A key strategy for dealing with difficult people is to set a boundary with them. When you think of the word boundary, you probably think of an invisible line, like the property line between your house and your neighbor’s house, or where one neighborhood ends and the next one begins. That’s for an actual physical boundary. In this case, we’re talking about an emotional and energetic boundary.
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Whenever possible, you want to set a boundary with any person who’s being difficult. A lot of times people are difficult to deal with because they don’t know any better. Maybe no one has ever told them what’s OK and what’s not. A lot of people will honor a boundary once they know where it is. It’s like nature abhors a vacuum–they will naturally flow into any space that hasn’t already been claimed.
A lot of the time, all the situation really needs is some clarity. Let’s give people the benefit of the doubt, and assume positive intent. You tell them where the line is, and give them a chance to honor it. Which, if they hadn’t realized that they were impinging on you, they likely will.
When setting a boundary, your mantra is to be kind, but firm.
Here’s an example. Say that someone you work with texts you at all hours of the day, and it’s driving you nuts. You can set a boundary with them by saying, “I love your passion and want to hear your ideas. But evenings are my family time. If you have a thought that you really want to share and it’s after 6pm, send it to me in an email and I will see it first thing in the morning. Thank you.”
See? Kind, but firm.
If this person you’re setting a boundary with is someone you’ve been in a relationship with a long time, they may not respect the boundary you set at first. Stand your ground, and remind them, firmly but gently, as many times as you need to what that boundary is. Maybe you work from home but your mom or a friend will pop by and want to talk. You may have to remind them three or four times that you can’t chat until after 5, but would they like to set up a time to get together then? A bunch of times. Don’t give up. We all need reminders. Especially about things we unconsciously took for granted, haha.
You also need to set some boundaries for yourself
Just as you’re drawing a boundary for other people’s behavior, you often need to set one for yourself, about when and how often you’ll interact with these people. Maybe your boundary with a difficult family member is that you will only spend time with this person on your own turf, or on neutral ground, and if you must go to their house, you’ll do it only with someone else. If it’s a friend, maybe your boundary is that you turn off the notifications on their texts, or unfriend them on social media.
If it’s a co-worker or a boss, maybe your boundary is that you make a vow to never look at a communication from them just before you go to bed, because what they say always upsets you and they’re not worth the lost sleep.
Or maybe the boundary you set for yourself is a little less tangible, and it’s that you continually remind yourself that you’re no longer looking to that person for approval or permission. Setting boundaries for yourself helps you keep your reactions from taking less of a toll on you.
Sometimes people will hear your kind but firm boundary and willfully cross it anyway
If it’s happening at work, that’s when it’s time to speak to a superior, or HR if that person is your superior. If it’s in your personal life, you have full permission to block them from your social media or smartphone. You can tell them why you’re doing it, and what it will take for you to open lines of communication with them again. And if their boundary crossing is making you feel unsafe, it’s time to get support–whether that’s a therapist, a restraining order, reaching out to friends, or a combination.
Whatever option is available to you–and there is one if you look for it, although it may not come in the place where you’d expect to find it. If you don’t know where to look for support, ask the people you trust. We don’t have to know all our own answers… we can tap into the knowledge of our network to find what we need.
Daily Tiny Assignment
Your tiny assignment is to think of one relationship that needs a boundary, and to take a step toward setting it. Think about what boundary you want, and practice saying it out loud or in writing, or test it out on a friend, before you share. The boundary you set may be for yourself, too, and that’s ok. Is there someone whose text notifications you need to turn off for a while?