Setting Boundaries with Difficult or Self-centered People

Setting Boundaries Takes Energy: is it worth it?

Ask yourself 

  • How much is the unwanted behavior bothering me?
  • Is it going to stop on its own?”
  • Is it causing me to lose sleep or lose friends?”

Difficult conversations - mother and daughter

What happens when we ignore it?

Ignoring abusive behavior causes stress and anxiety over time. When we 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. But if it’s a family member, avoidance isn’t easy. When our boundaries are violated, resentment builds within us over time. Failed attempts at stopping the behavior adds to 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 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.

Make self-care a top priority?

“People should be responsible for the consequences of their own actions, words, and behavior. Self-care requires us to be responsible for our behavior and resist the temptation to rescue others from the consequences of theirs”



Please use caution when setting boundaries with an abusive person 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.

This article covers 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 (if it’s safe) about your concerns.

Why we don’t set boundaries

  • 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 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 fail if we are tentative or unsure about whether we deserve to have the behavior stop. Being clear and determined is essential.

Levels or degrees of unwanted behavior

Asking or 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’ll listen. When setting boundaries with folks who aren’t open to feedback, they will be defensive. Difficult and self-centered people are usually well-defended, meaning their ability to repel your feedback is instinctual and well practiced.

It’s helpful to:

  1. Be open to the possibility that  this could alter the relationship permanently. At the same time accept the small chance that offender may listen and accept the feedback. Be gratious and continue working on the relationship.
  2. Know your own needs and value them, especially if you are used to meeting other people’s. Self-care and safety are top needs.
  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’m speaking up now.”
  4. Be confident that sticking up for yourself is not mean  when done calmly, even if the offender doesn’t like it.
  5. Be realistic about your goal– you’re not trying to change the person’s personality just get a behavior to stop
  6. Repeat the description of the unwanted behavior as many times as needed during the conversation. Be consistent. When they try to deflect, brush this off and repeat your request the same way each time.
  7. Know that you might be the first to offer this feedback since others shied away from confronting the offender. If you get, “No one else thinks this is a problem.” You, “Well, it’s a problem for me.”
  8. Know the strategies the offender is likely to use, these may include
    • Blaming you
    • Saying hurtful things to 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
    • Focusing on your past mistakes or failings
  9. Have a clear sense of why previous attempts have failed. Maybe you back-pedaled or apologized when the offender was hurt or upset. Resist the temptation to acquiesce, take it back, or to rescue the offender from their hurt.
  10. Be prepared to refute these techniques with an effective response- brush off the excuses and defensive tactics and return to repeating that the unwanted behavior needs to stop.
  11. Match the offender’s energy that defends their actions. If someone is not listening to others or violating boundaries with some energy/motivation, setting boundaries require equal intensity. Match the energy if not their mean tone.
  12. Have strategies for staying calm and resist escalating your behavior
  13. Be willing to act if the conversation goes off the rails
    • Walk away
    • Take a time out
    • Take time to think
    • Leave the discussion or venue
    • Offer to continue the discussion the next day
  14. Have the strength to allow the offender to sit with their hurt or regret AND the disappointment that their historical techniques are no longer working. Resist the temptation to take it back to sooth them.
  15. 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, your job is to explain your position and hope for a good result. 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. Plan what you are going to say and do depending on how they ultimately respond. Their efforts to listen may not be perfect but if they’re trying, that might foreshadow better things.

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 the offender may never accept responsibility for their hurtful conduct. You may have to accept this reality. A therapist can help you resolve your feelings when you get an unsatisfying result that appears to be permanent.

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

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Edited by: JPB Design


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