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This article discusses ways to set boundaries with “toxic” people*. This includes identifying your needs, communicating effectively, recognizing your options, detaching with love, releasing guilt, and limiting contact.
It isn’t easy to set boundaries with toxic people! But we can all learn to set boundaries with toxic people — and when we do, it’s empowering.
Boundaries are a way to take care of ourselves. When we set boundaries, we’re less angry and resentful because our needs are getting met. Boundaries make our expectations clear, so others know what to expect from us and how we want to be treated. Boundaries are the foundation for happy, healthy relationships.
Ideally, people will respect our boundaries when we communicate them clearly. But we all know that some people will do everything they can to resist our efforts to set boundaries; they will argue, blame, ignore, manipulate, threaten, or physically hurt us. And while we can’t prevent people from acting like this, we can learn to set clear boundaries and take care of ourselves.
How to set boundaries with toxic people
There are three parts to setting boundaries:
1) Identify your boundaries. Be clear on what you need before trying to communicate or enforce the boundary.
2) Communicate your boundaries or expectations clearly, calmly, and consistently. Stick to the facts without overexplaining, blaming, or becoming defensive. For example, it’s more effective to say “I’m calling a cab. I’m not getting in the car with you when you’ve been drinking,” than to lose your temper and say “I can’t believe you’re going to drive home after you’ve been drinking all night! Every time we go out, it’s the same thing. I’m not going to take it anymore!”
3) If your boundaries aren’t respected, evaluate your options and take action.
This article will focus on the third step – what we can do when our boundaries aren’t respected.
Who are toxic people?
Toxic people are the folks that ooze negative energy and leave us feeling worse whenever we’re around them. I strongly believe that your gut instinct will tell you whether someone is toxic and not healthy to be around, but if you want a little more guidance, below are some of the characteristics of toxic people.
- Lie on a regular basis
- Take advantage of your kindness
- Don’t respect your boundaries
- Manipulate you in order to get what they want
- Put you down
- Don’t encourage you to pursue your goals
- Don’t consider other people’s feelings or needs
- Feel entitled
- Are frequently angry or aggressive
- Rarely apologize
- Blame others and don’t take responsibility for their actions
- Drain your energy
- Have a lot of “drama” or problems, but don’t want to change
- Think the rules don’t apply to them
- Talk, but don’t listen
What if someone won’t respect your boundaries?
Setting boundaries is an ongoing process and there isn’t a quick fix for dealing with boundary violators. The bottom line is that we can’t make people respect our boundaries, but we can control how we respond. The following ideas can help you choose the best approach for dealing with chronic boundary violators.
Decide whether this boundary is negotiable. Some boundaries are more important than others. Identifying what you’re willing to accept and what you consider intolerable or non-negotiable will help you decide if you’re willing to compromise.
Compromise can be a good thing if both people are adjusting. However, true compromise isn’t abandoning your needs to please someone else or accepting treatment that you consider a deal-breaker.
If someone repeatedly violates your most important boundaries, you have to ask yourself how long you’re willing to accept such treatment. I’ve seen people accept disrespect and abuse for years and years, hoping a toxic person will change only to look back in hindsight to see that this person had no intention of changing or respecting boundaries.
Write down what’s happening. Record the boundary violations and your responses. This will help you check for weak spots in your boundaries. It’s hard to repeatedly set the same boundary with someone who isn’t listening and often we start to give up and are inconsistent with our boundaries. If you notice that you aren’t consistently setting healthy boundaries, make adjustments. And if you are being consistent, writing things down can help you get clarity about what you’re willing to accept and how you feel about it.
Accept that some people will not respect your boundaries no matter what you do. This is a difficult truth to accept because we’d like to be able to convince people to respect our boundaries. I know it’s disappointing to realize that you may need to decide whether you want to continue to have a relationship with this person. But you can’t change someone else’s behavior. You can choose to accept it or you can choose to disengage.
Practice loving detachment. Detaching is a shift away from trying to control people and situations. When you’re in a state of fear, it’s understandable that you want to control things to protect yourself. But trying to control other people never works. When we detach, we stop trying to change others and force the outcome that we want. You can detach from a narcissistic or toxic person by:
- Physically leaving a dangerous or uncomfortable situation.
- Responding in a different way. For example, instead of taking something personally or yelling, we can shrug off a rude comment or make a joke of it. This changes the dynamics of the interaction.
- Declining invitations to spend time with them.
- Letting them make their own decisions and deal with the consequences of those choices.
- Not giving unsolicited advice.
- Choosing not to participate in the same old arguments or taking space away from an unproductive conversation or argument.
Detaching doesn’t mean you don’t care about this person, it means you’re taking care of yourself and being realistic about what you can do in each situation.
Consider limiting contact or going no-contact. Sometimes the only way to protect yourself is to stop associating with toxic people who don’t respect you. Limited or no contact isn’t intended to punish or manipulate others, it’s a form of self-care. If someone is hurting you physically or emotionally, you owe it to yourself to put some distance between you and this person.
Despite what others may say, you don’t have to have a relationship with family members or anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself. Family and friends should lift you up and support you, not leave you depressed, anxious, angry, or confused.
You have choices
One of the great things about being an adult is that you have choices. You don’t have to continue to be friends with someone who takes advantage of your kindness or work for someone who criticizes and belittles you non-stop, or stay in a romantic relationship with someone who gaslights you.
We all have choices — sometimes we don’t like particularly like any of them, but it’s important to know that we have them. We aren’t trapped or powerless.
Choosing to end relationships (even abusive relationships) is painful. And for practical reasons, you may not be able to end a toxic relationship right this second. But you can look for a new job or stay with a friend or at a shelter in order to eventually free yourself from a person who hurts you physically and/or emotionally.
If we’re honest, sometimes we’re just not ready to go no-contact or end a relationship even though deep inside we know it’s unhealthy to continue. If this is the case, you can:
1) Identify your choices (such as detaching physically and emotionally, limiting contact, avoiding being alone with the person, practicing self-care).
2) Choose the best option (none may be ideal).
3) Respect yourself.
4) Trust your instincts.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Sometimes others will be angry or offended by your choices even though you aren’t setting boundaries to be mean or difficult and sometimes you cannot continue to have these people in your life. Boundaries are a way to protect yourself from harm and maintain your autonomy and individuality. These are priceless gifts that you deserve to give yourself.
Learn more about how to set boundaries with toxic people
- Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members
- 10 Ways to Free Yourself from Toxic Parents
- Should I Leave a Dysfunctional Relationship?
- The Better Boundaries Workbook
*The term “toxic people” is used in this article to describe people who consistently exhibit toxic or harmful behaviors. It is not the ideal term and I’d prefer not to label people at all. However, using this popular term allows people searching on the internet to find pertinent resources, such as this article.
©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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