I brought this out of the archives as it’s as relevant today as it was in 2013 when I first wrote this Q&A.

Those that know us the best are the most skilled at getting past our “defenses”
and we can be emotionally manipulated…

Hi Sharon,

I have a hard time setting boundaries with family/friends/coworkers and people tend to take advantage of that. I feel like I’m being emotionally manipulated. In the past, I’ve tried setting boundaries, but they either go completely ignored or I get laughed at. I don’t know how to set a proper boundary and if I do how do I keep it up? I want to make sure that those people are taking me seriously when I let them know that “hey this is the way it is and no ifs, ands or buts about it”


Great question Marie,

First, know that you are not alone. This is one I hear from many people.  I often find that those that know us the best are the most skilled at getting past our “defenses” even when we do set boundaries.  Family/friends/coworkers often have great insight in exactly which buttons to push to make us feel selfish or guilty for saying no. This is especially disheartening because we feel these are the very people that should know better.

As I read through your question, I wanted to answer a deeper question I see embedded in your question. That is, what do I do when I’m ignored or laughed at – boundary or not?

First, know when the response is ignored or laughed at or diminished in some way such as “You’re over-reacting” or “What’s the big deal” or “Why do you always have to…<insert words like ‘be a drama queen’ or ‘be such a big baby’>” it’s emotional manipulation.  Emotional manipulation is a form of passive-aggressive communication that is used to “keep you in line.”  (That’s a tweetable!) It is often most evident when we chose to express ourselves strongly such as set a boundary.

Whether the ignoring or laughing is conscious or not, it has the same effect — it’s rendering you mute. At that point, most people back down and decide it easiest to say “It’s fine,”  “Never mind” or “No big deal,” but it is a big deal. You have just handed your “SELF” over to someone else.

If this is a long established pattern know that it will take a conscious effort, persistence and patience to re-train someone in how to treat you.  I like to think of it as if I’m potty-training a new puppy… playing games like that seem to make it easier for me.

Here are three tips on how to start.

Tip Number 1: Choose How You Want the Resolution to Be Before You Begin. Begin by viewing the person as an ally not as a problem, annoyance or even an enemy. Also know that it will be what it will be, but if you know what you want beforehand, and what you want the resolution to look like for both you and the other(s) your likelihood of success will be greater.

In all honesty, you only have control over how you chose to react. Consider writing down the way you will react or even role-playing with a trusted friend first, if you know a particular person or behavior pushes your “buttons.” (Even though we know no one can push your buttons without your permission.) Practicing with “safe-friends” will diminish the emotional impact it has on you.

Tip Number 2: Stop, Breathe and Think Before You Speak. Remind yourself of what you practiced in Tip 1.  Take a deep cleansing breath or two, and pause to get grounded before you respond. Count to 10 or 20 if needed while you breathe deeply.

A good boundary setting response when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do is, “I understand you would like <insert their words exactly>. I can’t do <insert their words exactly again>. I can / I suggest / I recommend / …. <insert your thoughts and feelings>.”

This most likely will bring up all types of emotions for you. That’s okay and normal. Breathe through it.  Know you are speaking your truth. Why stop, breathe and think before you speak is important is when someone is emotional they tend to ramble and stray off topic.

Be specific, to the point and stay on topic – no bringing in “You always” or “You never.”  This is about what YOU will or will not do in response the their request – that’s all a boundary is…a firm marker. Stay firm regardless of the whining.

Tip Number 3: Be Prepared for Push Back. I look at push back as if I’m training a puppy. When I got my puppy he didn’t get the idea of outdoor potty-training the first few times… but with consistent, firm boundaries of right and wrong, now he does. He even uses his own dog door know. Remember just like puppy-training, they don’t always get it the first, second or third time. The key is to stay strong – this is about your personal autonomy, sanity and safety.

Most people go into situations assuming that everyone is playing from the win-win or a win-lose mindset. That is not the always the case, some people play lose-lose or even I win -you lose.

The aggressor may have personal problems, unresolved emotions, want to be a professional victim or they may bring up past hurts and frustrations when under pressure or stress. The majority of the time, it’s not your problem unless you make it your problem!

Keep in mind that you may not know the whole story, nor should you, just like they don’t know the whole story of you. Don’t concern yourself with items that pass the bounds of your relationship with them; you will respond to a boss differently than a spouse. Regardless of what is going on for them you always deserve to be treated with respect as an individual.

Responding to difficult behaviors such as emotional manipulation with positive intentions, verbal (and nonverbal) resolution techniques and clear outcomes will improve communication and increase the likelihood of a positive resolution. Seek professional help when necessary. If you think professional help is necessary – it is.

Stay strong.
To Success! To Life!

p.s. Sharon Says So is a weekly no-cost Q and A opportunity that is open to everyone! Each week, I’ll select and personally respond to one question received that I feel in my experience will help the most people. (I change any information that is private including your identity – so all names and specific details have been changed “to protect the innocent” as they say.)

It is my sincerest intention that ~ in answering your questions ~ I may provide you with some insight based on my years of experience and that insight may change your outcomes. Simply submit YOUR burning question at: https://sharonsayler.com/contact-me/ to participate.

p.p.s. Dr. Bob and Christine Wright from Stress Free Now podcasts (http://www.stressfreenow.info/) contacted me after reading this post. We decided to record a podcast interview on their very popular Stress Free Now show where I shared my thoughts and experience including communication tips and techniques to understanding and deal with emotional manipulation

Listen to our intriguing interview: