I only do it because I care about you (Obsession, Manipulation, and the Necessity of Healthy Boundaries)

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently I’ve watched the X-Files mini series from earlier this year (2016). One of the recurring plot devices throughout the entire series, from Season 1 all the way up to the last episode of the 2016 mini series, included in the movies as well, is Mulder’s obsession with the Truth. With the Conspiracies. The obsession took him beyond just a search for the truth. It got him caught up in things we could never imagine. Now, I know this is fiction. We all know it’s fiction. But Mulder’s obsession led to nearly getting himself killed, getting his friends and family in the direct line of danger, his child put up for adoption for his own protection, and assorted murders and assassinations. Mulder’s obsession to Want to Believe led to him becoming a fugitive. Mini-Series Mulder is a far cry from Season 1 Mulder. Where before he would take the moral high ground, insisting that people doing wrong be brought to justice for their crimes…. Now he has no problem pulling a gun on them and blowing their brains out “for the greater good”.

There are no more dangerous words, in my opinion, than “for the greater good”. But that is another post for another day. For the purposes of THIS post, suffice to say that telling oneself it’s “for the greater good” is the justification for performing terrible, hateful acts. It’s on par with excuses of “it’s for the children/think of the children” and “it’s for your own good”. While such statements can and are used in relation to positive acts of kindness, compassion, and actual good deeds…. more often than not they are used as the green light to do or say whatever one wishes in opposition to someone or something else, usually in a negative way.

This justification to oneself, when combined with obsession, is a powder keg waiting to explode. The more one pursues their obsession, attributing the negative aspects as necessary and collateral damage “for the greater good”, it triggers a transformation that if left unchecked turns a person into what they most despise.

Now, I’m not saying obsession is entirely a bad thing. Obsession can often reveal an unrealized passion for a subject or thing. In the average person, once the obsession has cooled, what remains is passion. Be it passion for art, or a new hobby or skill. But when that obsession has been leading down the road of self-destruction, paranoia, and malice what remains is not passion. What remains, in most people is regret. Remorse. Self-punishment in some form. But in others? The obsession never ends. It becomes a driving force that an individual cannot live without. Because without the obsession – they have nothing to show for their lives. Nothing to show for the time wasted. Nothing but themselves, and the empty shell they have become.

For the friends, family, and allies of the obsessed it can be difficult to deal with. The hope for those outside the obsession is that the person gets bored. Moves on. Learns whatever it is they are meant to, and then returns to normal. But it’s even harder for those on the outside to watch their friend or family member dealing with a destructive obsession. Well-intentioned friends are seen as spies and betrayers. Family members who love and care for them turn into horrible two faced monsters. To watch someone going through this, refusing to acknowledge that they are even alienating the people around them who love and care – it’s difficult. And we always want to be there to help, to pick up the pieces and reassure the person dealing with the obsession that no, it’s going to be okay. It’ll all work out in the end.

But how do we know when to draw the line and cut ourselves off before we, too, get sucked into the obsession? Where do we draw the line between enabling the behavior and relinquishing our own self control?

Here’s an example that has prompted me to write this post. A friend of mine came to me and said that she was removed from a group because she refused to unfriend someone on Facebook. She was asked to unfriend a person she had become friends with independently of the group she was in, and the people leading the group. She had formed bonds with a person through common interests and without the influence of others. The person who asked her to unfriend a person did so out of fear and paranoia. Their obsession led them to try and control who another person can and cannot be friends with.

Now, under normal circumstances, such an exchange would conclude with my friend and the other person, we’ll call them Alice and Bob for convenience sake, being civil but also reaching a sort of “agree to disagree” state, in that Bob has shown concern for Alice, Alice has acknowledged Bob’s dislike for Paul, with whom Harry is also friends, but set a clear boundary wherein she is friends with Harry, and Bob does not have to partake of that friendship if he doesn’t wish to. Paul has little to nothing to do with anything here except Bob’s concern for Alice.

Bob: Hey Alice, I see you’re friends with Harry.
Alice: Yes, Harry is my friend.
Bob: Harry is friends with Paul. I really don’t like Paul.
Alice: What does that have to do with Harry?
Bob: Harry is friends with someone who has been hateful to me. Harry might not be trustworthy.
Alice: Hm. Well, I’m not friends with Paul, I’m friends with Harry. We get along really well. You don’t have to be friends with Harry if you don’t want to be.
Bob: That’s true. Okay. But hey, I care about you, so if you have any problems you can talk to me about them.
Alice: Okay. I will if I do. Thank you.

But such an exchange didn’t happen. Instead, and this is an oversimplified example for sake of clear discussion on what is wrong with the behavior, this is what seems to have taken place.

