Actual boundary setting phrases and conduct?

Yeah I know, my family’s a mess. And you guys have better ideas than the people I have in real life.

So I finally decided to go ahead and visit my family for a few days (it’s been 2 years). I was smart enough to keep it to a weekend this time. Now, the advice I could use is on actually setting boundaries with someone who seems to…not get them. I keep ending up in positions where I don’t know how to respond.

The first problem I’m having is that whatever my mother’s doing is to her not what I said. Whatever boundary I’ve set, she’s never doing that. And then I’m getting told it’s not fair, how can I expect her to respect my boundaries when they’re always changing.

The second is that I keep ending up in places where the blame for responding gets put back on me. Things like “you’re too sensitive”, or “you can’t control other people”. Basically flipping it around so the problem is my reaction.

I’m not sure how to respond to these firmly, but in a way that neither invites argument nor appears to be agreeing with what’s being said.

Just don’t come back until you have the resources to pay for your own hotel room and transportation so that you can bail out whenever you need to.

A weekend is relatively short. If it’s evening, try “I’m going to bed now, mom,” even if it’s relatively early (even 8 PM). If it’s day time, try, “I’m going for a walk now, mom.” Even if she joins you, you’ll get exercise and the benefit of being outdoors. It will at least be a less claustrophobic experience than being talked at indoors.

Good luck!

The main thing right now is I’d like to figure out a somewhat graceful conversational exit. Something polite but firm. Ideally I’d like to be able to say “I’m sorry, but ________ . Now I’m going out for a walk.” Some nice broken record phrase to emphasize that the boundary is there and not changing.

Something that I learned in Al-Anon was the phrase “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It covers a multitude of situations, and can mean whatever you want it to mean.


Your mom: “I don’t know why you won’t let me criticize your clothes, beliefs, body, habits and personality! You’re just being oversensitive!”

You: “I’m sorry you feel that way, mom. I’m going for a walk now.” Courteous but firm, and use a sort of flat-but-determined tone that doesn’t allow for further engagement.

I found this phrase very useful when my mother would attempt to ignore my boundaries. It effectively acknowledged that she’d stated an opinion while simultaneously refusing to continue the conversation or discuss the opinion. It was also quite true: I was sorry she felt that a perfectly reasonable boundary was unreasonable.

Keep in mind that some people will not respect your boundaries, no matter what you do, and they will blame the natural consequences they suffer on you, no matter what you say. That is your starting point: that is, there may be no way to talk to your mother that results in better treatment from her. This is all about how you are going to expect yourself to act, not about how you expect her to act.

Some people weren’t in school during the semester where they taught social skills and spent all their years flunking “works and plays well with others.” There is no magic cure for that. Even when you train animals, there are some that can be trained, and some that can’t. You can domesticate an Asian elephant, sometimes, but African elephants do not take to it. You can teach a horse to accept a saddle and let you ride it, and the two of you can come to enjoy that, but a zebra? Not so much. Some people are like that, too. Your mother may be one of them. Accept that right up front.

Having said that, “I’m sorry you feel that way” was a good suggestion. A bright “oh, well, we’re going to have to disagree on that one, then, I suppose” will work, if that’s you. You can also say, “Well, I can understand that this is your stance, but I explained ahead of time that I don’t plan to stick around for what I think are inappropriate personal remarks. We’re going to have to agree to disagree, and I’m going to have to go amuse myself somewhere else. Don’t get up; I can find my own way out…well, yes, I meant it! Don’t pout! Your little girl is growing up. It will take some getting used to, but it is a good thing…OK, well, you’re going to have to trust me on that…well, you could do that, but it would be a bit petty, don’t you think? As you will, though–I’m not here to control you.” You can do role-playing with yourself, playing both your part and your mom’s part. Don’t get discouraged if she stays negative. The idea is not to change her, because that is out of your power. The idea is to enforce the rules you have for the treatment you will accept and expect from yourself and others. When it comes to inappropriate criticism, you are going to follow your own expectation to refuse to tolerate it, rather than your mom’s expectation that you will. What she does with that is her concern.

I would take firm responses, a bit of a sense of humor, and a plan for something pleasant to do as a de-briefing reward afterwards. You will probably need it. If you don’t, well, then use it as a little celebration. You’ll deserve it!

“We can talk about this later. Now I’m going out for a walk.”

And don’t worry, she’ll remember to bring it up again.

