Setting Boundaries with Difficult or Self-centered People

Setting Boundaries Takes Energy: is it worth it?

Ask yourself these questions

  • How much is the unwanted behavior bothering me?
  • How long should I or am I willing to live with it?”
  • How much is it hurting me or vulnerable friends/family members?
  • Is it causing me to lose sleep, lose friends or creating problems for my partner?”

Difficult conversations - mother and daughter

What happens when we ignore it?

When we ignore unwanted behavior, it brings us stress and anxiety over time. When we’re going to see the offender, we feel anxiety over behavior we know is coming. In a casual friendship, you might decide to minimize contact or stop seeing someone whose company you don’t enjoy. Unfortunately, if it’s a family member avoidance may not be an option. When our boundaries aren’t respected resentment builds within us over time. Failed attempts at stopping the behavior adds to the frustration and upset. Unwanted behavior can range from manipulation; talking behind people’s backs; favoring some and scape-goating others, to overtly shaming and personal comments about appearance, weight, or our life choices. Whatever offensive behavior you’re dealing with, the resulting toll is similar. My clients describe, anxiety, panic attacks, and over time, internalizing the feeling that we don’t deserve to be treated with respect.

What if we made self-care the top priority?

“People should be responsible for the consequences of their own actions, words, and behavior. It is better self-care for us to be responsible for our behavior and resist the temptation to ignore or rescue others from the consequences of theirs”



I do not recommend attempting to set boundaries with an abusive individual whose behavior has been or may be violent. Consider whether it is safe to provide feedback or confront the individual. Get advice from a trusted friend or therapist if you have any concern about your safety.

This article is general in nature. It’s meant to cover relationships with family, friends and partners. Workplace relationships require similar strategies but employers have policy requirements for certain interventions. Know them before moving forward and consider speaking to someone in authority about your concerns.

The dynamics of setting boundaries with self-centered people

  • It’s difficult. Self-centered people are the most difficult to set boundaries with – they tend to be determined to get their needs met at the expense of others. This leads them to either intentionally or unwittingly violate the boundaries of others with some frequency.
  • You’re scared. You may be hesitant to set boundaries with a self-centered individual because you’re afraid of their reaction – the offender may get mad or upset. You’re entitled to speak up if the unwanted behavior is impacting you or your health.
  • You know they can overpower you. If you are not determined in your request, offenders are good at using that by playing the victim, manipulating you (the actual victim) to feel it was wrong to have spoken up, sometimes even eliciting an apology for being “mean” or “at fault.”
  • You’re uncomfortable with conflict. When we are afraid of confrontation, we may tolerate the offensive behavior telling ourselves, “Maybe it’s not that bad.” “Maybe it will go away.” It generally does not
  • You blame yourself. Sometimes we say to ourselves, “It’s just me.” “My expectations are unrealistic.” “I’m being too sensitive.”
  • You don’t want to take a stand. People who are afraid of or uncomfortable with confrontation, will suffer more unwanted behavior than those who are willing to take a stand, despite the results
  • You don’t want to disrupt the relationship. Sometimes we are afraid of damaging the relationship and think to keep it, we must be willing to accept unwanted behavior.
  • You don’t feel deserving. Interventions will likely fail if we are tentative or unsure about whether we deserve to ask for unwanted behavior to stop. Being clear and determined will be necessary.

Levels or degrees of unwanted behavior

There’s asking and there’s telling.

  • Asking can be used with reasonable people where the unwanted behavior is not too serious or bothersome, where you want to preserve and grow the relationship
  • Telling may be required when asking doesn’t work and we simply have to say, “This is no longer going to work for me.” “I’m done.”

Planning your intervention 

In a healthy, mutual relationship, you can ask your friend/partner/parent to stop doing something that’s hurting you with a reasonable expectation that they will listen and understand. To consider setting boundaries with folks who are not open to feedback, you must be willing to accept  and prepare for some predictable reactions. Difficult and self-centered people are usually well-defended meaning that their ability to repel your feedback is well honed.

