Check Your Vibes: How To Set Boundaries With Emotional Vampires

Most of us have at least one person in our lives who leaves us feeling drained after every interaction with them. This person is usually a family member or close friend, someone you care about deeply enough to try to look past their tendency to stomp all over your personal boundaries. They expect you to drop everything to take on the burden of whatever drama is currently playing out in their lives. Every day is a crisis with them, and they fully expect that crisis to take precedent over your daily life despite the fact that they rarely reciprocate or even ask how your own day is going. Some are practiced manipulators, but many are a slightly more innocent (but still not okay) combination of extremely self-centered and extremely lacking in self-awareness.

If you’ve never dealt with setting boundaries before, it’s tough to even recognize this behavior as inappropriate. For one thing, this loved one of yours (who for the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to as “the toxic person”) has probably been treating you this way since the very beginning of your relationship — if they’re a family member, maybe they’ve even done it your whole life — which makes you desensitized to noticing the pattern. It’s also tough because, well, you love this toxic person. You know they’re (probably) a decent human being deep down and they have plenty of redeeming qualities, so naturally you’re going to be torn when they approach you about a personal problem you don’t have the energy to deal with.

Maybe your needy cousin wants you to pick up her dry cleaning again because she’s “so tired from taking care of the kids, and what do you really have going on that’s so dire anyway?” Maybe your two-faced friend who puts you down in front of others guilt trips you about going out to the bar with her tonight even though you’re exhausted because she “just really needs to distract herself.” Or maybe it’s something far more emotionally draining, like a frenzied biweekly phone call from your brother about how he is so miserable he just doesn’t know what to do with himself, and could you stay on the line with him for the next few hours even though you’re at work in the middle of a career-defining project? Soon, you feel like you exist only to serve those who inappropriately depend on you, and every day becomes a series of putting out others’ fires and stressing over their wellbeing. It’s hard to decline request for help because even if this toxic person is exaggerating the extent of their problems, they’re probably not just making them up altogether. They probably really are struggling on some level, and if you have a heart you probably feel like a monster turning them down. After all, wouldn’t you want them to do the same for you if the roles were reversed? (No matter that sadly, they may not be emotionally equipped to come through for you in your own time of need.) The reality is that in most cases, you are quite literally not capable of solving these problems. Many of the emotional struggles brought before you by a toxic person can only be managed by a professional and by the toxic person themselves.

Breaking a cycle of a toxic person essentially using you can feel extremely unnatural at first, because it’s probably not in your nature to turn down someone you love who needs help. It may feel cold and you may start to doubt whether you’re even an ethical person, even though you have every right to tell them no. Think about this: when you do drop everything to help your loved ones, does it ever actually make their problems go away? At best, it probably just satisfies them for a few days until they’re back at it again. A toxic person expecting you to regularly take on responsibility for solving their issues — or in the case of a guilt tripper, expecting you to take the blame for anything that goes wrong with in their lives — doesn’t make them any less miserable overall than they were before they passed the burden to you. Instead, it just makes for two miserable people, because now they’ve brought you down with them. This doesn’t mean your loved one is a terrible person! They’re just doing the best they can to get by like anyone else, and unfortunately, their way of coping is particularly harmful to those around them. They could still be a great person, but it’s perfectly okay to separate the way you feel about a person as a whole from the way you feel about their actions. In fact, it’s vital that you do if you ever want to break free and finally have some energy back to focus on your own life.

Despite having known and ultimately extricated myself from relationships with a host of manipulators throughout my life, I am not so good at practicing what I preach. I have lots of trouble setting boundaries. I especially struggle in dealing with toxic people who are too intertwined in my life for me to completely cut them off (not that I’d necessarily want to), but whom I still need to decrease contact with in order to stay emotionally healthy. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in feeling guilty when a toxic person makes an unreasonable demand, because nobody wants to be the friend who abandons someone who’s reaching out at a low moment in their lives. Preserving our own wellbeing is important too, though, and that’s where the line can get fuzzy. It’s also extremely tough to ultimately accept that your relationship with your loved one is toxic, and to face the reality that no matter how much they may intend to care, they might not be there for you when the going gets tough. To find some answers on how to get serious about boundaries, I spoke with Dr. Jeannette Sawyer Cohen of Everyday Parenting. Dr. Sawyer Cohen (Ph.D., M.Phil., M.S., IMH-E) is a Columbia University trained licensed clinical psychologist who frequently sees boundary-setting issues among women and has conducted research on the benefits of practicing self-compassion. Here’s what she had to say:

