Setting clear boundaries to deal with toxic people
I was inspired to write this as a result of a series of conversations in my free mindset Facebook group. I always knew that many people struggle with setting boundaries, I was one of those people before I learnt the skills necessary to create the balance between my needs and the needs of others.
So, how do you set clear boundaries, especially with toxic people, when it is something that you know you lack and aren't sure how to change?
Firstly, you need to know what a toxic or controlling person is:
- There is a power struggle - whenever the toxic person feels you are on top (through achievements or acts of kindness, caring, etc.) that undermines their self-worth, they will seek to bring you down somehow to make them feel superior.
- It's all about them - you're going through a tough time, theirs is tougher.
- They lack empathy for your situation.
- They violate or disregard boundaries.
- The relationship is one-sided, usually on their terms.
- They are pessimistic about other people, especially those close to you, or those who appear to be more successful than the toxic person perceives that they are.
- You feel drained or down about yourself after spending time with them. They dismiss your achievements by undermining them or ignoring them altogether.
- You feel that you need to bolster their fragile ego.
Secondly, you need to know the rules when dealing with toxic people:
1. If possible, cut ties, completely
I know that this sounds harsh but toxic people tend to be attracted toward the helpers and givers, the highly sensitive, the empaths. Toxic people can also be considered energy vampires, for you feel drained after spending time with them.
The artful toxic person will make you feel bad about yourself by engaging in controlling behaviours such as put-downs, gaslighting, asking for favours then criticising when you don't meet their exacting standards. Shaming, blaming and avoiding responsibility for their own actions. Undermining your achievements and pointing out your errors or failures.
If you cannot avoid spending time with them then limit it as much as possible. The time you do spend with them, try and make it in a public place and/or with other people. Toxic people tend to be devious and covert, avoiding witnesses to their controlling and damaging behaviours.
2. When dealing with toxic people - set clear boundaries
A toxic person will have little or no respect for your personal boundaries. They might email or message you out of hours (work-related) and/or at unsociable times.
They might dismiss your requests and do things anyway, even when you've spoken up to the contrary. Be clear about what you will and won't tolerate - and stick to it.
3. Stop rescuing them
As a kind, considerate person who genuinely wants to help, you might find yourself unintentionally placing yourself as the person to 'go to' to resolve a problem or a drama. Taken from Karpman's Drama Triangle, if you find that your default position tends to be the rescuer then start considering if this is what you want to keep doing. By rescuing others, you disempower them to be autonomous in finding their own solutions and unintentionally create a co-dependency.
Rescuing a toxic person on a repeated basis will only have them coming back to you more frequently, with bigger problems, until you eventually fail to find a solution, or add to their problem.
This will then lead you to become the target of their wrath as they feel let down, and disappointed and you will then become the source of their blaming and shaming attitude. All you were trying to do is to help - because they asked you to, not because it was your responsibility or your job to.
4. It might get worse before it gets better
When a toxic person sees you distance yourself from them or cut ties, they know that they are losing a lifeline. That scares them, so they do all that they can to get back the control over you that they once had.
They'll do whatever it takes. They'll call, message, text, email, try to bump into you, and contact you through other methods such as workplace numbers or emails - usually under the guise of wanting to sort things out or offering something positive as a way to hook you back in.
Don't see this as a sign to stop what you are doing, see it as a sign that you are redressing the imbalance in the power struggle and showing them that their unacceptable behaviours just won't work anymore.
5. You don't need to explain
No is a complete sentence and one of the most powerful words in any language. You don’t need to explain, justify or make excuses. ‘No’ is the guardian at your front gate, your boundary that makes sure that the contamination from toxic people doesn’t get through to you.
To begin with, saying 'no' might feel like you are the toxic one. If in doubt, use the 'my friend' scenario. Think about someone you know, either personally, professionally, a celebrity or a character from a film that is able to set clear boundaries, doesn't feel the need to explain their actions, and is confident, yet kind, understanding and compassionate. What would they say or do?
If they would respond similarly to you, then you can see it as a clear sign that you are relearning not to be so overly accommodating and learning to set clear boundaries.
Learning how to set clear boundaries with toxic people, starts by knowing your own boundaries. You can start by reflecting on times when you have overreacted to words or actions by others and asking yourself why you felt that way.
What was it about the situation that created the response?
Usually, it is because one of your boundaries was crossed. Boundaries, values and criteria are all unique to an individual so I would encourage you to look outside of yourself for some answers.
Make a list of what caused the reaction, are these your set of values? Your boundaries?
Seeking the support of a therapist or coach would be appropriate as would empowering you through self-knowledge and insight. There are some great books on the subject, here are a few that I have either read or been recommended:
- Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab
- The Four Agreements: Practical Guide to Personal Freedom: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (Toltec Wisdom) by Don Miguel Ruiz
- The Power is Within You by Louise Hay