What kinds of boundaries can I set with a self-centered person?
May 18, 2014 8:14 AM   Subscribe

I need some help recalibrating how I interact with someone who is profoundly self-centered (ranging from insensitivity to my feelings to arguably deliberately "using" me). Assuming that I must keep this person in my life, what are some things I can do to feel more empowered and more at peace with the balance between us?

For better or worse, I am naturally a very empathetic, giving person. "Joe" is just plain not. I'm loath to armchair diagnose, but if it helps as shorthand, he demonstrates many behaviors associated with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I've known him for years and I understand that Who He Is will not change... but I realize that the time has come for ME to change: how I think of him, react to him, compartmentalize what he says/does, get more value for ME out of him, and otherwise approach our interactions.

I really just want to be more calm, feel more in control, not let him get to me so freaking much, and better look out for myself since I know that he will not.

Can you suggest any tactics, rules of thumb, proactive boundary-setting statements, measured responses, internal mantras, etc. that might help?
posted by argonauta to Human Relations (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I was partners with someone that sounds like that -- tried many times to break it off and always was manipulated into staying. I read Emotional Blackmail the night before I finally broke it off with her and found it incredibly useful -- everything she said, I could see coming due to the book and knew how to respond to keep my boundary. I have not had contact with this person in over 10 years, so I don't know how applicable it is if you want to keep the person in your life, but it was useful to me in setting and maintaining boundaries with one of the most manipulative people I've ever encountered.
posted by elmay at 8:30 AM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Stop Walking on Eggshells is a great book about dealing with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder, also useful for dealing with anyone who has poor boundaries, is manipulative, highly dramatic, etc. It took many years for me to develop an adequate relationship with my Mom, and it was worth the effort.
posted by theora55 at 8:31 AM on May 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Being an "empathetic, giving person" is one thing. And a good thing it is, too. However, being a pushover is not a good thing. You are in charge of your life and so your empathy is yours to offer or deny as you see fit. If others have problems with your choices, then that is their problem and not yours.

Learn to say "no" and mean it. If you are a kind, decent person in general, you won't be abusive with the magical power of "being the boss of you."
posted by CincyBlues at 8:35 AM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

The 'alien' approach: train yourself to step back and regard Joe's actions or opinions as those of an extraterrestrial, where your first response is 'hmm, isn't that interesting? I just can't imagine why you think/say/did that.'

That pause gives you time and more importantly space to consider what you want your own reaction to be, and how your own reaction will preserve your inner calm.
posted by Dashy at 9:25 AM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

CincyBlues has it: learn to say NO and mean it. Try to make it just a plain, flat "no", not "no, I wish I could do x for you" or "no, maybe later" or "I'm sorry, but no" --- don't offer explanations or reasons or maybe-later delays, don't let Joe turn it into a discussion, just "No". It'll be hard, especially at first, because he's used to getting nothing but Yes from you, but hold your ground!
posted by easily confused at 10:06 AM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

You just have to stop caring when they're upset. This will probably lead to some form of "why don't you care about meeeeee?!?" or "I don't know what to do!!!" from them and you just have to shrug and say, sorry, not my problem. If you consistently refuse to make their problems your problems they'll give up. Eventually.
posted by fshgrl at 11:18 AM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I found this book, Where To Draw The Line, useful in helping me to understand that I could be a helpful, service-minded person and still say 'no' and mean it.
posted by gauche at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2014

Occasionally, a flat "No" won't do. If you must give your reason for refusing, and Joe persists in asking why, you can respond with "Asked and answered."
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:43 AM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Decide for yourself what you are willing to do and how often. For example: a phone call every Sunday. Then when the person says something completely unreasonable, like "you never talk to me," you can say, "I talked to you last Sunday, I'm talking to you now, and I'll talk to you next Sunday."

Or if they try to manipulate you into going beyond the boundaries you've chosen, like if they say "I really want to go to the theater on Friday, and I don't want to go alone," you can say, "that play sounds amazing, and I hope you'll go see it and tell me about it on our Sunday phone call."
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:59 AM on May 18, 2014

Say "no" more often, even if you don't have any other plans. Then start making other plans.

