Setting Boundaries With Toxic People


“You teach people how to treat you” – Dr. Phil

Think what you will about Dr. Phil, but he has a few good lines that are really applicable to our lives. This quote is one of my favorites, because it reminds us that we do not have to feel powerless when it comes to our relationships.

It’s easy to play the victim or helpless card, where we tell ourselves that we can’t do anything about how someone else is treating us.  It’s true we can’t control someone else’s behavior, but it’s also true that we can set clear boundaries and adhere to them.

For example, if a friend is constantly criticizing your parenting style, how you do your job, how you behave in your romantic relationship etc. then you don’t have to endure it in silence.  Or perhaps you have asked them to stop criticizing you, but if you allow them to cross the line again without comment, you are teaching them that they do not have to respect your boundaries.

Here is an example of a conversation you might have with Debbie Downer, “Debbie, I love you very much, you are my dear friend.  But I want you to know that your criticism of my parenting style is very hurtful to me.  I’m not saying that you’re wrong, or that you’re not entitled to your opinion.  You are entitled to your opinion and you’re entitled to express your opinion to whomever you want.  And I know your comments are given out of love and concern for me and my kids.  But when you criticize me, it hurts my feelings and I want you to stop the criticism.  I also want you to stop criticizing me to my family. I’m doing the best I can and your comments are not helpful.”

The more calmly you can say this, the more effective you will be.   You may even want to give her advanced notice about the need to talk so she doesn’t feel ambushed.   If you have a conversation like this, consistency afterwards is also very important.  Don’t follow this conversation with a request for her opinion about your parenting style.  Don’t say stop, but then tolerate subsequent criticism in silence  (you may have to repeat the conversation if they regress.)

You may be reluctant to venture into a difficult conversation with your buddy because of the potential damage to your relationship.  Consider the damage that is already occurring to your relationship while you feel criticized and your feelings ignored.  Also consider whether the friendship is worth keeping if it cannot withstand a dose of honesty or request to respect boundaries.  A true friend will want to honor your wishes and strive to be sensitive to your needs.  Also ask yourself:  if the roles were reversed, would you want to know that you’re hurting your friend unintentionally?  I thought so.