Please give me words for explaining my boundaries.
November 1, 2013 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Can I explain to someone how their negative behaviors are putting me off, but maintain an amicable relationship with them? I get too emotional to find fair words.

There's a person I know who, for context, has had a hard hand dealt to them in life. We are acquainted through a shared interest. When I update my involvement regarding this interest, 'Jane' often contacts me to congratulate, comment, update. We do have some ties through the interest, so she has an emotional and... what's the hobby equivalent of professional?... interest in what I share. If that's too vague, then say I bought a puppy Jane bred and I share info about its growth, performance, and training.

I stopped initiating contact a while ago, but I'd prefer to maintain cordiality. I got to a point where I got fed up, and since then I've been mostly unresponsive to her overtures, not because she's evil or hateful. It's more because there is also a pattern of dysfunction, with which I have no interest in engaging. I have a hard time figuring out how to outline to her that I'm okay for chatting about our shared topic of interest, but that other particular behaviors of hers put me in a very bad mindset, roil up bad feelings because they are similar to the behavior of toxic people in my past, and are just in general negative and enervating.

The problem is that most any topic can become a gateway to tattling about other people who are doing, or have done, mean things to her. It's a persistent theme, and to be sure Jane definitely has some unhealthy family history, and drama related to other players in our shared interest. But even when she's not doing it, I'm just waiting for her to do it, which is unfair and distracts me from actually engaging with positive behavior.

Often the people being reported on are friends who have abandoned her. For no discernible reason, naturally.

It's almost as if there is a self-rewarding component to this, a triumph in being victimized. A point scored for each offense noted.

The only response I've been able to make is to ignore any communication that includes the creepy stuff. But there can be 3 paragraphs of okay stuff and then three sentences of nastiness. And if I disengage entirely, it doesn't give her any 'why' to work with, only makes me another potential villain (and that's okay, I can't control how other people cast me in their mind-plays.) I know you can't lead a horse to water, but I'd feel better about myself if I knew I at least pointed out the direction to the lake.

Can I explain to Jane how the sin-tattling, done-me-wrong stuff is so very off-putting? I don't want to co-opt the term, but triggering might even apply. It really twists my gut up in cramps and makes my breath short and I can't think of words that aren't lashing-out and scolding. I'd like to give a detached response that outlines the cause-effect. "when you blast an air horn, the cat will run away. You cannot enjoy the air horn and the cat's company at the same time." I could use help and perspective.

I know 'disengage and don't look back' has a very good chance of being the default answer. But Jane does have a valid emotional connection to my projects, and I'd prefer to not cut her out for that reason. I also have the nagging feeling that Jane might not know that other people can have emotional and even physical responses to this thing she does. So even if I do have to disengage entirely, I'd like to know that I did what I could to explain why. I don't expect to 'fix' her, but if we can try to be friendly and I can say 'eh! eh! stop that' when necessary, it might become a lot better for me and maybe even useful for her. And if me calling her out with criticism makes friendship impossible, at least she'd have a nugget of data which might become meaningful later, if not now.

So, is there a good way to say it or a right way to do it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Do you feel comfortable writing an email to her that says, "Jane, I enjoy your company most of the time, but there's this one thing you do and while I think you're a fine human, I just can't bear it. I have a hard time dealing with the way that you badmouth other folks. I'd hate to stop seeing you because we do have a good time when we're focused on hobby, but the other stuff, I just can't abide."

Other than that, I'd just dump her. Life is too short to hang with the hangdog.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:18 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd just be frank and say: "Jane, I really enjoy chatting with you about our [shared professional interest] but uncomfortable with hearing about your personal life, for personal reasons of my own that I am not willing to share. I want to keep our interactions to [shared professional interest.] Could you tailor your interaction with me accordingly?"
posted by bearwife at 1:22 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, just tell her you aren't up for gossip.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:24 PM on November 1, 2013 [18 favorites]

As someone who has (somewhat) overcome some bad interpersonal skills (not this particular habit, but equally obnoxious ones) I now really, really wish someone had just been brutally honest with me about what I was doing wrong that alienate people and ruined friendships and move on from there. However you are not her parent, you are not responsible for her and if you just want to disengage and move on or say please don't include me in gossip anymore and try to maintain the relationship than that is as far as being a decent human being requires of you.
posted by bartonlong at 1:28 PM on November 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Jane, I love to talk with you about Underwater Basket Weaving, but gossip makes me really uncomfortable. I really dislike discussing people who aren't present." When she does it again, say, "You know I don't like to gossip."