“Anyone who has traveled by plane has been instructed to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. While this may sound cliché, it’s true! You must remind yourself that you really, truly cannot be an ideal partner when your own needs are unmet. And those growing feelings of resentment do not just disappear; they leak out and actually do influence your interactions and your own well-being.

Many women have people-pleasing tendencies and strive to be ‘good’ – a good friend, a good family member, a good partner or co-worker – and sometimes these ideas about what it means to be ‘good’ fall along the lines of ‘good girls don’t get mad.’ Think about your definition of a good friend, or a good mother – do you equate being good with perfection, avoiding conflict at all costs, being self-sacrificing or not allowed to have your own needs? In order to take steps toward setting boundaries in toxic relationships, we must first reflect on our own belief systems, find space to expand our definitions, and focus on being ‘good enough,’ a concept that can include room to nurture both ourselves and others.

Keep in mind some version of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ – that is, you can both love this person and simultaneously hate their behavior.”

The Frisky: How do we begin to set boundaries with someone? If you have people-pleasing tendencies (in my own life I’ve seen many people prey on this part of my personality), is there a way to be firm about it while still being kind?

Dr. Sawyer Cohen: “To begin setting boundaries that are both firm and kind, plan your strategy in advance. For example, if you are trying to confirm lunch plans with someone who has historically been difficult to firm up plans with, let her know that her lack of response IS a response, e.g, when you leave a voicemail, say, “If I don’t hear back from you by noon I will take that to mean you’re not coming, so I won’t include you in the reservation.” (If that doesn’t feel kind enough, add a line about hoping to see her another time). You are communicating clearly with a well defined deadline for action. Then stick with it. If she still wants to come, tell her she can call the restaurant and add to the reservation. But you have done your part and there is no need to spend your day on this.”

What if the person’s problems are very serious and you’re concerned about them? Even if there’s nothing we can do to actually solve their problems, this can make setting limits very emotionally confusing.

“The best thing one may be able to do in this situation is ensure the person you’re concerned about is getting the help (physical, emotional, other) that he/she needs. If you are concerned about safety then by all means do anything you can to get the right professional involved. After that, if the loved one continues to ‘dump’ their problems on you, direct your energy to redirecting, e.g, ‘This sounds really intense and I can understand why you’re stressed. I’m not the best person to advise you here, but I hear you that things are getting overwhelming. When is your next appointment with your therapist so she can help you figure out how to manage this?'”

What do you do if you set boundaries, and that person doesn’t respect them or implies that you’re selfish?

“If the person doesn’t respect your boundaries, you must continue to communicate clearly what those boundaries are. They may be compelled to keep pushing up against them, and you will need to hold your ground. If someone implies your selfish, remind yourself that their words are really telling you something about their own difficulties in relationships and are not an accurate description of you.”

Is there hope of ever having a more reciprocal relationship with a person who behaves this way, or is it best to accept that we’ll likely always have to stay a healthy distance from them?

“The best way to care for yourself in this context is to let go of your attachment to the idea that this person will change. Once you truly let go of that attachment, you will feel freer. You have accepted this person as is and are no longer focusing on your frustration that this person has the potential to be something different or more. Then, you know what you’re dealing with. The friend who is always late? Make a choice – if you still enjoy having brunch with her and value the friendship despite her chronic tardiness, bring a book. Order an appetizer. Think in advance about what you will do with the time you have before she arrives.

If the boundary violations are intolerable, think about whether you need to limit contact with this person. Just as you may consciously limit your intake of sugar or alcohol, or negative media content, think about limiting the amount of toxic relationship energy in your life.”