds her of the new rule.
* 3 pm: Betsy calls again. In an irritated voice, Tacy reminds her that she wasnâ€™t supposed to call again. Betsy said it was an emergency because she needed to know when Tracy would be home (something Tracy had already told her). The conversation gets a bit heated and Betsy hangs up on her mom.
* 3:05 pm: Betsy calls to demand an apology for the way Tacy spoke with her. Tacy does, figuring that now sheâ€™ll get some peace.
* 4 pm: Betsy calls because she canâ€™t figure out how to work the DVR and watch a program she recorded. Sheâ€™s feeling upset and needs something to do, and sheâ€™s frustrated because she canâ€™t get it to work. Tacy sighs and explains how it works, resolving to have another discussion about her limits.
That night, Betsy accuses her mother of being abusive because sheâ€™s home alone and Tacy doesnâ€™t even care. Tacy tries to explain and thinks, Limits just arenâ€™t worth it!
OK, now, letâ€™s take away the words and look at the behavior.
* 8 a.m. to 12 pm: Betsy calls Tacy twice and uses up her allotment.
* 1 pm: Betsy calls again, Tacy talks to her.
* 3 pm: Betsy calls again, Tacy talks to her.
* 3: 05 pm: Betsy calls again, Tacy talks to her
* 4 pm: Betsy calls again, Tacy talks to her.
That night, Tacy believes that boundaries donâ€™t work.
Wow, that is a different way of looking at it!
**Tacyâ€™s limit was ineffective not because Betsy wasnâ€™t observing it, but because Tacy wasnâ€™t observing her own limit.**
Here is a slow-motion instant replay. The 3 pm call was The Test. Tacy took the bait and spoke with her daughter, not observing her own
So, what should Tracy have done when Betsy called? She should have determined the answer to that question before she set the limit during the planning process (I am going to be doing a workshop about planning for limit setting. I strongly recommend that people have a plan for limit setting because your limits WILL be tested in something called â€śextinction burst,â€ť which I can go through later.)
If Tracy doesnâ€™t have voicemail or a secretary, once she hears Betsyâ€™s voice, she could say in a neutral tone, â€śWeâ€™ll talk when I get home tonight.â€ť
Some limits need to be spelled out in detail to include specific definitions, such as what constitutes an â€śemergency.â€ť
I look forward to talking more about this. There is much more to positive and negative reinforcement than limits, too.
(This example is from my new book "The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder ")