7 Ways to Set Clear Boundaries With People in Your Life
Last Updated: Feb 02, 2017
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African businesswoman talking on telephone
Have you ever left dinner with a friend, co-worker or family member feeling completely mentally exhausted? If you have, chances are this person is the type who always has some kind of crisis going on and constantly complains. Or maybe he or she is continually critical, and you end up on the receiving end of his or her drama and negativity. For your own sanity, it’s important to learn how to set boundaries with emotionally draining people -- whether it’s your needy friend, your unpredictably moody boss, your toxic ex or your irresponsible sister. Here’s what the experts advise for dealing with these draining people in your life. And who better to illustrate the difficulties of dealing with frenemies than our fur babies?
Portrait of a Sulking Businessman Wearing Spectacles and a Pinstripe Suit
RAISE YOUR AWARENESS
The first step in being able to understand how to deal with emotionally draining people is to acknowledge that you are indeed being drained, says professional counselor and facilitator Michael Diettrich-Chastain of PathtoSynergy.com. “Check in with yourself if you are feeling tired, irritable, frustrated or put off,” he explains. “If these feelings just started after engaging with this person, then this may be a clue that this person is emotionally draining to you.” Once you determine that this person is emotionally taxing to you, decide how much you are willing to tolerate. Define how often you want to continue seeing this person (if you have a choice) and how keeping this relationship may affect your overall well-being.
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LIMIT HOW OFTEN YOU INTERACT WITH THEM
If the person isn’t your boss or your roommate (i.e., someone you aren’t guaranteed to see every day), then be more selective about when you see or talk to him or her. “Give yourself permission to power down and ignore calls, especially when you are exhausted or being pulled in multiple directions,” suggests clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula (Doctor-Ramani.com). “The power of caller ID is notable here: Don’t feel like you have to answer the phone every time or even answer an email immediately. Give yourself time to breathe before you tackle it -- and prepare yourself, much like stretching before a workout.”
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Man running on street at night (Digital Composite)
SET A “HARD OUT” TIME
When you do see the person in the flesh, make a point to set an end time to your coffee or lunch date, Ramani suggests. “It may feel ‘cold,’ but many times folks like these will take a mile if you give them an inch,” she explains. “Plus, knowing there is a finite end may allow you to pace yourself better.” Elizabeth Olate, M.A., M.S.W., LISW, of ElizabethOlate.com, agrees. “Sometimes we need to let our needy friends know that we only have half an hour to talk. That way, we can engage, let him or her know they’re supported and also [allow them to] respect and honor our time.”
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PRACTICE DEPERSONALIZING THE RELATIONSHIP
If the emotionally draining person in your life is constantly critical of you or you feel like he or she is always on the attack, realize that his or her behavior is not a reflection on you. “Although it may seem like this person is out to get you or hurt your feelings, chances are good that you aren’t that special, at least in his or her eyes,” says life-balancing coach Jaime Pfeffer (JaimePfeffer.com). “Meaning that if you followed him or her around for a day, you’d likely find he or she treats everyone poorly -- not just you.” Be proactive about not taking his or her behavior personally, Pfeffer advises, by being mindful of your reaction and remembering that you have no control over how this person acts.
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Another way to set boundaries is to stop reinforcing a person’s negative behavior. If you find yourself agreeing with the person and nodding along just for the sake of getting through the conversation, you’re actually validating his or her actions. “I once had a client put a hook on his office wall so every time a person entered his office with a complaint or horror story, he looked at the hook to remind himself to control his own reactive emotions,” says Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D., author of “The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs.” “He then either listened to discover what the person needed to move forward or set a boundary around the conversation, asking to focus on solutions instead of what was wrong.”
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DEFLECT, WHEN NECESSARY
A common trap people can fall into with emotionally draining people is trying to “save” them by offering solutions, only to find that these suggestions are rarely taken. Rather than continuing to dispense help and have your advice disregarded, direct the person to someone else. “The best way to deal with these people is to say something like, ‘I know you’re really upset, but I’m not the best person to talk to about this. Maybe you should see a therapist or counselor,’” suggests marriage and family therapist Dr. Jane Greer of DrJaneGreer.com. “You can also simply say, ‘I don’t think it’s the best idea for me to advise you.’” By putting a boundary around giving advice, you avoid going in circles with the person, not to mention the frustration that comes when your thoughtful counsel is dismissed.
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BE MORE ASSERTIVE
If the person in question takes issue with your choices or continually doles out unsolicited advice, it’s crucial to calmly stand up for yourself. “Emotional drainers thrive on manipulating and dictating your emotions, so the best thing you can do is respectfully assert your perspective without trying to be right or telling them what to do,” says licensed therapist and coach Melody Wilding, LMSW (MelodyWilding.com). “For example, when countering an overbearing mother-in-law, you might say, ‘I understand you may be upset, but this is the decision I’m making.’” Another way to be assertive is to put a “hard stop” on the subject matter when the conversation starts getting uncomfortable. Reynolds suggests saying something like: “I understand why you feel the way you do, but it doesn’t look like there is anything else I can do for you. I would be happy to take up this conversation with you at another time when you are willing to look at taking a step forward.”
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