If you're only engaging via e-mail, this is actually more difficult than if you're engaging on the phone or in person and can interrupt her.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:28 PM on November 1, 2013 [9 favorites]

"When you talk poorly about other people when I'm around, it makes me feel ______. Do you think it would be possible to maybe minimize this and talk about other, good things? It would make me feel better and otherwise I really enjoy your company."

You are master of your own domain and your domain only. Believe it or not, "reporting feelings" is extremely effective and totally irrefutable by outside parties. Let the person have their reaction. If it's explosive, don't engage in kind, because they might think on it and come around very soon after.

All this other smug, self-righteous, can-i-help-her-help-herself bullshit? Honestly? It will invoke a defensive reaction, you'll argue over how you don't really know what she's thinking and feeling, she may find parts of your personality equally distasteful and find this a good time to bring it up, and your little good intentions self-help project and your relationship with her will go down in a big ball of flames. How do I know? Because I've tried it over and over again and it never works. Because let me sit you down and explain to you how off-putting you are and talk about the things you need to fix in your personality. Doesn't go down easy, does it?

Your feelings on the other hand? If you stay on topic, you are king of the land. You'd be surprised how effective a small display of vulnerability is, how it lays the groundwork for a deeper friendship and how much people want to please you and get along. If it doesn't, well surely they can screw. It's great stuff!
posted by phaedon at 1:29 PM on November 1, 2013 [10 favorites]

"avocational" is the word you're looking for, but I've got no better advice than those above.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:30 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's funny that you mention dogs, because you may want to try some positive conditioning with her on this. Respond very positively to the stuff you're willing to talk about and completely ignore the other stuff.

This works better in person or over the phone than through email - in person, you can engage when she talks about your shared interest, and just change the subject when she talks about the other stuff.

If this is all happening over email, and it's one paragraph of congrats and two paragraphs of gossip, it's harder. Could you just ignore an email from her when she includes gossip, but respond enthusiastically when she doesn't?

I know this might sound a bit crazy when dealing with people rather than animals, but it does often work, and it's an approach to try that doesn't involve confrontation.
posted by lunasol at 1:35 PM on November 1, 2013

I am not a therapist, I am not a psychologist, but I am a behaviorist at a high school for kids with emotional and behavioral issues, and I'm reading your description as features consistent with Borderline Personality Disorder. Specifically, the over-attachment, the inappropriate personal relationships, blaming others for all their's sad because it's really because there's no defined sense of self and they're just kind of...lost.

Of course, you can't change her but you can change your reaction to her behavior. From my perspective, if you think of her as a person who's unable to cope with a lot of internal damage and doesn't even know who she is, you may find her behavior less personally triggering.

But you may not. It's okay to find her to be difficult and to avoid communicating with her. The features you describe can be challenging to be around and it's really okay to decide that you don't want this in your life. You have my permission to cut her loose for your own sanity.
posted by kinetic at 1:45 PM on November 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

Some people are actually okay with hearing the sort of negative stuff that you find upsetting, so I agree with the above advice to describe it as your personal preference not to hear it, without acting as though you think this is an obvious thing that all people should know not to do. That's about the best you can do, and it still doesn't guarantee she will take it well. She could very well be disappointed, as she probably slips the negative stuff in because she really wants to talk about it. If she honors your request, she will have to decide whether the interaction is still worthwhile for her, knowing she's never going to get that part of what she wanted.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 1:52 PM on November 1, 2013

I know you can't lead a horse to water, but I'd feel better about myself if I knew I at least pointed out the direction to the lake.

As long as you realize it's also not your job to lead her anywhere, but you want to anyway for your own sake. Then in my experience behavioral redirection works best when you respond directly to a single instance rather than save it up and say "this is a character flaw of yours." The former is specific & may help her recognize/change something, but the latter just adds you to the list of abandoners & victimizers.

So when you get an email that chats nicely until the last paragraph, write back with "wow I was with you about puppy training until that last paragraph, your history with Jane is really none of my business and I don't like hearing that kind of thing, nor will I participate or respond to it."

Then you've said it and you can ignore or "ding" her when she does it again, depending on what kind of relationship you want. Just be consistent. Choose ignore if you want to not be friends, choose ding if you want the good without the bad.
posted by headnsouth at 2:11 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

The problem is that most any topic can become a gateway to tattling about other people who are doing, or have done, mean things to her. It's a persistent theme

If you just want the behavior to stop, tell her that you don't like gossip and don't want to talk about other people. But there's a larger problem. Sooner or later, you are going to become one of those "other people" who have done her wrong. Beware.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:17 PM on November 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

When she says stuff that makes you uncomfortable why not just a simple "dude, I don't know, not really into talking about that kind of negative stuff. Sorry." And then changing the subject. Some casual variation of that should do the trick. Why does everything have to be so heavy? No need for a serious email or deep-feelings talk.

