We all know who I’m talking about. Those fun people we’ve all had in our lives from time to time (and for some this means every day) who just don’t get this whole boundaries thing.
Perhaps it’s the colleague in your office who just won’t stop talking to you when you really need to get that urgent task done for your boss, despite the fact that you’ve given every single body language cue you can think of to convey the message “I’m just really not interested right now”.
Or perhaps it’s the family member or friend who phones you all too frequently to offload every negative thing that has ever happened to them in their entire existence…….for the fourth time this week.
It could be the neighbour who takes your generosity for granted but then never ever returns the favour because every time you need a hand with something, their Aunt’s best friend’s cat is sick and so they aren’t available to help…… what?
Or maybe, it’s the person in your life who just has that knack for guilting you into doing things when you’ve already clearly said that you can’t or don’t want to do them. You don’t dare try to push back either because pushing back just seems to unleash the beast and you cop a barrage of abuse.
Then in other cases, sadly, it might be the husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend or close friend who, despite your numerous attempts to ask for your needs to be considered, they continue on with a behaviour which causes you significant hurt or embarrassment.
Say hello to the off-siders, the people who really just aren’t that good at respecting your boundaries, and who cause a wave of emotional destruction in your life.
Ok, in some cases that last description might be too dramatic- but it is often the case that when we allow people in our lives to frequently ignore our boundaries, we end up with the ingredients of resentment, frustration, exhaustion and invalidation and alas, a recipe for a very toxic and unhappy relationship.
So what do we do about it? For those of you who have been following my Instagram posts this week, you might have seen a few basic tips and tricks along the way to help with setting clear and assertive boundaries with others. I will list them again here in a moment because it is usually helpful to try those tips as a first step. But unfortunately, in the case of the off-siders, often there will be quite some push back when you try these approaches, and so it’s good to have a plan on how to stay firm but respectful with those all-important boundaries that you are trying to put in place.
Why won’t they listen?
Now before we look at how to do this, let’s first try to understand why it is that the off-siders just don’t seem to get it. As you may have picked up from some of my previous posts, I often believe that if we can have some understanding/perspective and maybe even a teeny tiny bit of compassion for why people act the way they do, it can help us to respond from a less emotionally-fueled place, which is usually better for everyone.
Often, for the off-siders, it’s simply a matter of learned behaviour (or lack thereof). Perhaps somewhere in that person’s life they have either learned that pushing back forcefully against a boundary, not listening to or taking notice of other people’s needs, and offloading excessively onto others works for them in some way. There’s some reward in it, some need that generally gets met by acting in this way.
For example, imagine a teenager who guilt trips a friend into going to a party with them, and the friend finally caves in and agrees despite expressing many times that she did not wish to go. Imagine then, that this dynamic continues for many years. Person number one learns that when her needs aren’t getting met, if she makes the other person feel guilty, then her needs do eventually get met. So even though to an outsider it might seem obvious that guilt tripping someone is not helpful nor a healthy approach to relationships, the off-sider might simply not know any different and is doing what has worked for them in the past.
This brings me to the next point. Unfortunately, not everyone has had the necessary life experiences needed along the way to teach them healthy boundaries or how to get their needs met in a healthy way. This is the sad part of the situation. So for some, not only have they had negative or unhelpful behaviours reinforced or rewarded like in the example above, but they may also have had a lack of modelling of healthy alternative behaviours (for example, compromising with the friend to just go to the party for an hour).
So because there are often reasons for their behaviour, does this mean we then just give up and accept the behaviour of the off-siders? No. Keeping yourself well, healthy and happy is your prerogative and should be prioritised. So setting boundaries with these individuals who push our buttons/limits or compromise our mental health, is imperative for maintaining a healthy level of self-care and general well-being. Not to mention it helps us to build healthier more stable relationships in our lives.
What can be done?
So let’s have a think about what can be done in these situations. We could try our best to limit our contact with people who don’t respect our boundaries, and in a lot of cases, this can be a fair option and one that works well. You don’t HAVE to always answer calls or respond to texts or let someone visit if you don’t want them to. But as many of us have experienced, it’s not always as easy as ceasing contact with someone and in some cases we do need to find ways to communicate and enforce our boundaries effectively with these people.
