One of my friends tells her story of growing up with a mother with “issues” rather matter-of-factly, but the details are pretty grim to listen to. “She would stop talking to me for no reason, for days at a time, and put a gift on my bed when she decided she was done being mad at me. We never talked about why she was angry, and most of the time I didn’t know. I just knew not to talk to her until she left something on my bed, and then I’d hold my breath until the next time she got upset about something.”
My friend’s mother sometimes disappeared for lengths of time without anyone knowing where she went or when (or if) she would return. When she fought with my friend’s father, she frequently brought my friend into the arguments as a mediator, despite her being a child. “Everything was about her,” my friend says. “Even as an adult, forty years later, everything is still about her.”
Whether we are born into families with difficult people, or enter into relationships with them as friends, coworkers, partners, etcetera, it can be challenge to know how to best respond to someone who is emotionally unwell. In order to do so effectively, it is paramount that we understand that the behaviors that are being presented are not our fault, develop firm and clear boundaries about what we will and will not tolerate, and practice asserting ourselves confidently and consistently.
IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S THEM. NO, REALLY.
More times than I can count, I’ve had clients sitting across from me in the therapy room, blaming themselves for the erratic and unacceptable behavior of someone else, and puzzling over what they might have done differently. It sometimes seems as though difficult people have special powers that enable them to sniff out the highly sensitive and empathic among us, and attach themselves to them. Inevitably, those sensitive individuals become sponges for all the negative emotions of their difficult friend, and seek support from a clinician like me, wondering why they just can’t do better.
The answer is (and trust me, this took ages for me to learn personally, too): You cannot fix a problem that does not belong to you. It’s just not possible. As much as you would like to, as much as you might be a stronger person, or better emotionally equipped, or have supernatural empathic healing powers – if someone does not want to do the work on themselves, then the work simply cannot be done. We cannot work on anybody but ourselves. When we start with the assumption that we are unable to do anything to change the behaviors of those around us, then we create space to make plans to care for ourselves. These plans often begin with identifying our boundaries.
BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES.
Once we’ve let go of the notion that we can change or fix the person in question, we can go ahead and set some boundaries. The beauty of this is that there is no right or wrong to setting boundaries – they are truly based on whatever we individually want and need. Do you need to set limits about the frequency and length of visits to a relative? Perfect. Do you need to allow yourself to walk away from conversations that become shaming and/or emotionally abusive? Awesome. Do you need to only see a certain person if you have a support person with you? Go for it. There are a billion ways to design your boundaries, and you can create them based on what your insides are telling you feels safe and right.
Remember to watch out for “shoulds” here. The “shoulds” get in the way by dictating to us what we “should” be able to do in any given situation, and making us feel bad about it. Some classic “shoulds” include: “You really should be able to deal with this behavior for a few days over the holidays;” “You shouldn’t be so sensitive to that language – they were only joking;” “You should spend time with this person because they are older/related to you/a person in authority.” The problem with the “shoulds” is that they are typically culturally dictated and have little to do with what might be right or wrong for us as individuals. By ignoring our gut instincts and doing what the “shoulds” tell us to, we betray ourselves, and sometimes cause ourselves unnecessary suffering and harm.
Be kind and stay true to yourself. Don’t let anyone but you dictate your boundaries.
CONSISTENT AND CONFIDENT SELF-ASSERTION.
For many of us, self-assertion is difficult to put into practice. Once we’ve identified our personal boundaries, we have to go about implementing them by saying them to a difficult person, out loud. This can be incredibly challenging. We might be much more comfortable avoiding the subject (forever), or allowing our feelings to build up until we explode. Truly, self-assertion is a hero’s mission, and we must be gentle with ourselves as we attempt to master this very difficult and hard-won skill.
I’ve found that seeking support from a good therapist (or a very unbiased friend) can be helpful when beginning to practice self-assertion. It is useful to have an objective party translate one’s boundaries into language that is level, direct, and un-muddied by emotion. Another reasonable option is to begin setting small boundaries, which help us gain traction and build trust and confidence in ourselves. Not ready to call off a visit on Thanksgiving? Set a smaller boundary to stay home for a lower-stakes holiday, and assess how it feels. Baby steps lead to big steps.
To wrap it all up, let’s acknowledge again that this is hard work, and requires patience, practice and time. Many of us have spent a lifetime walking on eggshells around difficult folks, and the idea of suddenly unleashing a confident boundary seems as likely as running a marathon with no training – anxiety is to be expected. Be patient and compassionate with yourself, and implement your new skills at a pace that feels comfortable to you. As you do, you may notice a greater sense of peace and self-empowerment when dealing with the challenging people in your life.