I think “I’m sorry you feel that way” is the sort of thing I was looking for. Reasonably enough polite so I don’t actually lose my temper and say something I’d regret, without acknowledging anything I don’t want to or giving the impression that the matter is open for discussion. I’m pretty much resigned to that if my mother gets the idea it’s going to take some time - right now this is more about giving me the tools to help not get drawn in from feeling like I have to defend myself.

Stock answers that you rehearse and then repeat ad nauseum are the ticket. That, and actually enforcing the stated consequences firmly, but with a minimum of drama. The more polite, the better. Kind of like escorting a very rude customer out of a very high-end store, or from a formal banquet. No muss, no fuss, but no tolerance for bad actors, either…“I’m very sorry, madam, but you’re going to have to leave. Mr. Security Guard, please show the lady out.” Or the way restaurants enforce their dress code: “Oh, I’m very sorry sir, but we have a dress code here that requires gentlemen to wear jackets and shoes with socks. We have jackets, but I’m afraid we have no shoes to loan. There is a very nice establishment down the street that does accept customers without shoes. They have a patio out back; my wife and I go there, sometimes. We hope you’ll be able to join us here on another evening… No, I’m sorry, sir, but we do not make exceptions. Please have a nice evening… I’m sorry you feel that way, sir; I hope you’ll change your mind… You’re going to need to go now. We don’t want to have to call someone to escort you out…Mr. Bouncer, please show this gentleman the way out.”

Thank you, posters, for your answers to the OP’s question. This thread has been like a drink of water to a thirsty person (me).
I wish there were other threads (forums) I could find like this to help me deal with difficult
people. ( I acknowledge I can be a difficult person myself)

I know two useful books for this problem:

The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships

Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them

The thing is that many people are not assertive and do not communicate assertively, and they interpret assertiveness to be aggressiveness.
My experience has been that being assertive with such people only makes matters worse. Simply focusing on the task and hand and not engaging in any meta-communication usually is the method that engenders the least conflict. Although with such people, a measure of conflict is a given.

Ignoring those “You never listen to me,” “You are always wrong,” “Why can’t you ever do anything right?”, “You’re so sensitive,” and instead focusing on the task at hand has been the best course of action for me.

My experience with setting boundaries has been that whatever phrase I used (based on what I read in the literature on setting boundaries), it always backfired, made things worse. I kept wondering “In what world does the writer of this book on boundaries live to give such suggestions?! In what world do such suggestions actually work?!”

It now seems to me that setting boundaries only works with people who are also already into setting boundaries; and chances are there are going to be few problems with such people to begin with.

The others who don’t care about boundaries - it seems only a physical setting of boundaries makes a difference (such as physically removing oneself or the other person from the situation).

It is important to go in knowing that when you finally set boundaries with people who are used to roaming as they please, whether they are small children or old or anything in-between, they are going to test you.* They will probably get worse before they get better, because the status quo was working for them.* The old way was normal, it was comfortable, and it feels “right” to them. They do not want you to get a backbone, because they were doing what they liked and you are ruining their party. You are making things feel “wrong.” You are “ruining everything.” You are “being difficult,” and you are “acting up.” People like to feel in control, and they get upset when they had control and someone comes along and denies them “their” control. They’re going to think, “who do you think you are, anyway? Who gave you the authority to do this?” The only time this will not be the case is when the other person honestly thought you were fine with how they treated you. (How often does that happen?)

And yes, there are some people that have decided they will not tolerate anyone else making the rules except for them. They want to be tyrants, and tyrants do not cope with it when the “little people” stage insurrections. They will remain defiant and fault you. In that case, you are right. Only a fence with a guard stationed on it will address the situation, because there will be no “peace” unless the tyrant is allowed to run everything.

OTOH, while many monarchs wind up getting overthrown because they defy the rights of other people to consent to how they’re going to live, some see which side their bread is buttered on and get with the program. You never know until you try. To go back to my earlier analogy, though, on the first day of training the horse and the zebra may not look that much different. The difference is that the horse can be won over eventually, with patience. The zebra? Never. That is not a commentary on the trainer.

Notice in my department store and restaurant examples that it is quite easy to imagine a customer throwing a fit at not being able to call the shots. They may have a scene. The best the ones enforcing the rules can do is to provide a graceful exit while remaining firm that there will be an exit made by all those who won’t follow the rules. Whether the exit is graceful or not is a consideration, sometimes compliance can be won without a scene by providing a dignified exit, but enforcing the rules still gets the highest priority.

So, here’s what I’m imagining.

You say, “Mother, I would really prefer that Mittens not play on my bed.”