So first, let’s look at a summary of my earlier posts this week, which lists the things to keep in mind with boundary setting in general.
- Know your limits (physical, emotional, and social limits included) including what you are and are not comfortable with. Without an awareness of what our limits are, we can have difficulty then communicating them to others.
- Listen out for feelings of anger, resentment, frustration and exhaustion as these can all be signs that someone has crossed one of your boundaries.
- Recognise and accept that you do have a right to have needs and wants, and that it is your responsibility to voice those to others (we can’t expect other people to be mind-readers)
- Clearly communicate your boundaries to others, in a respectful but clear manner, without over-explaining. This can include asking for what you want or need, and also saying no to requests you do not wish to fulfill without buying into guilt (see my previous posts for specific suggestions on this).
- Ensure that you are not taking on responsibility for other people’s emotions or reactions.
- Only say yes to requests because you genuinely want to, not out of obligation
- Ensure in your communication with others that you validate your own feelings, as well as be respectful with their perspective. I.e., both perspectives can be acceptable and valid, even if you do not agree with each other. This helps to compromise and meet in the middle where necessary.
As previously covered, once you carry out the boundary setting above, an off-sider will often not respond well, and in some cases can be aggressive (verbal attacks and criticisms). In other cases the back lash might be something more subtle like a guilt trip, the silent treatment, bad mouthing you to other people, or simply just continuing the behaviour you have asked that they stop. These are really tough behaviours to tolerate and they tend to trigger pretty strong emotions for us all. So what do we do when we’ve set clear boundaries and they just don’t get it?
Only reward the healthy stuff
Well what’s needed here is a crash course on behavioural reinforcement theory… As I mentioned earlier, often the off-siders have learned these behaviours throughout their life and believe that they are effective or just simply don’t understand any other ways of responding. So we need to ensure that we don’t keep adding to the idea that the unhelpful behaviours are useful and effective.
Think of it like this……imagine if you had a pet who, when you got home from work, jumped all over you in order to get attention. Even though you really wish he didn’t jump all over you, you might still give the pet attention. By attention, it doesn’t have to be positive attention either (hugging or patting your pet), it can be negative attention (yelling at the pet to get down). Your pet just wants the attention, and so he will take the good or bad variety over nothing at all. Every time we give attention as a result of the jumping behaviour, the pet learns “when I jump, I have success in getting what I want.” So this then increases the likelihood that he will jump all over you again next time.
But think about this- what might happen if we all of a sudden changed our tactic. We decide to ignore the pet jumping. That’s right. We ignore the bad behaviour and don’t give the pet what he wants (attention), by potentially turning our back or looking away from him. Initially, the behaviour might actually get worse because the pet goes through a state of confusion. He says “hang on, but this always works. Maybe if I jump just a bit harder, it will work again”. So initially by doing this, we can see an increase in the unwanted behaviour- the pet jumps harder. But if we stay consistent, never giving the reward of attention, the pet eventually gets tired and decides that jumping no longer works.
He then decides to give up and sit down. Now here’s the critical point- because the pet is now engaging in a desirable behaviour (sitting)- we need to acknowledge and reward this. So, as soon as he sits down, we walk over to him and we give him a big hello, lots of positive attention and cuddles. With repetition, the pet soon learns that when he sits, he gets all of the positive attention he wanted in the first place, and the sitting then is then likely to continue.
This is the crux of reinforcement theory- positive reinforcement (reward) for a behaviour increases the chance that the behaviour will re-occur.
Now am I likening the challenging off-sider people in your life to naughty pets- I don’t mean to do so offensively. But generally, we ALL represent the pet in the scenario above. Give any of us a reward for something, we are more likely to do it again. So with the off-siders, we want to make sure that we are rewarding the behaviours that we want, and NOT rewarding the behaviours that we don’t want.
To do this effectively, we need to take a best guess at what the person gains out of the behaviour, so, what is their reward? Does the behaviour ensure that people leave them alone? Does it make people listen to them? Does it make people cave in and do what they want? Once we have an idea of what the reward is, we are then in a much better position to stop reinforcing the unwanted behaviour.