And stop needing him. Find it in other people.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:34 PM on May 18, 2014

Let me recommend a couple of negotiating books:
Getting to yes

The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator

My ex (and some other folks I have known) is like Joe. I am like you.

With the ex, I eventually learned to do the smallest/least effortful thing I needed to do "for" him to not shirk my duties (or whatever you want to call it). Example: He often fell asleep on the couch. I spent years waking him up at midnight and half carrying him to bed and trying to tell him he should go watch TV in bed if he is that tired (which fell on deaf ears) and generally being stressed. At some point, I began just sticking his alarm clock on the coffee table if he was still on the couch when I went to bed. That way, he would not oversleep and be late to work but I was not hassled. If he woke up at 2am (or whatever), he could pick up the alarm clock and take it to bed with him. I decided where he slept was not my problem. My only problem was that I was financially dependent upon him, thus I did not want him oversleeping, having that impact his job, having that impact my life negatively.

I have gotten decent results with viewing it in terms of quid pro quo:

You want X from me, well, first I need Y from you. Can't be bothered to give me Y? Then, hey, no big. I just won't do X. Oh? You say that's a problem for you? You are having a hissy fit about it? This pains you enormously? Gee, there is a very simple solution: Get me Y. No? Can't do that? That's an unreasonable request? Gee, tell it to someone who cares. You want X, then get me Y. If you can't be bothered to get me Y, then, hey, you can live without X. No big deal to me. Have a nice life. Feel free to try to find a better deal elsewhere if you think I am such an unreasonable bitch. K?

When someone has shit on me over and over and over, they get no more freebies or "on credit." There is no more "Michele, I will be happy to do X for you as soon as I have Y. But I need you to do this for me first for some lame-assed reason. Please, be understanding like you have always been." It's "cash on the barrelhead only -- you can get X AFTER and ONLY AFTER I have Y. Thanks."
posted by Michele in California at 2:09 PM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

"The Dance of Intimacy" by Harriet Lerner is great. I refer to it often. She teaches us how to say no but yet still remain close: IOW how to achieve the elusive happy medium between doormat and ending the relationship. When the over-manipulative person, for instance, starts escalating their misbehavior to guilt you into doing something, you just keep repeating your sympathy, your own failures at having a perfect life, and your "no".

It's doable!
posted by PJSibling at 2:12 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Be blunt about what you need and expect, and stick to it. Write it down (not to show to him, for your own benefit).
posted by Sebmojo at 3:04 PM on May 18, 2014

Thank you so much for the suggestions so far. In case it's helpful to clarify, this situation is less about him overtly asking for (or demanding or expecting) favors that I struggle to say "no" to; it's more about him consistently acting/speaking without concern for any negative effects on me (practical, emotional, other).

One of the reasons why I mentioned that I'm instinctively more empathetic and giving is because it's made it a particular challenge for me to even comprehend how or why he operates and treats people like he does (the 'alien' tactic is great in this regard, thank you!) -- meaning that there's also often a substantial (naive) delay on my part to even grok that he's doing it again.

I think just want to be able to cope better, maybe mostly in my own head, given that he has shown me clearly who is is (and I believe him). I could very well be wrong in resisting more assertive/"no"-saying approaches... but it's enormously valuable food for thought, either way. Thanks again, and in advance.
posted by argonauta at 5:33 PM on May 18, 2014

"My goodness, well, *that* was a thing you just said" (or any non-committal "Huh" sort of noise, or even a good old "Bless your heart") might buy you a few seconds. Follow up with a change of subject.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:01 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm like you. I've worked with people like Joe.

Here are phoenix_rising's rules for dealing with sociopaths and narcissists:

Don't talk to them more than you absolutely have to.

Don't give them any indication of your feelings.

Don't ask them how they're doing, how their day is going, etc.

