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How Do I Set Healthy Boundaries With Difficult People?

By Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie
Sometimes you have to draw the line. Difficult co-workers, needy family members, pushy friends, overly familiar neighbors—they may require that you step up and set clear boundaries. But, says Johns Hopkins therapist Johanna Howe, this “is not something that we’re necessarily taught. I think it can be extremely difficult.”

Learning how to manage demanding relationships, and distinguishing between a slight annoyance and a pattern of unhealthy behavior, “starts with noticing your feelings,” Howe says. If a pervasive sense of irritation washes over you every time a certain family member or friend is around, look at the relationship objectively. Where are your boundaries? Where are they being crossed?  

“This came up for me with a neighbor,” says Howe, who regularly volunteers in her community. No matter how much she did, however, one person kept pushing her to do more. Howe would agree to distribute the community newsletter and to help run a party, and then this person would ask her to organize a neighborhood cleanup as well. “I found it became an unhealthy pattern.”  

Tuning in to her feelings helped Howe put things into perspective. Yes, there’s the value of the relationship and the desire to avoid social awkwardness or severed ties, but a sense of self-respect and mental well-being is a priority, too. “Had I said yes to more volunteering, I’m not sure that would have been healthy for me with everything on my plate,” Howe says. “I would have felt worse in the long run. Noticing my feelings of irritation helped me understand my own boundary.”  

But why can saying no to someone feel so intimidating? Sometimes setting a healthy boundary means tolerating anger. “What’s most difficult when it comes to challenging people is that we fear their feelings,” Howe says. “We fear people getting angry with us and upsetting the apple cart.”  

“Just because the other person is upset or angry doesn’t mean that you should have said yes or that you shouldn’t have set this boundary.”

While an overly demanding neighbor may be annoying, relationships such as the conditional friend or the manipulative family member can be downright gut-wrenching. “I have worked with several clients who struggle in relationships with partners who are impaired or suffering from addictions,” Howe says. “The relationship often leaves them depleted of time, energy, resources, and emotion.”  

In those relationships, setting healthy boundaries can be much more stressful—you might be tempted to “change or deny your feelings of distress, discomfort, or guilt,” says Howe, to avoid confronting someone so deeply entrenched in your life. But those feelings are there for a reason. “I have worked with many clients who have had to make the difficult decision of weighing their needs, the relationship, and their self-respect,” she says. “In these difficult situations, practicing self-care, reaching out to one’s support system, or seeking counseling can help tremendously.”  

Once you’ve recognized it’s time to draw the line, start by reminding the person of your shared goals. Remember: Communicating an understanding of a difficult person’s demands doesn’t mean you can’t still set a firm boundary. Take Howe’s situation, for example. She finally said to her neighbor, “You know we both really want to make the neighborhood a great place to live, but I can only do one large project this year.”  

When drawing a line, be clear and direct about where your boundaries lie, Howe says. That might mean sounding like a broken record until it sinks in, pushing through the initial awkwardness, even holding firm in the face of backlash. “Just because the other person is upset or angry doesn’t mean that you should have said yes or that you shouldn’t have set this boundary,” Howe says. While you might initially feel intense guilt or worry, in the long run, you’re forging an increased sense of self-respect.  

There’s no perfect road map for managing a difficult relationship, but Howe suggests you always use your feelings as a guidepost. Employ empathy for the other person while respecting those feelings. “Living or dealing with difficult people can feel like a roller coaster,” Howe says. “But you don’t always need to get on the ride.” 

Red line painted across shoes
Ddmon De Haro

Tips for Setting Healthy Boundaries

  1. Listen to your feelings. Notice where a line is consistently being crossed by someone.
  2. Identify your needs. Think through your priorities, what you’re willing to put up with, and the feasible terms of the relationship. “You can set a boundary, but if you’re not able and willing to stick with it, it doesn’t really become effective,” Howe says.
  3. Acknowledge shared goals. “Identify shared goals, communicate an understanding of their perspective, and at the same time, set your boundary,” Howe says.
  4. Be clear and direct. There’s no reason not to be polite, but always stay firm. Repeat as necessary.
  5. Practice self-care. If setting a boundary leaves you with a negative taste in your
    mouth, turn to your broader support system of healthy relationships to ride it out.

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