What does this all look like in practice?
It is difficult to give solid examples of how to then communicate and follow through on the above with your off-siders, because every situation is so unique. But I have suggested some general ideas below, which could be applicable in a lot of these situations and are drawn/adapted from an evidenced based therapy approach known as DBT. If you are unsure whether this is the best approach for you, make sure you talk over the situation first with someone you trust, or a health professional like a Psychologist so that you can tailor your responses to your individual situation.
This would be particularly important if you are in any kind of physically abusive relationship, because often these suggestions alone will not always be effective, and walking away/ending the toxic relationship can often be the best solution in such cases.
It can often be helpful to first apply the strategies discussed in my previous post which include: expressing the facts of the situation (e.g., I have asked you to only call me once a week but you have called me three times this week), expressing your feelings about this (I am feeling frustrated by this because it makes me think my request isn’t being respected), then asking clearly for what you would like (I would really like you to respect my request and only call me on Mondays), and then reinforcing why this is best for everyone involved (because then I will have more time to talk and will be in a better head space to listen to you).
You might remember in the pet example, that when we first changed our behaviour, the pet’s behaviour actually got worse! He was confused. So by carrying out the steps above, you might in fact find that the off-sider gets more distress, more guilting, more angry…….They might try to steer the conversation off track, verbally attack you, or refuse your request. If this happens, remember that their anger is confusion. Their usual method isn’t working, so they are going to try harder. In this scenario, try to remain calm and remember the goal you are working towards and keep coming back to this. In a sense you can act a bit like a broken record where you simply keep going over the four steps above in a calm, respectful tone.
If this also then isn’t effective, it can be helpful to use similar principles, but target specifically the issue of the boundary pushing. For instance, you can describe the facts of the current interaction (I’m noticing that I’m making a request and in response you are raising you voice and bringing up other unrelated issues), express your feelings about this (This is making me feel frustrated because I don’t feel I am being heard), make a request/suggestion (I think it’s best we hang up and end the conversation here, and can potentially revisit it at a later time when we are calm), and then reinforce why this is useful (I think we will both communicate better when we are calm, and get a better outcome).
If we think about the above response in the context of the behavioural reinforcement theory, you might be able to recognise that by calmly ending the conversation when the person is getting angry, we are giving them the message that getting angry does not result in them getting their needs met. If this same person was to call you up an hour later, using a calm tone and talking to you more appropriately, it would be very important in this situation to then listen and communicate maturely. This gives the message that “talking to me calmly and respectfully increases the chances of a good outcome”.
Of course, the aforementioned suggestions can be useful when the off-sider in your life is someone that for whatever reason has to remain as part of your life, or you would still like to maintain some form of relationship with them. But of course, in the event that you do not need or want to interact with an off-sider on an ongoing basis, it can sometimes simply be easier to reduce your contact with them, or cease contact with them all together. In such cases, you might also choose to use the above strategies to help make requests that an offsider stops contacting you all together.
Remember, change is hard
One important thing to keep in mind is that for all of us, behavioural habits are often fairly long standing and entrenched, and this makes change hard! So don’t expect that your off-sider will automatically change to a healthy, mature way of responding after one conversation. It’s important to recognise and “reward” small changes in the right direction. When we are trying to encourage a child to ride a bike we don’t expect them to get it right away. But we give them praise and acknowledgment every time they get a little bit closer to success. If your off-sider comes to you with a problem and is slightly more reasonable than usual- acknowledge that and try to be more open to hearing them. There are also some unfortunate cases where certain individuals just don’t learn from the approaches above. They continue to push the boundaries despite repetition of everything discussed here. If this is the case, it might be time to ask yourself “how much is this costing me emotionally, and how much more can I take?” and perhaps consider increasing the distance in the relationship. Sometimes accepting that a person doesn’t have an ability or capacity to change in the way you would like them to can be the most empowering and freeing decision of all.
Overall, remember that dealing with off-siders can be emotionally exhausting and it’s important to look after yourself. Make sure you lean on support from those you have healthier relationships with, practice regular self-care and have regular down-time away from the off-sider, and remember that you do have the right to place boundaries where needed to maintain a safe emotional and social space for yourself.