You should:

  1. Be open to the possibility of changing the relationship for the better as well as the possibility of changing the dynamics of the relationship for the worse, including significant strain, temporary end to the relationship, or permanent end to the relationship.
  2. Know and value your needs as important enough, especially the need for self-care and safety before commencing a discussion of what behavior change we are looking for.
  3. Be prepared to accept responsibility for any part you’ve played in the previous violations – for example, “It’s bothered me for a while and I didn’t speak up. I wasn’t honest about it and I’m speaking up now.”
  4. Be confident in the knowledge that sticking up for yourself is not mean if it’s done calmly with kindness and concern, even if it does hurt the offender’s feelings. The consequence of an offender’s actions when stated aloud, can be difficult for them to accept. On the other hand, it’s more respectful to give the offender a chance to change than it is to gossip behind their back.
  5. Be realistic about your goal– you aren’t trying to change the person’s personality. Be specific with a narrow description of what is unwanted and why. Be brief and clear.
  6. Repeat the description of the unwanted behavior as many times as needed during the conversation. When they try to deflect, brush this off and repeat your request the same way each time.
  7. Be aware that you might be the first to offer this feedback since others shied away from confronting the offender. You may get, “No one else thinks this is a problem.” That’s irrelevant. It’s a problem for you.
  8. Have a clear sense of why previous attempts, if any, have failed, maybe you back-pedaled or apologized when manipulated. Think about how to avoid these pitfalls.
  9. Resist the temptation to acquiesce, take it back, or to rescue the offender from their hurt, regret or sadness.
  10. Know the techniques the offender is likely to use, these may include
    • Blaming you
    • Saying hurtful things as a defense, turning blame back on you
    • Bringing up embarrassing things you’ve done in the past
    • Characterizing you as ungrateful, making you feel guilty for things that have no bearing on the current discussion
    • Characterizing you in unflattering ways – focusing on your past mistakes
    • Accusing you of other, unrelated mean things
  11. Be prepared to refute these techniques with an effective response. Effective responses brush off the excuses and defensive tactics and return to repeating that the unwanted behavior needs to stop.
  12. Match the energy or motivation of the offender to defend their actions or blame the victim – If someone is not listening to others or violating boundaries with some energy/motivation, setting boundaries will likely require energy/motivation that matches it. Have the courage of your convictions not necessarily matching their tone or anger.
  13. Have strategies for staying calm and resisting an escalation of your behavior
  14. Be willing to act if the conversation goes off the rails
    • Walk away
    • Take a time out,
    • Leave the discussion or venue
    • Decide to take time to think about things
    • Offer to continue the discussion in an hour, next day, etc.
  15. Have the strength of character to allow the offender to sit with their hurt or regret AND the disappointment that their historical techniques are no longer successful. They may fume and be upset for a while, but they may also come around.
  16. Accept that when the conversation is over, you might
    • Get the silent treatment
    • Get the speak-when-spoken-to treatment
    • Hear about the offender gossiping with others about how mean you are
    • Receive the offender’s vow to end the relationship, refuse to visit, refuse to see you, cut you out of the family or friend group

In the end, all you can do is explain your position and hope for a good result. If it makes sense in your situation, you may have to repeat the conversation if you think you’re getting somewhere. Remember that you can only control what you do, think and say. The offender will either listen or not but don’t try to manipulate or control them. It won’t work. You must decide what you are going to do depending on how they ultimately respond, what they say and what they do. Their efforts to listen may not be perfect but if they’re trying, that may be enough. You decide.

The reality of abusive relationships

There are times when the relationship itself is abusive enough to warrant ending it over certain boundary violations. It is also possible that a relationship ending may not be resolved to our satisfaction – that the offender may never accept responsibility for their hurtful conduct. You can’t control that and may have to accept this reality. Again, a therapist can help you resolve your feelings and get closure without the acceptance of the other party.

Feel free to reach out for support via the contact us page

© Copyright by Suzanne Benoit, LCSW, CCTP 2022 all rights reserved    Edited by: J.P. Benoit


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