Some of us weren’t raised to stand up for ourselves. I know I was one of those people. This upbringing makes it really difficult to set boundaries in relationships.
As a result, our own needs can go unmet, and we stay in situations or relationships where we are continuously hurt.
Maybe you have dealt with emotional abuse in relationships with family, significant others, or work colleagues, and you don’t know how to limit exposure so the harm stops.
Examples of ways to protect yourself:
- Limit your time with a family member. They might be better in small doses.
- Tell a partner that if they continue to yell, you will leave the room.
- Explain to your child that you will not allow her to hit you (starting when they’re small!), and then putting physical distance between the two of you.
- Tell a coworker that no, you will not help them meet a deadline when they have repeatedly run over you.
- As an extreme example, break off a relationship entirely.
If you’re reading this article, you probably think you need to set one of these limits. Maybe you’re not sure yet, or maybe you’re just scared to pull the trigger! If so, read on to learn why you allow yourself to be hurt and get my 5 tips to set the boundaries you need.
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Are you a weak person if you have a difficult time setting boundaries?
No! If you’re one of these people, you know what it’s like. You continually suffer emotional abuse, yet you still keep going.
You still take care of your kids, day in and day out, no matter how difficult things get. You stay at that job with the abusive boss. You serve others who really don’t deserve it.
And even though you won’t stand up for themselves, you are sometimes the biggest advocate’s for others’ boundaries.
I know for me, I fight for others I care about!
Facing down a superior at work when I believe a colleague has been mistreated? No problem.
Chewing out a friend for hurting my spouse’s feelings? Been there, done that.
Advocating for a parental leave policy at my workplace even though I don’t plan to have more children myself? I’m there.
But this isn’t enough. We must learn how to set limits that protect our own hearts and minds. Without them, we will eventually burn out and be unable to fight for anyone else either.
But before we can set these boundaries, we need to see ourselves, our abusers, and our situation clearly.
The lies we believe that prevent us from protecting ourselves
Even though we’re willing to jump into the ring for others’ rights, it’s a different case when we need to self-advocate.
You allow yourself to be hurt time and again because deep down, you don’t believe you deserve better.
I know that for me, there’s always a (misleading) reason I should just ignore a person’s hurtfulness. Do any of these sound familiar?
It’s my fault that they’re mad.
As you think about the most recent blow-up, you remind yourself of every mistake you made. You basically think, “If only I never screwed up or spoke out of line, this wouldn’t happen!”
This is such a false assumption. The bottom line is, abusive people will find a reason to be angry at you. They will keep raising the bar until it’s simply impossible to jump over.
And besides that, you’re only human. If your relationship requires that you never step make a mistake (real or imagined), it’s toxic.
I remember the situation differently… I must have forgotten what happened.
I have been in toxic relationships in which I occasionally tried to confront harmful behaviors.
When I told the person one of the harmful things they said, they responded, “I would never have said that! Honestly, you make up things that I have said and turn me into a terrible person.”
I left that conversation confused and defeated. Quite frankly, the statement was so awful that I couldn’t have made it up if I wanted to. And this wasn’t the first time I’d been told I misremember things. Maybe I really don’t remember things right?
If you’ve felt like this before, the name for what you’ve experienced is gaslighting. The person who is toxic for you changes the narrative to make you lose confidence in yourself and in your own perspective. This confusion makes it much easier to manipulate you in the future.
I basically give every excuse possible for my abuser’s behavior.
He’s had a hard time at work lately.
Everyone else is so mean to her, no wonder she lashes out.
I’m sure he didn’t mean it the way it sounded…
She can be really sweet and thoughtful sometimes though!
These are just a few of the ways I have excused toxic people’s behavior towards me. The problem is, when you don’t set a boundary, you’re just letting this person abuse you repeatedly.
How to set boundaries with toxic people
You deserve more! Not so you can be a better mom, not so you can become more productive at work, but simply because you have value.
Plus, you want to model to your kids that they can expect respect from others.
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It will take time, but you can learn how to set limits on toxic relationships.
Read on to get my five tips on how to set boundaries in relationships.
1. Start with self-care.
No, not like the “take a bubble bath with some wine” kind of self-care (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). I mean deeper self care.
Get enough sleep! Just this simple change can make a huge difference in empowering you. Plus, making yourself go to bed at a decent time, even when there’s so much to do (like there ever won’t be?!), is good practice in boundary setting.
