Setting Boundaries with Toxic People
Recently, I was listening to an episode of the podcast We Can Do Hard Things from author Glennon Doyle. The guest was Melissa Urban, author of The Book of Boundaries. I immediately bought the book and started reading it because I loved how accessible she makes boundaries. Helping clients identify where they would like to set boundaries, who they would like to set those boundaries with, and how to do so is often a topic in sessions. I highly recommend checking out that episode of the podcast even if you are not interested in reading the book.
As I listened, I realized that her system of setting boundaries works wonderfully for the people in our lives who are healthy enough to accept them. However, it barely mentions that there are people who will attempt to run over our boundaries time and time again. People who don’t care if we feel emotionally safe. Those who want to use us and do not have good intentions. It feels impossible to set boundaries with people who are “toxic”* or even those who are just very difficult to say “no” to. We also often have people in our lives who truly mean well but are rigid and feel that they know better than we do what we need. It can feel like an impossible task to set and maintain boundaries with those people.
Some people in our lives are less likely to respect our boundaries than others:
- Individuals who lack their own (healthy) boundaries.
- Those that have difficulty admitting they are wrong or taking responsibility for their actions.
- People that view us as less experienced or knowledgeable than they are, such as parents, in-laws, mentors, or bosses.
- Family and friends that we were close to prior to beginning to set boundaries who are not used to them.
- People who specifically seek to take advantage of others, narcissists**, and sociopaths.
- Those in active addiction and alcoholism.
- Codependent people, whether they know they are codependent or not.
- Individuals that do not respect us. This includes people that do not respect groups that we are part of such as those that are racist, sexist, heterosexist (homophobic), etc.
How To Set Boundaries with Someone That Will Not Respect Them
Whether you are new to setting boundaries or experienced with boundary setting, you have likely experienced a person that refuses to respect your boundaries.
You probably already know that the purpose of personal boundaries is to protect us. We set boundaries that we can feel emotionally safe, happy, and healthy in community with those around us. It lets people know what behaviors we tolerate and what behaviors we will not allow. As the quote says: “we teach people how to treat us.”
For example, you lend your brother $20 and he does not pay you back. You feel resentful but tell yourself “he needs it more than I do, so I will just let it go” and never mention it to him. He will ask you to borrow money again, because you have never told him you either expect it to be paid back or don’t want to lend him money at all. He has learned you will lend him money because you have not taught him otherwise.
People that have benefited from you not setting boundaries often react strongly when you start to set them. Other people will push the boundaries you set even if you have always set strong, appropriate boundaries. When you set a boundary with someone who does not want to respect it, there are several different ways they will communicate that to you.
- Some might immediately argue with you: “You let me borrow $20 last week and never said I had to pay it back! Why won’t you lend me money today?”
- They may attempt to make you feel guilty: “You just got that big promotion at work and you know my rent just went up. You really won’t help out your little brother?” Guilt often turns into shame, whether the person using it intends it to or not. An attempt to shame you would be to add: “If mom were alive, she would be disgusted you don’t care about your baby brother.”
- Gaslighting is another way that someone shows you they will not respect your boundaries: “I didn’t borrow $20 from you last week, you must be thinking of your other brother.”
- Ridiculing you, especially in front of others, can be one technique someone uses. “Oh rich man thinks he’s too good for his family huh? You won’t be slumming it here with us much longer, champagne boy.”
- Often the most difficult boundary violation to experience is when they simply ignore your boundary. In this example, after you say “no, I am not going to lend you money again” your brother will continue to ask, as though you never set the boundary.
We Must Respect Our Own Boundaries
Ultimately, it means nothing to set a boundary if we do not respect our own boundaries. What I mean by that is whatever technique someone uses to attempt to get you to modify or ignore your boundary is irrelevant if you plan to respect the boundary you set. It is important that when you set a boundary, you intend to uphold it, otherwise people learn that you will say one thing but do another. They, of course, will not respect your boundaries if you don’t!
To continue the example of your brother who wants to borrow money, you have lent him $20 and the next week he asks to borrow $30. A simple, straightforward boundary is: “Moving forward, I do not feel comfortable giving you money.”
No matter which of the above techniques he uses in an attempt to get you to change your mind, if you continue to refuse lending him money, you have upheld and respected the boundary that you just set. If you give in, both you and your brother are not respecting your boundaries. How you reiterate your boundary is up to you. You can continue saying “I will not be lending you money again.” There is no need to explain why because he will likely argue with you about your reasoning. You can share your feelings, “After lending you money last time I realized that I felt resentful. I don’t want to resent you so I won’t be lending money again.” It’s difficult to argue with someone’s feelings, although some people will try. If you have an otherwise good relationship, you can say, “This is damaging our relationship and I care a lot about you. I hope you will not continue asking me because the answer will always be no.”
However your brother reacts is not your responsibility. If he is angry; if he is hurt; if he storms out; if he stops speaking to you; those are his choices and essentially boundaries that he is setting with you. Just as you want him to respect your boundaries, you have to respect his, even if you disagree with the way he is setting them and why.
The most difficult boundaries to uphold are with those we love
Some of the most difficult boundaries we set are with our loved ones, especially family members like our parents or our children. You may feel selfish or mean for setting boundaries but remember the purpose of boundaries are to protect us. Boundaries protect our feelings and our relationships.
There are situations where setting a boundary might mean that the other person puts themselves at risk in order to get back at you. A partner might threaten to harm themselves if you end the relationship. Your adult child who has relapsed might have no place to go if you ask him to leave your home after you find him with drugs. Remember that protecting someone from the consequences of their own actions and choices is enabling. If you are worried about the health or safety of someone you love, you can call 911 and ask for paramedics to be sent to where they are or ask for law enforcement to do a wellness check, if you feel comfortable doing so. If appropriate you can drive them to the emergency room or ask another friend or family member to do so.
You set boundaries to protect yourself, what other people do in response to those boundaries is up to them. Their choices are not your fault or your responsibility. You cannot be held hostage by the fear that someone will hurt themselves.
If you feel that you cannot set boundaries with someone who is in active addiction; refuses mental health treatment; or you feel their reaction to your boundaries is your fault/responsibility I highly recommend that you read the book Codependent No More by Melody Beattie . I also recommend that you begin working with a mental health professional who is educated on codependency and addiction if appropriate.
The Book Of Boundaries
I am still reading The Book of Boundaries and I plan to write a review of it when I am finished. I can already say I think that it is a great book! The real-life examples of what to say to set a boundary in multiple situations are helpful for those that are unsure of what to say when setting a boundary. Melissa’s green/yellow/red system gives different examples of how to set boundaries depending on the person and situation. Once the review is on the blog I will link to it here.
* The word “toxic” is often used flippantly to describe anyone that we do not like. I don’t believe there are many truly toxic people but I opted to use this word because it is common in popular culture.
** Similarly to “toxic” the term “narcissist” is over-used and has lost most of its meaning. In this article I use the term narcissist to mean someone who is self-centered and lacks empathy for others.
Stacey Aldridge, LCSW
Stacey is a therapist in private practice and the owner of Inspired Happiness Therapy and Wellness in Ridgeland, MS. If you are in the state of Mississippi and are interested in seeing Stacey for therapy, please visit the Appointments page.