She says, “Mittens wasn’t playing on your bed, she was pooping on it. Now, don’t go changing the boundaries on me, here!”

You: “AAAAGGGHHH!!! Mother, surely it’s obvious that I don’t want Mittens pooping on my bed!”

Mother: “Clearly, you don’t love me, because you won’t let my darling kitty cat poop on your bed, even though you never said that you didn’t want her to do that! You’re a cruel and heartless daughter!” (Anguished weeping)

You: (Thinking, good golly, the woman is out of her mind) “Mother, I love you dearly. I just don’t want your stupid cat anywhere near my stuff.”

Mother: “MY CAT ISN’T STUPID!! You’re so ungrateful!”

You: “I’m taking Mittens out. Only one of us will be returning. Or perhaps neither of us will be returning. I haven’t really decided, yet.”

Mother: (Hysterics)

You: “I’m sorry you feel that way. Heeeere, kitty, kitty, kitty! BYE, see you later! Maybe.”

Sorry. I don’t mean to make light of your situation - I think all of us go through this phase with our parents, trying to learn how to communicate with them, adult to adult. And so many of us are dealing with crazy people, quite honestly, and the whole thing can feel quite impossible.

Anyway, it sounds like you’re making progress - at least she is acknowledging that you have boundaries, even though she can’t seem to notice when she’s crossing them. Baby steps … :slight_smile:

jmcrae:*So, here’s what I’m imagining.

You say, “Mother, I would really prefer that Mittens not play on my bed.” *
Or "Mother, I’m taking Mittens off my bed. She’s playing–no, she’s pooping on it."

*She says, “Now, don’t go changing the boundaries on me, here!” *
Mom, this isn’t court. We tell each other what bothers us, and we come to agreements as we go. We are a family, not Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mother: “Clearly, you don’t love me, because you won’t let my darling kitty cat poop on your bed, even though you never said that you didn’t want her to do that! You’re a cruel and heartless daughter!” (Anguished weeping)
Mom, no one lets Mittens poop on their bed. Grandma won’t put up with it, your neighbor Miss Tilly won’t put up with it, and we all love you. I know you and Mittens have grown accustomed to my bed being the exception, but you can both adjust.

Mother: “MY CAT ISN’T STUPID!! You’re so ungrateful!”
You are right. I was very upset, but I should never talk about Mittens that way. I do apologize for that. That was out of line. I hope you’ll forgive me.
RULE: When you are wrong, apologize for what you did, even when you are not the most wrong. Don’t make excuses for yourself–that is, don’t say, “I should never talk to Mittens that way, but I was very upset.” When the reason comes after the admission of wrong-doing, it sounds like a rebuttal of your apology or a mitigating circumstance.You are going to find that if you don’t expect a quid-pro-quo apology, you are also going to be easier to apologize to, as well. If your mom is more wrong and doesn’t apologize, don’t demand an apology. Just concentrate on enforcing the boundary without accusation of willful wrong-doing.

Mother: (Hysterics)
**I think we could both use a little time and space to calm down. I’m going to go take a walk, and maybe when I come back, we can talk. **

Sorry. I don’t mean to make light of your situation - I think all of us go through this phase with our parents, trying to learn how to communicate with them, adult to adult. And so many of us are dealing with crazy people, quite honestly, and the whole thing can feel quite impossible.

Anyway, it sounds like you’re making progress - at least she is acknowledging that you have boundaries, even though she can’t seem to notice when she’s crossing them. Baby steps … :slight_smile:

Exactly. She’s assessing whether these are real boundaries or merely hoped-for boundaries that might be convinced to go away, if they are made unwelcome enough.

So a (roughly) actual example:

Mom: Don’t you have any blue jeans?

Me: No.

Mom: Really? Isn’t it time you grew out of this all black phase?

Me: We’ve don’t need to go over this again.

Mom: I just can’t believe you’re still dressing so strangely! You know if an employer sees you around town in that stuff you’re not going to be able to keep a job. They’ll think you’re too immature. Isn’t it time you grew up?

Me: This isn’t up for discussion.

Mom: How dare you talk to me that way! You don’t get to tell me what to do. You know the Bible says to honor your father and mother - that doesn’t mean you get to be rude. begins lecture/rant

Don’t be afraid to have a conversation about it. Just turn the conversation from your clothing to her feelings.

Mom: Don’t you have any blue jeans?

Me: Mom, you know I don’t. Why are you letting my clothes bother you so much?

Mom: Really? Isn’t it time you grew out of this all black phase?

