How to Set Boundaries With Difficult People
Dr. Lynn Margolies
We can all relate to feeling put upon and irritated by some people, but powerless to stop accommodating them. Though we take issue with their behavior, needs, or implicit demands, it’s not so easy to set limits. We may be uncomfortable with conflict and not want anyone to be mad or disappointed. We may feel bad and genuinely want to help, or want to be liked and seen as a good person and team player.
Using wishful thinking and taking the path of least resistance, we get pulled into repetitive patterns where we feel controlled, build up resentment, and want to escape or act out. People tend to deny or overestimate what they can actually tolerate or do - failing to have realistic expectations of themselves or others - even when it’s predictable how scenarios will play out. Rather than face what’s true and accommodate that reality, we act based on what we think we and others should be able to do - or hope the problem will disappear.
Further, when we do try to set limits with certain people, we still can’t get them to respect what we tell them. Popular misconceptions and even subtle strategic errors can make setting limits a losing battle. The good news is that you can easily become successful - using a method that sidesteps struggle, and puts you in control.
Popular mistakes that cause boundary setting to fail:
1. Telling people what they should do - or not do (and why they’re wrong). Creates resistance and struggle.
Trying to change or manage the other person is not likely to be well-received - or successful, especially when unsolicited and there’s a pattern of problematic behavior. Most people don’t like to be told what to do and why they’re wrong. Or they may not be able to stop.
2. Poor timing/wrong intent: reacting from anger/frustration in the heat of the moment when you’re at your wit’s end. Triggers a reaction in kind, escalates and prolongs the situation.
This “approach” is a desperate attempt to try to force the other person to do something. Turning up the volume sends executive functions offline - further limiting a person’s ability to control themselves or process information. Limits are different than punishment and are not motivated by, or delivered in, anger. The feelings/motivation behind what we do affects the message received, and determines its impact.
3. Trying to get people to admit/own up to something or recognize that the limits are for their own good. Creates a control struggle around autonomy inviting argument, debate and resistance/counter force.
This approach is experienced as emotional force: trying to control how the other person thinks or feels - and can also be humiliating.
4. Saying too much, justifying, over-explaining and being invested in convincing the other person that what you’re saying is reasonable or right. Seems insecure, relinquishes power, diminishes credibility. Allows an opening for opposition or argument.
This approach is associated with needing validation, fear of the other person getting mad, or the misconception that logic works when emotions are at play. Setting limits effectively requires coming from a position of strength (different from dominance/force) - being grounded and emotionally separate from the other person.
5. Being unprepared - including not factoring in what you already know about how things will realistically play out. Sets up preventable failure. Or, having a plan but not consistently doing what you say you’ll do. Sabotages credibility. Also, intermittent reinforcement increases problematic behavior.
Essential ingredients of boundary setting that works:
1. Tell the other person what you are going to do, not what they should do. You’re only in control of what you do, but what you do can limit the other person. Think ahead, troubleshooting in advance to anticipate predictable resistance/reactions - incorporating this information into your plan.
2. Be firm but dispassionate, clear and concise both when boundaries are established and when enforcing. Introduce limits at neutral times and then calmly, without fanfare, in the relevant moment. No tone, no struggle, no explaining. Minimal effort. Effective consequences stand on their own.
3. Make it about you and your limits - NOT about them, or what’s best for them. Stay in your own lane. This works because it’s argument proof and can’t be refuted.
4. Offer up that you could be wrong. Being “objectively” correct isn’t related to success here. Make it about your opinion or simply what you’re comfortable with or not. Puts you in charge without imposing anything. Allowing the other person to hold onto their viewpoint prevents a control struggle and is respectful. Easy.
Examples of effective and ineffective limit setting:
Teen: (mad) “It’s ridiculous - I’m 16, why do you have to know who I’m with always?! I’m not doing anything wrong. You obviously don’t trust me.”
Mom: “I do trust you. But I don’t know what your friends are up to.” (Engaging and trying to convince.)
Teen: “Oh so you don’t trust my friends either.” (eye roll). Extended debate ensues.
Mom: “As a parent I have to respect what I’m comfortable with, right or wrong, I’m just not comfortable with you going to an unsupervised party.”
Teen: “Why do you have to be so paranoid?”
Mom: “Maybe I do worry too much/am old fashioned but, as a parent, I have to do what I think is right in good conscience/can live with.”
Spouse, teen, anyone sounding irritated upon contact
Parent or spouse approaches Cody...
Cody: “WHAAAAAT...” (irritated, annoyed)
Parent or spouse:” Why are you always so disrespectful/in a bad mood? I’m pretty nice to you. You don’t hear me answering like that.” Argument ensues. (Guilt trip, provocative)
“Forget it, I’m not going to tell you.” Cold shoulder. (Passive-aggressive, creates ongoing tension, negative vibe continues longer.)
(Neutral tone) “Oh sounds like you’re in a bad mood/having a bad day. Text me later when you’re around and it’s a better time.” Walk out/hang up.
Finding yourself pulled into a deteriorating conversation
“Why are you always yelling?”
“Stop talking, I can’t take it.”
“Why are you denying being mad?”
Walks out - without saying anything. (Provocative, passive-aggressive)
“I’m taking a break from this conversation. We can continue later.” Calmly walk out. (Trusts instincts and avoids engaging but provides reassurance that you’re not bailing or abandoning.)
“I’m not comfortable talking now. I’ll come back/Let me know later when you want to connect.”
Co-worker who asks for help a lot or engages you in unwanted conversation
Co-worker: “Hey - I got this email …”
Linda: (Engaging but being unfriendly, not saying much.) “Hmmm…” (Too indirect, still depleting, doesn’t solve the problem.)
Linda: “I’m on deadline right now.” or “I don’t feel well today.”
Co-worker: “Oh that’s ok, can you help me afterwards tomorrow?”
“I’m at my capacity limit and need to focus my time/energy on my own work.”
“I can’t really concentrate in these conversations because I’m distracted by having to do my work.”
“I’m not going to respond anymore because I have to concentrate on my work.”
“Sorry - can’t help. I need to focus on/spend all my time on my own work from now on.”
Intrusive or needy family member/relative/friend who thinks you’re on call
Calling or texting repeatedly
Intrusive person: “Why aren’t you answering my texts/calls???”
Sam: “I’m busy.”
Intrusive person: “Where were you before?”
Sam: “At the gym.”
Intrusive person: “Oh so I guess you have time to exercise then.”
Sam: “Well I need to be healthy…”
Intrusive person: “Well so do I but….”
“When I don’t answer just know it means I’ll get back to you when I can.”
“I’m limiting screen time, text, email, phone so it may take a while for me to get back.”
“I’m actually off my phone at work now so I won’t be responding then.”
Boundary setting is challenging. Most people have difficulty and, without a strategy, resort to repeating the same tactic when unsuccessful, trying harder, or giving in. Another common obstacle is feeling it’s mean or selfish to set limits, but it’s actually hurtful not to. Boundaries protect relationships - allowing us to put our own oxygen mask on first, rather than be disingenuous, set ourselves up to become resentful, and then want to escape. With the tools to be successful, you can now take charge.