Do some physical activity. Whether it’s yoga, a walk around the block, or lifting weights, do something that makes you feel good and boosts your good-mood hormones.
Meditate. It doesn’t have to be anything esoteric, just sit in silence for five minutes and focus on your breathing. It’s amazing how much calmer you feel after you do this.
When meditating, you can also choose to focus on a simple phrase, such as “I can calm my body.” I find that a mantra like this, one that has an empowering message, makes me much more able to handle whatever comes my way. (By the way, if you want access to my favorite mantras including this one, sign up and grab them! Seriously, I use sayings on a daily basis to help me.)
Taking these steps will help your mind stay in top condition, so you can better recognize when a relationship is not as it should be.
2. Surround yourself with healthy relationships
You need people who can speak truth into your life. These are people you can trust to be there, no matter what.
I have friends who I can confide in. They help me gain perspective, and they also can let me know sometimes that yes, I have a right to be angry!
But let’s be clear: This conversation isn’t the same as gossiping or venting just for the sake of catharsis. I have friends who can tell me, “You are not being treated well, and you need to remove yourself from this situation.”
Of course, the hardest part about gaining these close relationships is that abusive people have a way of isolating you. Every time you make a new close friend, they come up with a reason that there’s something wrong or dangerous about this person, and drive them out of your life.
- A romantic partner may get jealous of the time you spend with others and pout until you stay home.
- A parent may come up with every reason, real or imagined, that a love interest isn’t good enough for you.
- A sister may come up with a spat seemingly out of thin air just to get your attention.
If you see this pattern emerging, protect your healthy relationships! Or if you’re alone because this keeps happening to you, find a therapist you can trust to help you.
3. Be honest with yourself.
Often when we let people mistreat us, we excuse their behavior.
They were just trying to look out for me. That’s why they were so critical.
It’s my own fault for not keeping my mouth shut.
Recently, I was telling my close friend about a person who has been making my life miserable for several months. When she asked why I allowed her to treat me this way, I said, “Well, she’s nice when she’s not being mean…”
At which point my friend asked, “Did you just hear yourself?!”
And I realized she was right. I was minimizing to myself just how toxic this person was.
You cannot limit a person’s effect on you until you admit to yourself how dangerous they are.
And again, it will take the input from other, safe relationships to have the clarity and courage to be honest with yourself about an abusive relationship.
4. Start small.
You’re not going to be ready for a face-off with the person who holds the most power over you just a month after you start sleeping better and make a few friends. But there are boundaries you can set.
A simple example? Passing up on an event just because you need the down time.
A few weeks ago, my husband decided to take the girls to the store. As he got them ready to leave, our two-year-old son ran out, yelling, “Daddy!” It was clear that the little guy was NOT going to let his sisters go without him.
So my husband scooped up Budrow and put shoes on him. He asked me if I wanted to go to the store too.
My knee-jerk reaction was to say yes, partially out of guilt for not helping with the kids, and partially out of worry that they might have fun without me. But I declined, and my husband (God bless him!) took all three kids and I had a blissfully silent time during which I happily cooked dinner. Alone. It was beautiful.
My point is, once you get used to flexing your “no muscle” with little safe things like this, you can tackle the larger obstacles in your life. Saying “no” will seem less scary.
5. Be ready for the backlash (internal and external).
Once you’ve set a boundary with someone (even a small one!), there will likely be others who oppose it. They will likely question what you’re doing. They may think you’re being mean or unforgiving.
You need to be ready to stay firm. You don’t have to explain yourself, just reaffirm your decisions any time they’re questioned. In fact, explaining yourself puts you on the defensive and makes you look less credible than if you just choose not to talk about the situation!
The hardest pushback will likely come from yourself. If you’re used to saying yes to everything, then your internal alarms will be screaming at you. It may come out as guilt, or anxiety, or irritability. You’ll question your decisions or your motives.
You will need to remind yourself that yes, the boundary you set was appropriate, and that no, you don’t have to give in to your false sense of guilt. Honestly, this is part of the process. You’ll go through phases where you feel really confident in your boundaries, and other days where you’re not. But your feelings don’t define you, and they shouldn’t determine your actions.
Conclusions on boundary setting in relationships
I hope this post has helped you gain perspective on any toxic relationship you’re involved in. This is a really difficult subject to deal with, but it’s also really important.
If you’ve been in a situation where you’ve had to set some difficult boundaries, I’d love to hear your perspective! Drop your thoughts in the comments below. And if you’re still working through, don’t forget to grab your mantras!