How do we set better boundaries with difficult people?

This is an excellent question and a very common dilemma faced by many people.  The answer is relatively simple yet hard to implement in our daily lives. The good thing about learning to deal with difficult, overbearing people is that it is a skill and like all skills (think tennis, golf etc.), it can be learned. And, like all skills, the more you practice in real life settings, the better you get.  So what is the skill?

Boundaries!  Having a set of clear but flexible boundaries are one of the best gifts that you can give yourself or to your children.  Not only are boundaries needed to deal with difficult or pushy people but they are also essential for leading a balanced and rewarding life.

So what are boundaries?  We are most familiar with physical boundaries (the sensation of someone getting too close to your face) but our emotional/psychological boundaries teach other people how to treat us.  Essentially, emotional boundaries refer to behavioral limits that we place to protect ourselves from being manipulated, hurt or violated by others.  Our boundaries are usually learned when we are children and set the stage for our adult relationships.  If we come from an abusive background, childhood communication patterns and boundary development is usually impaired. Often, our boundaries are too rigid (severely restricting relationships resulting in loneliness and poor intimacy) OR too loose (trying to people please resulting in losing one’s identity).  Healthy boundaries are flexible so we can choose what relationships or experiences to let in and which to keep out.

All of this sounds easy in theory!  We want to be healthy and we want people to respect our emotional boundaries!  But if we didn’t learn this in childhood, how do we learn it now?  Here are some guidelines and “baby steps” for tightening up your boundaries:

  1. Accept and believe that you have a right to your emotional boundaries however you decide to define them.  Your needs, desires, thoughts are important and matter!  The thoughts, needs and desires of your co-worker, friends, family, spouse are also important but cannot overpower or invalidate you.
  2. Change your response to boundary violating situations. Don’t expect the “other guy” to change.  Learning to assertively (NOT aggressively) communicate and respectfully say “no” is essential for healthy boundaries.  Giving yourself permission to say “no” is tough as most of us don’t like conflict and avoid it at all costs!  We want others to like us and are fearful that we will appear selfish or unhelpful.  In reality, expressing our feelings while respecting others strengthens communication and decreases our stress levels.
  3. Identify childhood patterns/relationships that may keep you stuck in unhealthy boundary setting. We tend to reenact patterns from the past because that is all we know.  Be open to change even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
  4. Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong for you in your gut, trust it and act upon it.
  5. Enforce your emotional boundaries. There will always be people in your environment who will violate your boundaries.  Don’t be afraid to enforce the rules that you have made for yourself.  Sometimes this may require distancing yourself from important but toxic relationships or saying “no” to school, community or social engagements.
  6. Seek professional help if you need a little support. There are many books on assertiveness and communication skills as well as many mental health professionals in your area that can support your emotional growth! Good luck!!