If she presses then you can say it more sternly: "No look, I'm really trying not to engage in badmouthing other people, it just makes me uncomfortable. Can we talk about something else?" Every time it happens, stick to that script.

It's kind of like that "ding" training that everyone talks about around here except...actually using words.
posted by windbox at 2:33 PM on November 1, 2013 [12 favorites]

It sounds like she's using you a bit to vent/as a counsellor.

You are really going to have to actively steer conversations back to what you want to talk about more. Yeh, it's going to be a ding training like thing. You might decide it's too much work - because her whole habit is built around being negative, it's going to take a lot for her to undo that - or Jane might be able to start seeing that she has some good stuff going on in her life.
posted by heyjude at 2:37 PM on November 1, 2013

If you want to say something that is relatively unlikely to cause knee-jerk offense, maybe the next time it comes up you could say something like, "I'm sorry, I don't know how to respond when you talk about stuff like that. I don't really like talking about how people have treated me badly in the past, it just makes me upset to keep thinking about it."
posted by wondermouse at 2:55 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Telling her you are uncomfortable with talking about others when they are not present is fine but know she will eventually be doing it about you as well. Sadly that seems to be how it works.
posted by wildflower at 3:37 PM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Another vote for the casual response like Eybrows McGee and windbox have above. I don't know about you, but if I started talking like some of the other posters have suggested (explaining the situation in a paragraph) the other person would probably look at me strangely.
posted by eq21 at 3:46 PM on November 1, 2013

I've got an acquaintance who's somewhat like this. I know this person goes to a therapist, so I offer gentle, "Well, have you brought this up with your therapist?"

Sometimes that makes a nice segue for me to change the subject back to what our actual shared interest is and sometimes it unleashes a floodgate of why the therapist is also on the shitlist, so ymmv.
posted by mibo at 4:37 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you post things on the internet for the whole world to see, you also invite them to comment. To be blunt, the easiest way to limit people commenting is to limit your postings --- if there's no new post, there's no new comments by this person.

As for the mean gossip: Eyebrows McGee has it perfect.
posted by easily confused at 4:39 PM on November 1, 2013

One little thing I'd add is that I don't think it's actually cool to drop a personal judgment on her in the process of scaling back and limiting your interactions with her.

Basically, don't say something to her that could be personally insulting, including implying you're above gossiping, and then tell her you don't want to engage with her on that level anymore. Frame it unequivocally as a 'me, not you' thing.

I've had a lot of personal boundary issues (because I'm prickly), and framing a back off request as anything but a breezy "Yow, man, I can't handle this stuff!" sort of thing will always backfire, and justifiably so because people deserve a rebuttal to personal criticisms. I'd say just do the Yow man thing, then launch right into a discussion that models the type of communication you welcome.

"Oh, dang! All that [identifying noun] stuff is pretty heavy. I am sorry to hear you're having a rough time, but this is way out of my league.

Hey, so Spanky won the Dolly Parton lookalike contest at Gunslinger's last night! Here are a couple pics of the victory procession! How is Gormley's skin infection coming along? I read about..."
posted by ernielundquist at 4:45 PM on November 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have someone in my life who does this exact same thing to me. This person has been diagnosed with a mental illness. It still trips my trigger every single time. What might work with another person such as behavioral techniques, rational discussion, distancing yourself, will probably not work. My rather unfortunate suggestion is to either disengage completely or recognize the situation for what it is.
posted by tamitang at 5:51 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd examine your emotional response to this. You're probably spending too much time thinking about this if you're writing several paragraphs on an internet forum ruminating on her behavior. It sounds like you are afraid of something - like she will take something away from you or put some unpleasantness on you. Maybe your feelings around the situation will ease up if you think about what is making you afraid and grapple with that.

It sounds like she's being off-putting, but why should that be any skin off your nose? It can be a relief to be able to let dysfunctional do their own little thing and not get too concerned or involved in it. You're choosing to get involved by stewing about it.

