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How Can Boundary Setting Turn a Toxic Friendship Into a Healthy One?
Emotional Health

How Can Boundary Setting Turn a Toxic Friendship Into a Healthy One?

Many of us don't realize that we can fall into unhealthy friendships if we don't put the effort to think about and set our personal boundaries.

Boundary setting is surprisingly life-changing. For people pleasers, the authentic expression of wants, needs, and desires is often secondary to fulfilling the needs of others. The curious trap is, “others” are usually loved ones. And these are typically the relationships in most need of boundaries. 

The communication of needs is balanced with fears of upsetting someone, appearing selfish, being rejected or losing relationships completely. If done correctly, however, setting boundaries saves friendships. It doesn’t destroy them.

I’ve decided to highlight friendships for two reasons. Friendships are intimate and committed relationships spanning years. But they don’t have the supportive literature or guidance they deserve; most topics, particularly online, centre around romance or familial relationships. 

Despite being just as complex (minus the addictive qualities of “falling in love”), friendships don’t receive the same level of scrutiny as romance. Yet there’s high potential for codependency, communication breakdowns, and even break-ups.

A breeding ground for resentment

As I explained with “skilled niceness,” a lot of the time “nice” behavior is inauthentic. There’s no avoiding that if we continually overexert ourselves or put others’ needs first, there will be a slow, residual build-up of tension.

This tension manifests emotionally as resentment or frustration or annoyance or bitterness. Interestingly, in my experience, the relationships in most need of boundaries are also those where people feel most comfortable expressing “shadow” emotions.

In these relationships, there’s an interesting balance. There’s less of a facade than casual relationships, yet not quite enough vulnerability to express deeper desires. For example, you might find yourself snapping at your best friend or becoming passive aggressive in ways you wouldn’t with someone you know less well.

Pay very close attention to your inner messaging system around such emotions. Personally, to feel (not just intellectually understand) what authentic boundaries I desire, I’m vigilant of my emotional reaction to situations. I ask myself — what is my unconscious attempting to tell me?

Using this is a guide, I dig deeper and spot the ways I’m overexerting or saying yes (or no!) too often. I have to look within, understand why. To put it crudely, guilt is a huge catalyst in saying yes inauthentically, while bitterness, frustration or resentment are signs I’m overly compromising.

Once I gain clarity, I have to take responsibility, rather than blame the situation. When it comes to boundaries, responsibility is enacted through communication.

Honesty is the best policy

Picture two long-term friendships. The first is largely running on auto-pilot, with little communication and no expression of boundaries. Over a number of years, expectations around behavior, imbalances in emotional support, and codependent traits have piled up and remained unchallenged.

In the second friendship, there are conscious attempts to express boundaries. On the short-term, this is more difficult than the easier path of “avoiding conflict.” There’s an emotional stirring (guilt, anger, upset) and challenging conversations. However, through this, both people honestly share what’s working and what isn’t. 

The framework for the relationship is updated, consciously. By clearing the air, new standards and agreements are set. There’s a greater mutual understanding of needs. There’s more space. There’s less unspoken, and difficult emotions have been processed.

Feeling the fear and talking anyway

In my experience, such conversations seem terrifying yet when they’re approached with compassion and understanding, they deepen the levels of intimacy and closeness in all friendships. However, to avoid pitfalls of victimhood and resentment, we must accept full responsibility.

Many of us maintain and nourish relationships through a sense of obligation. The expression of boundaries is in many ways the search for the truth of the relationship, a relationship built on honesty and not expectation and obligation. This isn’t to be mistaken for coldness or a merciless approach. Instead, it’s a gentle exploration and search for common ground.

Such conversations are difficult with friends you’ve known for years. A lot of expectations and behavioral patterns are ingrained over time. Yet all friendships can benefit from a new lease of life and lightness when closer aligned to what feels right.

Embracing the risk of drifting apart

A few years ago, whilst training as a coach, the importance of setting boundaries was reiterated over-and-over. Stepping up from supporting friends to professional helper required a radically new approach to investing time and energy. During this period I made the clear intention to stop living my life imprisoned by a sense of obligation. 

Obligations crippled me. I shaped myself to fit the mold of others.

There is a risk of relationships drifting apart when we stop living by obligation. There’s no guarantee your boundaries will be respected. This is okay.

If a relationship drifts because of open communication and a realization the relationship isn’t authentically aligned, it was supposed to drift. If a relationship drifts because someone lacks respect for your boundaries, it was supposed to drift.

Both of these scenarios differ from relationships drifting due to building resentment and unexpressed needs. Here, honest communication can save the relationship before it’s too late.

In such situations, I ask myself: do I want to hold onto relationships through fear of losing them? Is this a skillful way to invest energy? Do I want to be friends with someone who shows little respect for my needs? Are we drifting authentically, or because of a communication breakdown?

No one else knows your truth unless you express it

Friendships are highly individual and complex. I’ve experienced codependency in many forms and from both sides, be it emotional support, social “back-up” (for example, going to an event and always needing certain friends nearby), expectations around how often to see each other, emotionally availability, etc.

It’s not that I’m ever surrounded by manipulative people, either. All my friends are caring, loving individuals. I’d just developed a trait of automatically appeasing, perhaps driven by the unconscious fear of rejection. When this is the default stance, the natural flow of relating will be guided by whoever takes the lead.

No one else other than ourselves knows what we want, our “truth.” If we don’t communicate and say: “You know what guys, I want to cut back on alcohol and I’d like to be up early Saturday morning, so I won’t join for drinks,” then it’s likely we’ll receive further invites to bars and clubs. We have to take full responsibility for communicating what we need. 

Getting annoyed at others for acting against our needs, when those needs remain unexpressed, is self-sabotage. It’s futile and causes unnecessary suffering.

Living for the authentic yes

The sense of freedom and autonomy found through the process of boundary setting is profound. I didn’t go from one extreme to the other. But I was able to tune-in and re-calibrate.

I’ve moved closer to what I really want from life. I’m able to communicate clearly, most of the time. I still find such conversations challenging but I’m improving. 

Rather than create more distance, I say no without guilt and say yes with conviction. Before, I was always saying yes with indifference. Now I enjoy the pleasure of an authentic yes.

If in doubt, always remember: one enthusiastic yes is worth a thousand forced yeses.

This works both ways. What genuinely feels better when roles are reversed — someone who says yes to everything? Or a “yes” from someone who has clear boundaries and often says no? 

When the latter says yes, you know there’s a high chance the decision is made with conviction. These are the yeses I wish to receive. With these yeses, I know where I stand.

Setting boundaries improves our respect for others

The mirroring of this is increased respect for others’ boundaries. If we don’t set boundaries, it’s unlikely we’ll be particularly tuned into others’ needs. If we feel obliged to act for others, we’ll likely (albeit unconsciously) expect the same in return. This causes problems down the road. It’s unhealthy.

When exploring the benefits of boundary setting for ourselves, we’re better able to respect others’ without condition. Setting boundaries and feeling the impersonal nature of their expression frees us from irritation or rejection when others do the same. It allows us to understand their expression isn’t personal, either.

Friendships are give and take. There will be times where there are imbalances. But if unhealthy traits have solidified in the relationship and make either or both people uncomfortable, it’s time to talk. It takes courage. There will be nerves. But it could be the conversation that saves your friendship.

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