Question: “Alison, can you give some tips for setting boundaries with friends after a painful experience? My best friend replaced me with someone else she likes better and has started talking behind my back.”
Answer: Setting boundaries with friends can feel confusing. I empathize with your situation. It’s painful to feel “replaced” by a good friend whom you trusted.
However, you are not alone. It happens all the time. The question points to a larger issue of setting boundaries with friends so you won’t get hurt again. Your self-esteem is not someone else’s to take.
If a friend suddenly turns on you, usually there were red flags long before the specific action occurred. So, it can be helpful to use your painful situation as an opportunity to get curious about your friendship patterns.
As you become more aware of any unhealthy patterns in your friendships, you’ll gain control over your choices going forward. Even better, you will gain confidence as you take the wheel and decide who you let in to your life and why. Clarity is what gives you power.
For example, start by getting curious about a friendship that has been bothering you, and check it against these seven red flags.
7 Red Flags for Setting Boundaries with Friends
1. Guilt: Do you stay connected to this person because you feel “guilty” if you don’t?
2. Fear: Do you fear the power this person has in your life or in shared communities? Do you fear that if you were to set boundaries, she would reject you or retaliate against you?
3. Inconsistency: Do you feel the friendship bounces between “hot” and “cold”? Are you close sometimes and then your friend disappears for a while or “ghosts you” with no explanation?
4. Self-centeredness: Does this friend check-in on you and ask about your needs? Or, do your conversations always revolve around her?
5. Gossip: Does this person gossip about other people you both know in common? If so, you can bet she is also talking about you.
6. Possessiveness: Is your friend jealous of personal time that you give to someone else? Does she attempt to control your time and monopolize your relationships?
7. Toxicity: Is your guard always up when you’re around this person? Do you feel like you have to calculate every response? Do you worry that anything you share will be minimized, shamed, or twisted and used against you?
If you have friendships characterized by any of these qualities, then you need to take a closer look. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to end the friendship, but it’s important to be aware of unhealthy patterns.
For instance, if you’re in a friendship that repeatedly brings out the worst in you or doesn’t seem to bear good fruit, you need to ask yourself why you are staying in it. Have you been able to address the issues directly? If not, what keeps you from setting boundaries with a friend like this person? Here are two key questions to ask yourself:
- What fears come up if I consider stepping away from this friendship?
- Can I reduce my expectations in certain areas and still enjoy her good qualities?
Next, let’s contrast the seven relational red flags with seven signs of a healthy friendship:
7 Healthy Signs for Setting Boundaries with Friends
1. Affection: Do you stay connected to this person because you genuinely like and respect her?
2. Trust: Do you trust this person has your best interests at heart?
3. Consistency: Is this friend generally reliable? Do you have a sense of how she will respond to you, even if she gets busy? No one is perfectly consistent. But, a true friend shows predictable patterns of behavior over time.
4. Mutuality: Do you take turns sharing about various aspects of your lives? Does she know about your interests or struggles, just as you know about hers?
5. Privacy: Does this person honor what you confide in her? Do you trust her to take in what you share and hold it with respect?
6. Openness: Is your friend happy for you when you discover other friends and relationships, or when you celebrate a “win”? That’s not to say jealousy doesn’t creep up even in the healthiest of friendships. But, when it does, can this person manage that in a healthy way?
7. Safety: Can you share about your struggles without fearing judgment or shaming? Not every friend will earn your deepest confidence, but the ones that do are worth gold.
Focus on these seven qualities of a good friendship that makes you wan to say “yes” to spending time together. I call this the “Yes Factor.” Rather than focusing on the bad qualities you want to keep out, look for the kind of people who have the good qualities you want to let in. And, become that kind of friend, yourself.
The more you say “yes” to healthy friendships, setting boundaries with friends who act unhealthy becomes easier to do. The more health you taste, the more your tolerance for toxicity diminishes. The “no” you need to say will start to take care of itself, as you get better at detecting toxic behaviors.
As you learn to value yourself and set appropriate expectations with your friends, you also won’t be “thrown off” emotionally when hurt comes your way. You will be clear about who you are and what you need. You will realize that your self-esteem is not anyone else’s to take.
For further reading, check out these blog posts that address common issues for setting boundaries with friends:
Is it selfish to set boundaries?
How do I make new friends after saying “no” to unhealthy friendships?
How do I set boundaries without being a bit*h?
How can I get more distance in a relationship?
How do I know I am people pleasing?
What is true guilt vs. false guilt?
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
When was the last time you experienced an unhealthy friendship? Have you examined the other person’s behavior using the 7 red flags described above?
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