6 ways to set better boundaries with toxic people {A gentle guide for introverts}

Marta Bevacqua

It happens all the time: we introverts attract toxic people because we’re good listeners, we appear calm, and we may have trouble saying no.

For a while, we may feel gratified that someone is initiating with us, writes Adam S. McHugh in his book, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, but later, we find ourselves in emotionally exhausting, unsatisfying friendships or romantic relationships.

The signs are ugly: toxic people may lie, try to control you, be arrogant or overly negative, always put themselves first, constantly play the victim, or disrespect your expressed needs and desires. They rarely take hints, and once they’re entrenched in your life, they may be hard to uproot. They take up too much of your time, too much of your energy, and too much of your life. You often feel worse — not better, like you should — after spending time with them.

How can you, as an introvert, set better boundaries to keep toxic people from taking more from you than they should? It’s easier said than done, but even a few baby steps in the right direction can make a big difference:

1. Figure out who you are and what you stand for.

You can’t protect your identity and space if you have no idea what those things look like, writes Brenda Knowles, creator of Space2Live.net, which is a blog that aims to help introverts enhance intimacy in their relationships.

Ask yourself, what do I stand for? Who am I apart from my relationships? Where do I draw the line regarding values, personal space, and the amount of time and effort I’m willing to give?

2. Learn to tell the difference between your feelings and those of the other person.

Relationship coach Jennifer Twardowski, founder of JenniferTwardowski.com, writes that the problem with many of us who have weak or leaky boundaries is that we become so enmeshed and encompassed by the other person’s “stuff” that we have no idea what it is that we ourselves are feeling.

To distinguish between your feelings and those of the other person, do what introverts do best — take time to break away, reflect, and check in with yourself.

3. Know the signs of your boundaries being crossed.

Psychologist Dana Gionta says to look for the two signs that your boundaries are being crossed: discomfort and resentment.

You may feel a vulnerable sense of being forced out of your comfort zone, or you may feel nervous and edgy. You experience those feelings for a reason. They’re signposts that let you know when someone has tested your boundaries.

An example might be a friend who pressures you to hang out last-minute on a night when you were planning to recharge at home alone, or a new boyfriend or girlfriend who calls you late at night and keeps you on the phone when you’d rather be sleeping.

You may also feel resentful if you’re being taken advantage of, or if you aren’t feeling appreciated for your efforts. Ask yourself what it is about the interaction, or the other person’s expectations, that bothers you.

4. Quit asking for permission from others.

It’s easy to get stuck in the childhood mindset of allowing others to decide what is acceptable for us, writes Introvert Spring blogger and coach Michaela Chung in her new eBook, Alone But Not Lonely: 7 Steps To True Connection For Introverts.

Yet as adults, we can give ourselves permission to do what is best for us.

Here are some examples of permission statements, from Chung’s ebook:

I give myself permission to…

  • Spend one day of the weekend completely by myself without feeling guilty.
  • Say no to couples and group activities that I don’t enjoy, provided that I do so in a polite and considerate way.

5. This is the hard part: be direct.

Some people will just “get” you and understand your need for healthy boundaries, without a direct conversation. Usually, this happens if people are similar in their personalities, communication styles, and general approach to life, says Gionta.

With other people — especially toxic people — you’ll have to spell out exactly what you need or want, or politely but firmly say no.

This can be hard for introverts, because we’re typically sensitive to conflict and confrontation.

“I have a tendency to, as my mother would say, pussy-foot around things,” Knowles writes. “I have a tough time declaring what I need because of my natural inclination to maintain harmony, but because of my increased self-awareness, it’s getting easier.”

6. Let go of guilt and take care of yourself.

When boundaries in a relationship have been weak and you set your foot down, there are two things that typically happen: there is backlash from the other person, and you feel guilty, writes Twardowski.

If setting the boundary brought up any backlash or guilt, then take care of yourself by going on a walk alone, exercising, being in nature, or doing anything else that gets you re-centered.

If someone else wants to talk about the drama of what happened, don’t even go there, because that just keeps the stress alive. Politely tell the other person you’re moving on from the situation, and you prefer not to talk about it.

“Remember that your emotions are valid,” writes Twardowski. “For that reason, you are not wrong for setting your boundary. In fact, you are taking care of yourself, which is something that we should all do above all else.”

‘No’ is a complete sentence. Anne Lamott

Image credit: Marta Bevacqua


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6 Comments

  • very good web about introverts. helps me alot to understand me more and why i acted the way i did. i think i can write something too about being in a relationship with an extrovert.

  • Eloise says:

    A good book directly related to all the points above is “Stop Walking on Eggshells”. It doesn’t imply that these are introvert-only traits, but it does help with evaluating and setting healthy boundaries.

  • How timely for me! Unfortunately, one of my sisters is the toxic person in my life. I’ve given in to her before, only to regret it and feel terrible about myself. The other day, we had a serious confrontation via text message (she is currently in another country, and she can stay there as far as I care). A large part of the problem was because I was standing up for myself and being assertive, and she didn’t like that. It finally hit the point where I was deleting her messages without reading them – however, my iPhone showed me a preview of everything and it was pretty abusive. I had to remind myself that she is a toxic person, I will never be rid of her, and her words don’t matter to me.

  • INTPondering says:

    This article was just what I needed to read right now! Once again, I find myself in a friendship with someone who, while not exactly toxic, wants far more from me than I can give. To make matters worse, I don’t enjoy this friend’s company enough to feel like I’m getting much in return. Unfortunately, I have such a hard time hurting people’s feelings that I let these one-sided friendships drag on much longer than they should.

    While I’m still working on extricating myself from friendships like this, I now realize that it’s better to avoid them in the first place. To that end, I’m learning to be wary of people who try to latch onto me too quickly and become insta-BFFs before I’ve had time to evaluate whether I really want them in my life. Real friendship takes time to develop, and I’ve found that people who want to rush into it without truly knowing me usually turn out to be pushy and clingy. They don’t want ME for a friend as much as they want anyone who will give them the attention they crave.

    Over time, I’m also becoming more conscious of the signals I send out myself when getting to know someone. It’s much easier to establish boundaries in the beginning than later on, when I’m expected to be a people pleaser because that’s just what I’ve always been. Some of those boundaries have to do with my needs as an introvert, and I’m discovering that I have to be very firm and consistent about them, especially when dealing with extroverts. Actually, for this reason, I’ve started to steer away from extroverts when forming new friendships. It seems like no matter how much time and attention I give my extroverted friends, it’s never enough for them, whereas other introverts naturally share and feel at ease with my social rhythm. And more generally, figuring out what I want in a friend, whether that’s introversion or common interests or, at a bare minimum, sanity(!), is important so I can use it as a filter when deciding who to let into that small circle of people I hold dear.

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