Don't do anything for them unless there's something in it for you.

Always assume that they want to take advantage of you. (Bcs they usually do.)

Never expect anything from them, unless it's something that the two of you explicitly agreed upon.

Don't smile when they're talking to you. This is important. Keep your face relaxed and inscrutable -- practice in front of a mirror if necessary. By not smiling during interactions, you're sending a signal both to him ("don't fuck with me") and to your own brain ("unfriendly person -- maintain emotional barrier").

Mutter "asshole" under your breath when you're done dealing with them.

Don't feel bad about treating them like this. It's hard to do, especially for people like us who are normally caring and compassionate. But if you show them the least bit of empathy, they'll pounce all over you and exploit your ass.
posted by phoenix_rising at 7:04 PM on May 18, 2014 [10 favorites]

One of the easist things is to default to 'no' with this person. With other people, you probably try to say 'yes' as much as possible. With this person, start at 'no', then consider revising to 'yes' after you've thought about it for awhile.
posted by kjs4 at 7:45 PM on May 18, 2014

Following up on Michele's comment, and to the extent that you do have to negotiate, here's another good book: Thank You For Arguing. But for dealing with people with BPD, even the best strategies will take a long time, and a lot of sadness.
posted by mmiddle at 8:23 AM on May 19, 2014

My oldest son is also like his dad but we get along really great. You need to find a way to wrap your head around the fact that he is not wired like you. He is just not. He does not do things for the reasons you do them and he never will.

This is why quid pro quo sometimes works: It focuses on goals, not feelings. Ignore the feels here. It is only in your way. You need to more actively recognize the ways in which he "asks" for things without coming out and bluntly asking. Every time he assumes you will do x because you always do x, he is signaling to you that he values and x and wants x from you. If you need or want something from him, that gives you power to ask for something from him in exchange.

Your touchy-feely nature is trapping you here. You have empathy and want him to stop hurting so you do things for him and then he has no empathy and no sense of obligation so once he is out of pain (or discomfort), he's all good and will not grok any reason at all why he should care what you want. He got what he needed already. So why bother doing anything for you? But when he wants x because not having x pains him, that is when you have the power to say "Yeah, first do y for me. Then I will do x."

When he was a kid, I sometimes told my son "The point at which you will care about my feelings is the point at which you want something from me and my answer is "fuck you. What have you done for me lately?"" He says he saw just enough of the shallow end of the pool of mom being less generous to realize that his cushy life could turn real freakin miserable without me every being abusive just by me pulling the rug out from under him and not being so generous. This is where a lot of nice get in trouble: They continue to be just as giving as long as they are not at DTMFA already and then they quit entirely. I don't do that.

So he found that if he woke me at 3am and asked me to cook him a meal, I would do that -- if he hadn't been a little shit all freakin week. He didn't even have to be a good boy. He just needed to not be a rampant asshole 24/7. His behavior just had to be neutral. I like being generous and doing this for people. So as long as he wasn't simply shitting on me, I was happy to dote on him. But if he was shitting on me constantly, then he got told "Get yourself a peanut butter sandwich. I am sick and tired and need my sleep." But I always sick and tired. So being sick and tired was not the real reason. He eventually noticed the correlation: As long as he was not an asshole, mom was doting. If he was a chronic asshole, welp, I had better things to do than dote on him.

His dad never got the memo. Nothing I did really got his dad to change his behavior. I had to just do less for his dad because there was no getting through to his dad and I eventually left. But I have dealt with other narcissists.

Anyway, you need to learn to deal differently with feelings. You need to focus on results here and stop letting him jerk your chain. You do stuff for him to stop his pain because you empathize and then, when it is done, you have nothing to negotiate with. You need to ask for what you want while he is in pain. Offer to fix his pain in exchange for him fixing yours, basically. And learn to be okay with him choosing to hurt rather than deal. You will eventually hurt a lot less for learning that.

You are welcome to memail me any time to hash out a few details until this gets more manageable.
posted by Michele in California at 1:56 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

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