Setting boundaries can be scary. Sometimes just thinking about it gives me anxiety. Sometimes, I think that maybe if I ignore a problem, it will go away. But I’ve learned that it won’t. I learned that problems not dealt with only get worse. Toxic people rarely get better on their own, so it is better to deal with them immediately, both to create a safer, more secure long term relationship and also to prevent them from saying or doing things that can’t be unsaid or undone.
What does a healthy boundary look like?
If you’ve never seen or experienced healthy boundaries, it can be hard to know how to set them. And even those who do know what healthy boundaries look like can find themselves in unhealthy relationships, especially when they’ve gotten worse over time. To help us remember what a healthy relationship looks like, take a look at the following list (courtesy of Sharon Martin, LCSW); you should be able to do every single entry on it:
- Say no without guilt
- Ask for what you want or need
- Take care of yourself
- Do things out of interest/desire, not out of obligation or to please others
- Behave according to your own values and beliefs
- Feel safe to express difficult emotions and also to disagree
- Feel supported to pursue your goals
- Be treated as an equal
- Take responsibility for your happiness and not feel responsible for the happiness of someone else
- Be in tune with your own feelings
- Know who you are, what you believe, and what you like
- Feel energized and alive
The Stages of Boundary Setting
Setting boundaries with toxic people is a difficult process. This article provides the steps, from beginning to end:
Change Your Mindset.
Often, the biggest obstacle to setting boundaries is our own feelings about them, feelings such as unworthiness, guilt, insecurity, fear. To overcome this hurdle, you must believe in your self worth and have confidence in yourself. Before you can set boundaries, you must change how you feel about them. Let go of the guilt you feel, find a safe environment, and focus on yourself. Surround yourself with people who encourage and support you, and join a group or go to therapy if you must. Remember that you’re worth it; you’ve been so busy taking care of others, who’s been taking care of you? It’s time to put yourself first, for you have the right to security and happiness, just like everyone else. Self-talk can really help with this.
Determine what you want to get out your boundaries.
What do you want to achieve? Do you need to save a relationship? Do you need space? What behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not? When you know what you want, you’ll know what your boundaries are.
This can be difficult. Toxic people often resist boundaries, for they have the power and they don’t want that to change. To avoid a scene when communicating your boundaries, meet in a neutral and public place, one where you can leave at any time should things get out of hand (coffee shops work great). Communicate your boundaries simply and directly, don’t offer explanations, don’t try to convince them why boundaries are needed, and don’t attempt to explain the situation or boundaries in “clever” ways. Be courteous but don’t console them (if they need support, recommend they see a therapist). If they resist, don’t argue or compromise, simply tell them this is the way it is going to be. Finally, make sure to tell them that you are not doing this to push them away; you are doing this to give both of you the space you need to have a healthy relationship. They may not hear/understand/believe this last statement, but it is still important that you say it.
Reinforce the boundaries.
What are the consequences if your boundaries are not respected? Make sure you hold to them, every time, no matter what. Say “No” when you mean no, say “Yes” when you mean yes. Don’t let yourself be guilted or manipulated, find a way to tell other to stop, and don’t feel obligated to do anything other than take care of yourself (this may seem selfish but it is not: if you aren’t taking care of yourself, how can you expect to take care of anyone else?). Always be ready to walk away. Finally, if things don’t improve and your boundaries continue to be disrespected, you must be willing to walk away for good.
When your boundaries are respected, reward the person doing the respecting. As crazy as it seems, it is difficult for some people to respect other people’s boundaries. And like all humans, if these people are not rewarded after doing something difficult, they’re not going continue doing that thing (forget about the idea that the reward of a job well done is to have done it, toxic people don’t work that way). Effective ways to reward toxic people are to thank them verbally and spend time with them.
Remember to respect the other person and their boundaries too. Be firm and fair and lead by example; don’t drop to their level, bring them up to yours.
If a situation arises and the other person needs extra love and support, it’s okay to relax your boundaries and be there for them. But only do this temporarily, and even if they don’t expect it or think it is unjustified, re-affirm the boundaries once the situation has passed. Also, make sure the situation really does warrant your personal involvement; if you care enough about a toxic person to want to keep them in your life, then you should also know enough about them to know what situations are real and what situations are not. You should also know what situations require your personal involvement versus situations that should be handled by someone else (friends, family, a therapist, etc).
There will be setbacks and it can take a long time for people to come around. As long as they are making the effort and you are taking the proper steps to protect yourself, those are the most important parts.
Words To Use When Setting Boundaries
Another difficult aspect when setting boundaries with toxic people is figuring out the specific words to say. As discussed above, all communication about setting and respecting boundaries should be simple, firm, respectful, and direct , and there should be no convincing or explaining (clarification is okay but explanations are not) or anything else like that. But how is this done? How does someone actually communicate like this?
Well, it turns out Oprah has a great article on this (page 3 in particular for this specific section). Rather than explain it myself, I will simply link you to it!
If you’re looking for ways to say “no” without feeling guilty, here are 14 simple ways from author Pamela Redmond Satran’s book 1000 Ways to Be a Slightly Better Woman:
- I’m going to have to pass.
- I’d love to, but I just don’t have the time.
- I made a resolution to start saying no more often.
- I don’t want to say yes and then let you down.
- I’d love to, but my boyfriend/kids/boss would freak out if I took on anything else.
- Not right now.
- Not this year.
- You caught me at a terrible moment.
- I can’t say yes.
- I don’t want to say no, but I have to.
- I’m just not comfortable with that.
- It’s just not right for me.
- Ask another time.
- Please cross me off your list.
One thing I would like to add to this article is the importance of rehearsing what you plan to say ahead of time. Studies show that most people respond to situations the way they imagine themselves responding should they imagine the situation beforehand. Therefore, if you imagine your meeting and visualize what you will say and do, and also imagine and rehearse how you will respond to rejections and other types of resistance, your conversation will generally go much smoother than it otherwise would have (this is true for all social interactions, not just those with toxic people). For me personally, I know that if I don’t plan out and practice what I’m going to say in these types of conversations, I’ll get really emotional and feel guilty and weak when saying it.
Is someone you know need help in setting boundaries?
<– Share and help spread the word!
- Saying no and then letting go: an example exchange between an adult daughter and her mother.
- The Power of No book
- The Power of No, Psychology Today (no relation to the above book)
- Extra help for Highly Sensitive People
- Support site for those raised by narcissistic/emotionally abusive parents and family
- For dealing with those with Borderline Personality Disorder
This post contains affiliate links to books I recommend. This means that when you click through to buy the product, a portion of the sale goes to me to help cover the cost of running this blog.