In terms of what to say, there are any number of assertive comments that you could make (I would start with "Girl, I love talking dogs with you but that thing you are doing is wearing me out"). But it sounds like the part you actually need to rehearse and practice is coming from a calm, non-anxious place about the whole thing.
posted by mermily at 8:37 PM on November 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Just show her this thread. Or tell her basically what you told her here. Things not to say: "I don't like gossip" (most people like gossip, probably including you; it's an obvious lie), "this is really heavy" (most people who aren't shallow are fine talking about heavy stuff in other contexts, so again, it's an obvious lie), etc. If you say anything that is a lie, the takeaway is going to be "she lied to me," and why shouldn't it?

(data point: it took me about 10 minutes to stop worrying that I am in fact the person being talked about here, and if it were, that's probably what I would want to hear.)

(other data point: it's not so much that it's self-rewarding, more that she feels lonely and probably really wishes she had somebody on her side. after all, she thinks you're her friend. and it isn't an unreasonable assumption to make that a friend would be willing to commiserate with her or comfort her or listen to her. it doesn't make someone crazy or toxic or BPD, it makes them human. related to that, it would probably be very helpful to clarify to her whether you're her friend or not.)
posted by dekathelon at 9:17 PM on November 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sometimes people having a rough go in life divulge on an overly intimate level to stable, reasonable people because it feels safe to do so. You definitely need to establish and maintain boundaries because silence in this case is basically consent and it makes you equally responsible for the current toxic situation. She can't read your mind.
One of two things will happen: Jane will either come to stop bumping up against your boundaries and learn a new healthy friendship dynamic, or she will push them until the friendship breaks.

Also, this has not been mentioned, but is it possible that that Jane might think of you as more than a friend?

Ernielundquist has a good script with how to go about it in a respectful unengaging way.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 9:18 PM on November 1, 2013

I forgot to add -- when you tell her this, it would probably also be helpful to tell her whether there is a chance that the friendship could possibly be repaired and whether maybe if she behaves well you can be real friends, or whether she should just give up. In other words, whether she should keep trying or whether she's ruined her chance forever. Because that is likely at the root of it.
posted by dekathelon at 9:26 PM on November 1, 2013

Don't show her this thread. It will hurt her feelings, and it won't change her personality. It will cause strife, and you will be added to her collection of done-me-wrongs.

Just move on. Life has plenty of others sharing your mutual interests.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:50 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are being groomed to reject her so as to become the next person she will complain about. People who she feels have mistreated are likely former friends who, like you, couldn't figure out how to get away. It would be nice if she could understand this dynamic in her life but it's not really your job to explain it to her. You could try. The worst that could happen is that you would have to feel like the bad person who mistreated her by telling her what she doesn't want to know. If you weren't telling her out of anger or exasperation but out of a desire to truly help her move on with her own life, you would only feel sad that she couldn't accept your help.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:46 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think I understand your hesitation if you have known manipulative people before. They do something you don't like, but it's easier to just quietly endure it because if you object then it becomes a THING, another piece on the chessboard, and they use that as leverage against you and try to trick and trap you on that thing or any one specific thing you said about that thing.

But just some comments on the internet is probably a safe distance. I think the advice above is good, I just wanted to say that it doesn't sound like you should be feeling physical distress and this might be a good opportunity to put some of that behind you given this controllable and circumscribed shared interest.
posted by bleep-blop at 8:59 AM on November 2, 2013

Just to play devil's advocate.

The armchair psychology/internet diagnosing here is kind of creepy to me. That's not how psychological diagnosis works, not in any reasonably professional capacity. I know you people are only brainstorming responses based on your own experiences that feel similar to what you've read, but I know I wouldn't want to be the person who the OP is describing.

Show her this thread or cut her out of your life. She might be as manipulative as you say, but I don't know you, so I can't vouch for everything you say about this supposedly hateful person. You don't like gossip? Don't engage in it, because gossiping is what you (and several commenters) are doing here. Armchair speculation can be harmful.
posted by quiet earth at 11:10 PM on November 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Things not to say: "I don't like gossip" (most people like gossip, probably including you; it's an obvious lie)

Wrong. It's actually the truth about how we're feeling for some of us. Count me as one who honestly does not enjoy hearing gossip. When someone gossips to me, especially someone I have not known very long nor at a deep level, I make a mental note to myself that they are untrustworthy and tend to be overly critical of others. Then I try to distance myself from them.

If they'll gossip to you, they're gossiping about you. There are friends out there who won't talk about you behind your back, and when you find one, keep her.

What to do to stop hearing the gossip? Don't engage. You could respond with silence and move on, providing the behavior with no payoff. If pressed further, "That would really hurt Ms. X's feelings if she heard you saying that." Otherwise ignore and move on - that's the easiest boundary work in this type of case where it is someone you can easily choose to avoid.
posted by hush at 2:35 PM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

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