Setting boundaries with difficult or toxic people is hard. Here are 7 tips to help.
Annie, who described herself as a “people pleaser,” was coming to therapy exhausted and fearful that she couldn’t keep up with her ever-expanding to-do list. During one of our sessions, she confided:
“My husband is always taking me for granted, expecting that I chauffeur the kids to school, soccer, flute, and friends. I often change my work schedule to meet his needs, and then have dinner on the table every night and clean up after. If it isn’t to his standards, he gets frustrated, and although I feel hurt, I apologize. It is similar at work, with my boss loading me up with tasks he doesn’t want to do, or that others didn’t get done. He knows I can’t refuse, so it is put on my plate.”
Annie’s struggle is common. Most of us like to be helpful, and it is hard to say no to requests. However, some demands are unfair, and some relationships are unhealthy, where a kind, a conflict-avoidant person gets taken advantage of. Annie was often doing too much, not because she really wanted to help, but because she dreaded saying no, or didn’t think she could. She was empathetic and worried about upsetting others, and when her husband or boss would express frustration, she would give in.
“I am in a no-win situation,” she said. “I finally went and talked to my boss about my concerns, but I was told about the importance of being a team player, and I apologized. If I say no, I am shamed by others; if I say yes, I feel like a doormat and shame myself.”
Setting boundaries with toxic people is particularly hard when others use pressure, guilt trips, or controlling tactics. Those who won’t take no for an answer tend to take advantage of those who have a hard time saying it. What Annie wanted to do was set healthy boundaries that respected her dignity and values.
Here are seven tips she used to become better at saying no.
1. Honor your worth.
We can tell when our boundaries are violated because it leaves us feeling frustrated, taken advantage of, and unappreciated. When someone says “no” to things they don’t need or can’t do, it is a form of honoring one’s inner worth and is empowering.
Annie was ignoring her own warning signs because she was distracted by the noise of guilt trips, exaggerations, and demands. These were further distorted by her internal second-guessing and negative self-talk. However, she realized she felt worse when she tried to please others and refocused on her worth. She asked herself whether she would be ok with a friend being treated the way she was, and it put things in a new light. She took time for calming meditation, self-compassion readings, and therapy, all of which helped her become more aware of and stop negative internal messages. She pondered who she was and what was important to her.
2. Seek strength.
People pleasers are often eager for approval, which makes them vulnerable to manipulators. As part of her growth, Annie attended a local women’s empowerment group. Her husband was condescending and skeptical, but as she persisted, he backed down. She enjoyed the messages of solidarity and found her own voice. “It has helped me feel like my opinion matters,” she told me.
3. Delay the response.
It is hard to resist pressure in the moment. Annie practiced phrases that gave herself time to reflect about what she wanted, rather than what she thought others wanted from her. With her colleagues, she said, “Let me get back to you after I check my to-do list.”