Me: No, it is time you let go of letting my clothing wear you out so much. You sound as if you laying around at night worrying about what I’m wearing.

Mom: * I just can’t believe you’re still dressing so strangely! You know if an employer sees you around town in that stuff you’re not going to be able to keep a job. They’ll think you’re too immature. Isn’t it time you grew up?*

Me: I know this worries you, but talking about it one more time isn’t helping. It is only getting you more upset for no reason. I’ll wear some other color when I wear some other color. I won’t starve. You worry about me too much.

Mom: *How dare you talk to me that way! You don’t get to tell me what to do. You know the Bible says to honor your father and mother - that doesn’t mean you get to be rude. begins lecture/rant

Me: I had no intention of being rude. I’m sorry if you feel hurt. If this subject upsets you, I think we’d better talk about something else, because I’m not changing the way I dress. If we can’t do that, I’m just going to go, because you are getting way too upset.

The more upset she gets, the more she is proving your point that these conversations are pointless because they only upset her. Do you see the turn? She isn’t upsetting you, she’s upsetting herself, and you don’t want that for her. The question of whether you are going to change to suit her is not even on the table. She may as well be complaining to you about who they’ve elected president, because her complaining won’t change anything.

I like what EasterJoy said. Another alternative is this:

Your mom: Don’t you have any blue jeans?

You: Why do you ask?

Your mom: Because if you don’t wear blue jeans the sky will fall, the rain will turn to blood, and you’ll starve in the streets in a matter of days!

You: I appreciate that you’re worried about me, but you shouldn’t be. Discussions on the subject of my wardrobe never end well, so it’s not an available topic of conversation. I’m changing the subject. How’re Aunt Marcy and her twenty-seven cats?

Your mom: How am I supposed to know what I can talk to you about? You’re always so touchy!

You, still calmly and pleasantly, with a smile: I’ll be certain to let you know if a topic is off-limits. Let’s get that banana bread in the oven, shall we?

Her: You can’t just change the subject like that! You’re being disrespectful by not letting me use you as an emotional punching bag!

You: I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m going for a walk now; I’ll see you later on.

exit stage right

Something that helped me when dealing with my mother was picturing myself in my head as a calm, rational, reasonable, functional adult. I got this idea of the person I wanted to behave like–someone who wouldn’t be goaded into futile rage by personal/inappropriate/nasty comments, but a mature woman who would exude peace and politeness, almost a professionalism of sorts. At the time, I worked in customer service, and thinking of her sometimes as an unreasonable customer helped me a lot: I had to be courteous and polite to her, and I was, but I didn’t need to answer inappropriate questions or allow her to treat me badly, either.

Basically, don’t let her see you angry. If you do, she’s won: she’s gotten a rise out of you, which is what she’s trying to get. Think of a car that’s been waxed very well: water hits it, but doesn’t really get it wet: it just sort of pools up and doesn’t affect the car at all. You’re the well-cared-for car, and she’s the furious thunderstorm. Don’t let her affect you by presenting her with a smooth surface she can’t get into.

The one concern I have is that in many cases what she wants to do - and what I don’t want to allow - is to complain. Not even really to discuss and argue with me, but to have me sit and listen and nod politely and look appropriately embarrassed while she goes on about how terrible her life is and how none of the family appreciates her. (That reminds me - I also need to I think put a stop to her complaining about my father to me.)

And realistically, I do need to not let her get a rise out of me. And most of the time I’m not in enough emotional shape to sit there and listen to her rants (and she often says quite hurtful things in them) and not react.

So, basically, what I’m trying to do right now is end the inappropriate conversation as quickly as possible - get it quickly to the point where she can either talk about something else, or I’m walking out.

Listening to complaining about someone not present is a different matter. If you carry on that conversation as if the person she is complaining about were standing behind her chair–a practice I would highly recommend as a habit no matter who you are with–you’re not going to be nodding politely and saying nothing. There isn’t any getting around that. If you’re ethical, you can’t just let someone run other people down and just sit there and agree. You can be mild in how you object, you can take a “surely you don’t mean that” tone if you elect to do so, but you have to object. On that, we are in total agreement.

