Boundaries with Toxic People

How to Set Boundaries with Toxic People

Key Points:

  • We set boundaries to protect ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially.
  • Difficult or “toxic” people* do not respect boundaries.
  • You are not powerless. When dealing with a difficult person, you may find relief by identifying your needs, communicating effectively, recognizing your options, detaching with love, releasing guilt, and limiting contact.

A note about terminology: The term “toxic people” is used in this article to describe people who consistently exhibit manipulative 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.

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.

Learn how to set boundaries with toxic people

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.

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.

Set boundaries with toxic people

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.

*The term “toxic people” is used in this article to describe people who consistently exhibit manipulative 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.

This site is for informational purposes only. It provides general information and is not intended to nor should it be used to diagnose or treat any psychological, relationship, or medical issues or advise you on your particular issues, questions, or decisions. You are solely responsible for how you use the information provided on this website and the consequences of your actions. This page may contain affiliate links which means I receive a small commission on items purchased.

Learn more about how to set boundaries with toxic people

The Better Boundaries Workbook

Your step-by-step guide to setting boundaries in all areas of your life.

“The most comprehensive resource available to help people struggling with setting healthy boundaries, people pleasing, and assertive communication.” —Dr. Marni Feuerman

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

12 thoughts on “How to Set Boundaries with Toxic People”

  1. Once again Dr. Martin your article is of great assistance. I look forward to reading Setting Boundries Without Guilt and doing the work.

  2. Thank you so much – this is an empowering article full of helpful and proactive suggestions. As someone that was brought up in a household where boundaries were not allowed, and have subsequently struggled to even know I had a right to them in my adulthood, this is my liberation point! Thank you so much!

    1. I agree w you. This is a very good article. And, I enjoy reading your comment. Sincerely, peter NYC.

  3. This seems to be very good advice.

    However, what happens when the boundary violator is a codependent, cage-rattling co-worker, i.e. obsessed with tending to others and retaliatory toward those of us who refuse to let her do for us, fix for us, rescue us, and otherwise obligate us to deliver her self-worth to her? I’m in such a situation and have detached by necessity, but this has given her ammunition to make me look like the aggressor. It’s such an unwinnable situaiton and I resent her for making herself something to have to stop and deal with constantly. Our manager is an ostrich, so there’s no hope there. Any suggestions for shutting her down other than looking for another job?

  4. Communal garden, were neighbours gather..gossip and general nastiness., which to me is very triggering…any tips , guidance or advice would be more than appreciated…these guys have made my life hell in the summer for years…I’ve tried stopping and chatting that makes them worse, I’ve been avoiding them and that makes them worse..I have to walk past them every day ? if I go out…sometimes don’t go out because of their comments …it is affecting my mental health

  5. “Are frequently angry or aggressive”

    Not always. There’s toxic people who are the complete opposite. They act fake by being overly nice while exhibiting all the other definitions on your list.

    I’ve noticed that the best way to disengage from toxic people who repeatedly don’t respect my boundaries and we can’t cut out of our life just yet is to go for long walks. Walking leads to building confidence and a feeling of independence. Now I can just ignore them without their toxic behaviour affecting me.

      1. I don’t. know anything, people make me so nervous,57 yrs nothing, for myself, i don’t know what to do were to start, & there is a lots i wish I had the strength to change but change to 🚶 what myself i don’t know I’m so not interested, cause i don’t know how for me hey who am I. I don’t know but i don’t want what these selfish people want, do i still have time I’m lost.

  6. No doubt this is a very good article but some things are impractical like finding some other shelter. In India as a teenager this is not possible for us and if we try to maintain distance our parents they start complaining about it . they think that as an individual i am nothing without them and that is why they don’t let me go anywhere alone with my friends and if i say that i want some freedom they start telling me to get out of the house In front of others they act like they are the best parents and i am the one who is toxic
    but yes i hope that these tricks will help me

  7. Have all the boundaries you want but realize others can have them too. And there is a growing knowledge that boundaries aren’t all good. It’s NOT all about taking care of you FIRST . sometimes it’s about caring about other people. Not all the time, but sometimes. and those real boundary lovers may look around one day and realize there isn’t anyone there for them when they need help….they’ve taken care of themselves one too many times and ignored others who needed help (taking care of themselves!!!) Depends what kind of person you want to be. Not talking here about reasonable boundaries that discussed or abuse. talking mostly about lazy, selfish people who use boundaries as their excuse

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