Healthy Relationships

Let’s Talk Boundaries with Difficult People

September 29, 2022

Don’t we all know at least one difficult person? It is rare to go through life without coming into close contact with someone who really tests our resolve. Sometimes this is a parent or other close family member. Other times it is an intimate partner or friend. It can even be a co-worker or the barista at your local coffee shop. 

Our culture has a notion, especially prevalent in those who are religious or spiritual in nature, that we should be kind to others. Kindness is a virtue, after all, and an extremely important way to further the good work of love in our relationships and the greater world. However, what we are not generally taught is that sometimes kindness at the expense of our own self-worth or autonomy, especially when that comes in the form of engaging with difficult people, isn’t kindness at all. 

Is it time to establish some boundaries?

Kindness toward ourselves is important because it is from this foundation that we can shine our light out into the world. Dealing with difficult people can test your ability to remain cool, calm, and collected. This is where establishing some good boundaries comes into play and helps you to be kind to yourself first and foremost.

Just like the boundaries of a sports field, boundaries in your life can help to protect you against the foul balls that life throws your way. Boundaries are not meant to control others but instead to help you guide your own behavior so that you can stay physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy. Not only does this help you to feel good, but it also helps others to focus on their own growth. This is self-care at its deepest level.

How do boundaries help with difficult people?

When you set yourself up for success by making your boundaries clear, dealing with difficult people becomes a bit easier to navigate. If a person is difficult because of the impact they have on your mental, emotional, or physical health, setting boundaries will protect you from falling into harm’s way. The more balanced you can stay, the fewer sticky situations you will find yourself falling into. 

Setting boundaries with difficult people, however, doesn’t mean controlling their behavior. It also doesn’t mean that they stay in your life. It is important to understand that each relationship in your life has a different impact on you, and you will need to act accordingly.

Where do I start?

If you find yourself in a difficult relationship with someone, chances are you need to establish some boundaries. This doesn’t mean professing to them that you are closing yourself off from all communication. On the contrary, boundaries pave the way for healthy dialogue.

Your boundaries can be anything you need them to be. This can include but isn’t limited to:

So, how do you get these boundaries into place?

Once you have your list of needs, you can start to communicate them to the difficult people in your life or even to your close friends and family that you really enjoy being with.

Begin early if possible. If you are starting a romantic or work relationship or friendship, it is best to enlighten the other person to your boundaries at the beginning. This doesn’t mean sitting down and lecturing them about what you need for hours on end. Having a general idea of your boundaries and being able to communicate them clearly from the get-go is a great way to start off on the right foot, though. 

Have honest conversations. Communication is one of the main foundations of any healthy relationship. When dealing with difficult people, these conversations need to be a two-way street. For all you know, you may be just as difficult to them as they are to you! Listening to each other in a healthy conversation and respecting each other’s needs is a great way to establish boundaries. But if your difficult person is hurting you emotionally, physically, or mentally, you should seek professional help.

Use nonviolent communication. Also called NVC, this form of communication helps to ditch the aggressive, defensive language for something more compassionate. “I” statements have a similar effect, and both tools make sure you are speaking from the point of view of your own feelings and needs instead of from a place of blame. When setting boundaries, this methodology becomes incredibly important to effectively convey what you need without doing more harm than good.

Setting and maintaining boundaries, especially with difficult people, is a great kindness you can do for yourself. When you feel happy, healthy, and whole, you can put your best self out into the world. By maintaining relationships that help you get there (and ditching the ones that don’t), you are taking small steps every day on your own path of personal growth. 

Relevant Services

View all Services
Behavioral Health

Explore counseling and behavioral health services for mental illness, trauma, addiction recovery, and more.