What I mean is that the opinions of a windbag become a lot less hurtful when you take them as the opinions of a windbag. If she starts approving of you, what would that even mean? It is no sign that you’re ready for Broadway. She’s not Johnny Carson or Jay Leno. This isn’t someone you need to further your career. It isn’t someone with judgment you respect. Am I right? I mean in an objective sense–none of your friends would be on Cloud Nine if your mom said they have a bright future. Nothing against her, except that she thinks she is an authority, but she’s not. So as much as you would feel momentary personal relief if she were happy with you, you have to admit that a) it wouldn’t mean much except for your relationship with her and b) because you don’t trust her not to change her tune two minutes later or use your little happy glow against you, you couldn’t really enjoy it, anyway. So let go of her approval entirely. There are many ways it could take you, but they only range from sort of uncomfortable to really excruciating. Cut bait on that line. In short, if your description of her is apt, your sad task is to accept that your mother usually talks like an opinionated windbag, and nothing in the world could do you more good than to make a total disconnect from her opinions.

Where I’m going with this is that her opinions tell you only one thing: how she is feeling at the moment. If she starts spouting opinions, then you can talk about how she is feeling, because that is the only substantial thing you are hearing. It is a little tricky to do without coming off as patronizing, but if you don’t get that out as the common ground of her ramblings, I have no idea what you’re going to do with her as a conversational partner. What does she ever want to talk about, save her own opinions? If she can’t talk about that, she’ll explode. You’ll walk out. You don’t need to replay that scene over and over. If you use her opinions as a barometer of her feelings for the day, well, you’ve listened to her. She may not feel listened to, because she may thinking listening to her = agreeing with her, but to have listened to her in reality has some benefits.

How about this? Tell us what good conversations with her are like. Think back in your past and describe all the conversations you have had with her that worked. What did you talk about? Why did you hit upon that topic? Would she describe it as a good conversation? You cannot build or maintain a relationship by avoiding the inappropriate. There has to be some mutually-agreeable shared experience going on.

Otherwise, what possible good can come of having a conversation? Go and fix her washing machine and empty her gutters and change the batteries in her smoke detector, and get out of there before things go south. But I’m hoping that maybe you can describe some good conversations you’ve had with her, as something to build on.

She may be a complainer, and that’s that, and no wonder she doesn’t have very many friends. Do your best to listen for as much as you can take, but if you don’t find some middle ground that you both enjoy, probably you won’t improve things by increasing the number of visits you give her.

There are two sides to that coin:

  1. You have the right for people not to be hurting you. To a lesser extent to privacy, and then to a lesser extent to have your wishes respected. (In a descending order of importance versus the rights of other people when there’s a conflict of such rights.)

  2. You truly can’t blame people for not having great intuition or even for not being exceptionally attentive to your possible wish of a greater or lesser extent of privacy at any given moment without some clear indications from you or some sort of situation logic to guide them.

Even then, if they are wrong — and you just might be as wrong in talking as they are in listening, it’s often hard to judge — perhaps treat it like an accident for which no one is at fault. It just happens. It isn’t the end of the world. Don’t make too much of it.

What matters is that you aren’t being hurt intentionally and that once you explain the situation you are no longer being hurt at all.

You can’t prevent awkwardness or suffering either in yourself or in others, it’s always bound to be there. Nor can you make human beings infallible. So lighten up and yeah, communicate more.

Anyway, you asked for specific phrases and conduct. I believe the most important part is to be:

— confident, with no hesitation (to avoid giving the impression that you doubt in the merit of your own requests or can’t define them)
— not complaining, just setting the boundary from now on or reminding people of it (if you’d set it clearly before)
— tactful and respectful in your request (although firm), including ‘please’, ‘I would appreciate’, ‘it would help me greatly if’, ‘it isn’t helping if you’ etc.
— non-lingering and as brief as possible without cutting out polite forms (like those above)

You can make it about yourself rather than about them, like modern psychologists/negotiators suggest, but not to the extent of sounding like someone who is self-absorbed.

During those awkward conversations I sometimes ask if we can please change the subject. If it’s only curiosity or unwanted opinions or embarrassing comments, then I just start talking about something else. If it’s well-meaning and non-absurd advice, I go to greater lengths in unloading the situation. Sometimes I need to tell someone that the conversation stops right here, or that his assessment of the situation is not reliable because he doesn’t have all the knowledge.

Do note that family and friends often need to take down some walls to reach a person who’s shutting in before it’s too late (up to and including suicide in the most extreme cases of people who bottle it up and refuse to talk). Can’t blame them for at least trying, even over the objections of the relative or friend concerned. There are more important duties owed to family and friends than to respect a momentary wish uttered by a person who is too troubled to be fully competent. To set them at peace, you need to give them a convincing argument that there is nothing to worry about or at least nothing you can’t cope with on your own. And that you really mean it and know what you’re doing when asking to be left alone.

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