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8 tips to set boundaries with difficult people

Originally posted January 22, 2019.

Joe’s a pretty emotionally balanced person with pretty good boundaries. And still, people got under his skin. He came in to therapy to consciously develop and deepen his coping skills, so as to broaden and strengthen his emotional resilience.

In his personal life, Joe felt weighed down by negative gossiping. His aunt called often to check up on him. He felt several ways about their relationship. He liked having an older adult to talk with. Yet, there was an (un)healthy dose of negativity served up with the caring as well. The mixed emotional messages were disconcerting. It was not something he had to cope within his own nuclear family.

At first, Joe didn’t register it was happening. He didn’t realize people were actually that manipulative; he thought most were pretty straight forward. It was hard to get used to having an adult behave in this way. The sniping made him uncomfortable and annoyed.

And at work, Joe’s boss had narcissistic traits and was difficult to deal with as well. Joe was learning that people weren’t always out for his own good. He wasn’t used to the duplicity of very neurotic people.

His boss didn’t lead by example. He didn’t do much work himself, but expected the people that worked for him to work overtime. He made an announcement that he expected people to come in on weekends for an unspecified number of weeks. And then he wouldn’t show up himself! He also berated individuals on the team, seemingly rotating the negativity from one person to another.

Joe would feel bad when his boss criticized him. Eventually, he realized his boss wasn’t singling him out. But it still felt bad to have his boss talk down to him when it happened. He started worrying about losing his job.

So, Joe came in to therapy as he decided he needed to strengthen his “adult” coping skills in order to inoculate himself against emotional toxicity.

We decided a good place to start was to explicitly identify and strengthen his personal boundaries. Identifying, describing and strengthening personal boundaries helps people keep their self-esteem intact, feel more in control of the situation and sets limitations on their own reactions.

Here are 8 tips for boundary strengthening.

  • Step back and depersonalize. Step back from the tangle of emotions that are arising from these situations. Depersonalize your thoughts around the interactions with these people. Most likely, they behave the same way way with multiple people.

  • Boundary Practice: Watch those mirror neurons! Joe’s aunt and his boss have the tendency to be negative and critical. We can all catch these negative emotions as we all have mirror neurons, which allow us to instantly empathize with others.

  • Mirror neurons are part of a primitive, biological, survival reaction that helped us read and fit in with a group. Mirror neuron reactions carry alot of emotional energy. Take a step back and realize we don’t always need to to be empathetic. Discern where you fit in with others. If you feel yourself empathizing to the point of subverting your own internal reactions, pause for a moment. Stop, realize what is it is happening within you is a normal human response that you don’t need to tap into all the time. Take time to feel into and embody your own thoughts and feelings. Go to your authentic self and hold onto it.

  • Reinforce boundaries with an imaginal exercise called the Blue Energetic Circle. It goes like this: Create an energetic blue circle of fire all around you and let yourself be protected inside of the circle. Keep imagining you are protected within this blue energetic circle of fire. Feel that their reactions are not your reactions.

  • Boundaries enhance self-respect: Joe discussed whether or not he wanted to maintain a relationship with his aunt and also if he wanted to stay in his current job. He made a conscious decision that he wanted to maintain the relationship with his aunt and also wanted to keep his job. He realized he could re-negotiate his decisions if necessary.

  • Redirection skills: Therefore, he decided to balance his need for self-respect with redirection skills when his aunt became negative, so he had some control over the conversation. He also gave himself permission to limit the amount of times he socialized with her.

  • Ignore attacks and divert to feel more in control: At work, Joe decided he would balance the need to keep his position with his need to hold onto his self-esteem by using ignore and divert skills. He made a decision to consciously ignore his boss’ attacks on his work. Joe would listen, then calmly not respond to the criticism, but bring up other tasks he did knew right. His boss tried to pin him down, but Joe decided it was fun as he was using manipulative verbal tactics to his own advantage and thus, did not feel victimized.

  • Confrontation rarely works with difficult and narcissistic people. Joe consciously decided that he knew they would not change, but he wanted to maintain the relationships. He reinforced his own boundaries by not trying to influence or change the others. He realized he had some control over the situations. He could choose to manage the interactions by modifying his own reactions and behaviors and be assured he did the best he could and not second guess himself.


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