Dealing with Difficult People: Setting Boundaries

Dealing with Difficult People: Setting Boundaries

Dealing with difficult people in our lives, particularly family members, can be challenging. It’s a delicate balance between engaging with them and protecting ourselves from harm. Sometimes, the toxicity is so overwhelming that the best option is to take a step back, even if it means distancing ourselves from those we care about deeply.

However, for many of us, the relationships with difficult individuals are more nuanced. We love them, yet they drain our energy; they drive us crazy, yet we want them in our lives. So, how do we navigate this complexity? One crucial tool in this journey is setting boundaries.

What are Boundaries?

Boundaries are not about being rigid or harsh; they’re about knowing our limits and communicating them effectively. They’re the guardrails that help us maintain our well-being amidst challenging relationships. Picture this: your adult brother, struggling with addiction, becomes verbally aggressive during a phone call. Setting a boundary might involve ending the conversation if it becomes too confrontational, ensuring that you support him without sacrificing your own mental and emotional health.

Similarly, boundaries come into play when dealing with emotionally charged situations, like a close friend bombarding you with angry messages over a perceived slight. Instead of being drawn into the drama, you calmly express your preference for addressing the issue in person, prioritizing healthy communication over escalating tensions.

In family dynamics,, boundaries are crucial. Suppose your mother disapproves of your partner. You assertively communicate that her disrespect towards your significant other is unacceptable and will impact your participation in family events if it persists. Setting this boundary asserts your autonomy and demands respect for your choices.

What boundaries are NOT

Sometimes people confuse “setting boundaries” with “making unilateral decisions for relationships.” In most relationships, there should be room for some negotiation and for finding a “win/win” for all involved. A good rule of thumb is that most people have some “core values” that they prioritize. Core values or needs might be things like respect, compassion, personal growth. If you have a core value of being treated with respect and treating others with respect, you can use that to help you set healthy boundaries like not engaging in a conversation if the other person becomes threatening or aggressive. 

But if you have a list of 50 “core needs” and you conflate getting what you want with “setting boundaries” you’re in a position to at best irritate, at worst alienate the people around you. You can ask yourself: is this boundary I’m setting protecting a core value that I have, like respect? Or am I just demanding that this person meet my needs and cater to my desires at the expense of their own? Is there any room for negotiation here, or is this truly a non-negotiable topic for me? If it’s a non-negotiable, go ahead and stick to the limit that you made.

Of course, setting boundaries isn’t easy. Difficult individuals may push back, resorting to manipulative tactics to test your resolve. In these moments, it’s vital to be kind to yourself, stay grounded, and reaffirm your reasons for establishing boundaries.

Weathering the Storm: Handling Reactions to Boundaries

When we set boundaries, reactions from others may vary, ranging from understanding to outright resistance. Some may resort to adult temper tantrums and emotionally manipulative behavior. In these moments, it’s crucial to anchor ourselves in self-compassion, reminding ourselves of the rationale behind our choices.

  • Breathe: Engage in mindfulness to reconnect with your inner state, acknowledging emotions without being swept away by them.
  • Time Limits: Set boundaries on discussion duration, signaling a commitment to prioritize your well-being.
  • Consistency: Uphold boundaries consistently, reinforcing expectations and signaling to others how we expect to be treated over time.

Boundaries when you have trauma in your background


I work with many clients with some kind of trauma in their backgrounds, whether it’s religious trauma (growing up in a harsh, authoritarian household, for example) or developmental trauma (growing up with a harsh, authoritarian parent, for example). For clients with trauma, boundaries can be even more tricky. They are often very sensitive to the needs of others and don’t feel entitled to prioritize their own needs. They also sometimes struggle with codependent behaviors because they struggle to value themselves and overvalue what the other person wants.

Or, some clients have the opposite problem in which they can be highly reactive and overly demanding of others due to their fears of abandonment.

If you have trauma in your background, it’s important to remind yourself that you have a right to autonomy, to make choices, and to feel respected in your relationships. Setting a boundary doesn’t make you a bad or selfish person. But also, if you tend towards rigid or controlling boundaries, or you have a tendency to highly reactive behaviors yourself, you may need to spend more time discerning what’s truly healthy for you in order to have boundaries that are neither over loose nor overly rigid.

Boundaries and Group Dynamics

Boundaries aren’t limited to individual relationships; they extend to group dynamics as well. Whether it’s a demanding church community or a toxic social circle, if expressing your needs is met with dismissal or shame, it’s a red flag indicating an unhealthy environment.

Some groups can be demanding and unhealthy. For example, you may join a church that emphasizes attendance twice a week as well as volunteering on a weekly basis. If this is too much for you to handle while balancing the needs of your family and career, you can set a boundary.

If, in the above example, the church leaders dismiss your statement of needing to volunteer less and you feel shamed for backing out of some commitments, it may be time to consider whether this is a healthy group for you. Are they using shame and fear to control people and use them, or are they a truly open and accepting environment where you feel respected?

Ultimately, how people respond to your boundaries reveals a lot about them and the nature of the relationship. Healthy connections respect boundaries, fostering mutual understanding and growth. Conversely, those who disregard or belittle your boundaries may not have your best interests at heart. That doesn’t mean you need to cut them out of your life, but it may mean you need to be more intentional about how you approach the relationship and the boundaries that you set.

Therapy Can Help

Many people come to therapy initially because they’re struggling with difficult people in their lives. If you need support around dealing with a parent, significant other, sibling, boss or someone else in your life who tends to not respect your boundaries, feel free to reach out for a free consultation. I would be happy to work with you.

*Another wonderful resource on boundaries is the book Stop Walking on Eggshells. Highly recommended!

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