Bob: Hey Alice, you’re friends with Harry. Harry’s friends with Paul. I hate Paul.
Alice: Okay, but I’m not friends with Paul. I am friends with Harry. Harry and I get along well.
Bob: But Harry is friends with Paul. Paul’s a bad guy, Alice. I can’t trust Harry because he’s friends with Paul.
Alice: I’m friends with Harry, but that has nothing to do with Paul.
Bob: You met Harry because of Paul.
Alice: Yes, but I am not friends with Paul. I am friends with Harry. We like the same things.
Bob: I can’t trust Harry because he is friends with Paul. Harry’s not a real friend.
Alice: You don’t have to be friends with Harry if you don’t want to.
Bob: You shouldn’t be friends with Harry either. Take him off your friends list, he’s dangerous.
Alice: Why is he dangerous?
Bob: He is friends with Paul.
Alice: I will not stop being friends with Harry. This is ridiculous.
Bob: If you don’t stop being friends with Harry, I’ll take away the thing I gave you.
Alice: I will not stop being friends with Harry.
Bob: Fine. I want my thing back.
Alice: Okay. You can have the thing. My friendship with Harry means more to me than the thing.
Bob: Well if you just stopped being friends with Harry, then you could keep the thing.
Alice: Bob, you’re starting to sound a lot like Paul. This is why I am not friends with Paul.
Bob: I am not sounding like Paul! I’m looking out for you!
Alice: That’s exactly what Paul does to people. I don’t think can be your friend anymore Bob.

Now then, let’s break down why such an exchange is bad.

  1. Bob is judging Alice based solely on who she is friends with.
  2. Bob’s justification for trying to break Alice’s friendship with Harry is because “he cares about her” – This is a variant of the “For your own good” justification, which in and of itself is a specialized version of “For the greater good”. By convincing her to end a friendship that is advantageous to himself, and disadvantages her does not show empathy, it shows selfishness and narcissism on Bob.
  3. Bob is attempting to exert control over Alice by threatening to take something away from her as punishment for not doing as he told her to do.
  4. When the attempt to persuade fails, Alice points out that Bob is acting like Paul, the person Bob doesn’t like and is the root cause of Bob wanting Alice to stop being friends with Harry.
  5. Bob places a higher priority of personal value on an inanimate thing rather than an individual’s personal choices and bonds with others.
  6. Bob’s behavior here is a classic manipulation tactic used to maintain control in toxic relationships.

What Bob has done is something we’ve all likely done, but as children. It’s a common method of establishing dominance in groups of friends in childhood. It’s a rudimentary system of “I gave you X so now you owe me.” But we all reach a point in life where we grow out of this childish mentality. We refine our methods of establishing dominance in groups, and replace domination with compromise and understanding as we get older and more experienced with others and the world.

Additionally, this is a classic discipline set-up many people can relate to from childhood.

Parent gives child a toy.
Child disobeys parent. Parent takes toy as punishment.
Child obeys parent. Parent gives toy back as reward.

Thus the pattern of dominance is established, but also a system of reinforcement. Do good, and you get rewarded. Do bad, and you get punished. In children, this is to also help establish right and wrong. However, to see this behavior between adults who do not have a relationship wherein they have agreed to such a model of behavior, it is considered toxic, manipulative, and abusive. Rather than accepting that he has no control over who Alice spends her time with, Bob resorts to threatening and punishment to get his way. A decision driven by his obsession rather than common sense.

Now, I would like to go over from the negative example Alice’s statements at the end.

Bob: Well if you just stopped being friends with Harry, then you could keep the thing.
Alice: Bob, you’re starting to sound a lot like Paul. This is why I am not friends with Paul.
Bob: I am not sounding like Paul! I’m looking out for you!
Alice: That’s exactly what Paul does to people. I don’t think can be your friend anymore Bob.

Alice points out that Bob is acting like Paul, the person Bob does not like. She also states that such behavior is why she is not friends with Paul. Bob’s response is pure denial, with once again the justification that he cares about her (“I’m looking out for you!”) Alice then states Paul does this same thing, and that she doesn’t think she can be friends with Bob anymore because of it. Bob’s obsession has led him to become what he despised. Bob has become Paul.

The take away here is that having an obsession is perfectly fine – for the individual. But when you allow that obsession to blind you to the needs and feelings of others it becomes a problem. The person with the obsession becomes a problem. When that obsession begins to encroach on others, when it drives a person to manipulate and bully others, it’s a problem. There are times when friends, family, and assorted allies need to draw a line in the sand, re-establish boundaries and make it known that once that line is crossed – they are done. The person with the obsession is cut off and cut out. And yes, it’s easier said than done – I realize this. I know this from personal experience both as the obsessed and the outsider looking in. We cannot control others, we cannot stop others from pursuing their obsessions, but we can stop enabling them. We can stop ourselves from being willing or unwitting participants. We can remove ourselves from the situation. Whether the person having the obsession sinks or swims at that point, well, that’s on them and them alone.

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2 responses to “I only do it because I care about you (Obsession, Manipulation, and the Necessity of Healthy Boundaries)

    • Thank you. My friend “Alice” had befriended “Bob” after coming out of a toxic friendship with “Paul”. And knowing what that friendship was like, “Bob” still pulled this crap on “Alice” and it really got under my skin.

      Like

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