Setting Boundaries with Difficult People

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”

– Brené Brown

If you are anything like me, the word “boundaries” might sound unkind and inflexible. Or maybe they just sound like a lot of work. I used to feel that way too.

However, I now view boundaries as the literal life line for maintaining a peaceful and authentic life.

Perhaps boundaries are a relatively familiar subject for you that you’ve already been working on for years. Or maybe you are hearing about them for the first time today.

Either way, you’ll want to immerse yourself in this topic, especially if you’re going to mentally, physically, and emotionally protect your food allergy family.

Here’s why I believe that.

A Bit of My Own Story

Around 2 years ago, I decided to reach out to a licensed counselor for help in managing debilitating anxiety I felt around food allergies. I was also struggling to resolve conflict with difficult people I was in relationship with.

I had literally hit rock bottom mentally, emotionally, and physically. Actually, I’d argue that it felt like I had discovered quicksand at the bottom of that pit. It was like I kept sinking further into oblivion.

Honestly, I thought the therapist would tell me what was wrong with me and it would be an easy set of steps to follow for instant success. Ha! How adorable I was.

Well, she did help me start to address my OCD thought patterns related to medical trauma and the stress of living with food allergies.

That was a true game changer.

She also gently pointed out some hard things about myself I needed to own and work on to further my growth.

However, what surprised me the most was being told that I had experienced quite a bit of relationship trauma. And that trauma was impacting how I experienced my family. It also influenced how I reacted to the day-to-day life experiences when living with severe food allergies.

About 5 to 6 months in, my counselor finished listening to another story about my background experiences with a handful of difficult people I had known throughout the years. I honestly felt like I had failed in these relationships.

One was a friend, another was a boss, and a few were family.

Gently, my counselor told me that her professional opinion was that these few people were able to have such a profound impact on my life simply because I struggled to voice my own discomfort with their behavior and words.

I had continually allowed them to do things to me and treat me in a way that was dishonorable.

And please hear me on this. My counselor was in no way blaming me for what I experienced. She didn’t guilt me or shame me.

In fact, she was full of compassion for the very real and hurtful things I had felt at the hands of these individuals and explained how long term abuse actually wore me down and primed me for more.

She pointed out to me that I had bravely endured it for a long time, but there was no longer any room for it in my life or my future. I needed to make some purposeful changes if I wanted to be an emotionally present and healthy parent for my kids.

Especially since I am parenting children that will need to be able to set their own firm boundaries confidently due to their medical needs.

Many of those toxic individuals in my life used verbal, emotional, and spiritually abusive actions in order to get me to comply within a specific environment.

Hence, my counselor recommended we immediately begin identifying physical, emotional, and verbal behaviors that were harmful.

I needed to be able to recognize those actions as unacceptable. Why? Because I had to start practicing setting firm boundaries with the toxic individuals that were STILL operating in my life.

And the only way to make those changes was to pursue healing, which can sometimes feel like a drawn out and painful process. I had to start taking small, deliberate steps each and every day to change my mindset and my own responses in uncomfortable situations.

And it worked. It’s not a quick fix by any means. But it was a life line. Once it was tossed down into my lonely pit, I held on for dear life. Slowly, one day at a time, I started climbing my way back up.

And friends, I am still climbing.

Even so, I’m in such a healthier place now, a blessing for which I’ll forever be grateful for. In the last 2 years, I’ve started standing up for myself, speaking my thoughts, and following through on what I say I will do.

Setting boundaries has unequivocally changed my life for the better. In fact, I would argue that me being able to effectively model this for my children could quite possibly save their lives someday.

They need to be able to recognize manipulation, toxic patterns, and bullying behaviors. They HAVE to be equipped with the tools to stand up for themselves in situations that endanger them, whether it concerns their food allergies or something else.

Therefore, if setting boundaries is something you struggle with as well, then I hope you’ll find some encouragement from this blog post.

I want you to find freedom in setting healthy boundaries with others, especially those that are difficult. You are so worthy of that.

So, without further ado, let’s jump right in and talk about food allergy boundaries.

Boundaries. Let’s Define Them

“…boundaries represent physical and emotional limits that you don’t want other people to cross. They help define your sense of self by separating your needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings from those of others’. Boundaries are the dividing lines between you and everyone else and they help make you an individual from the group.”

– “Alex” Caroline Robby (Founder of The Center for Growth)

I love that description from The Center for Growth’s article on this specific topic. The author does a beautiful job of describing what boundaries look like in the context of our personal relationships.

You can read about the information more in-depth HERE.

In other words, what behaviors/words/or actions are you uncomfortable with?

Identifying things that don’t feel safe for you or your family is the first step in recognizing that you need a boundary for that particular issue.

So for my specific family unit, food, play dates, school, and other types of gatherings must be thoughtfully orchestrated since my children’s food allergy needs are life-threatening.

These needs also apply to our emotional and mental health as well.

It means that our safety measures and emotional boundaries will look a lot different from what another family might think is necessary. And that is 100% okay.

Here are a few examples of behaviors concerning food allergies (or anything really) that are not acceptable to me:
  • Offering my children food without asking me first
  • Telling my children not to tell me things and keeping secrets
  • Using toxic behavior patterns to physically, emotionally, verbally intimidate me into changing my answer or choice
  • Yelling at me because there is disagreement with my choice
  • Using religion to shame me or guilt me concerning my choices
  • Sarcastically putting down me or my family members due to our choices or life style
  • Criticizing my personality traits as a way to belittle my choices or beliefs
  • Questioning my parenting decisions in a public setting
  • Blatantly disregarding the safety food rules of our home

Setting boundaries might feel difficult, or you might even be told by certain people (typically those on the receiving end) that it is disrespectful or unkind.

However, the reality is that boundaries allow you to interact with others safely and peacefully.

Clear expectations that are kindly and effectively communicated will protect you and your family.

Friendly Reminder: We are not therapists or counselors. We are sharing our life experiences and what we have learned along the way. If you think you need more support setting boundaries with others, please consider reaching out to a certified mental healthcare provider. <3

Respectful People vs. Difficult People

After my counselor and I finished identifying behaviors and words that were not safe, we then started working on how to identify respectful people vs. difficult people in my life.

So, for example, safety boundaries for me and my family are not always about food! Sometimes safety boundaries need to be placed around our mental and emotional health.

You know the people that you see on a regular basis; those that have a distinct presence in your life.

Frankly, you already have a pretty good idea of whether they are open to learning about your family’s needs. Healthy, respectful individuals can hear your requests and boundaries calmly.

They can communicate their confusion or concerns kindly. They typically respond to you positively and want to figure out how to work with you.

However, suppose you are dealing with individuals who typically display a hostile, argumentative attitude towards you concerning ANY type of life issue. In that case, you can assume they will react similarly to the topic of food allergies.

Now, I’m not saying that we need to forever label people as “difficult” and there is no hope for them.

We never want to put people in a specific category and claim they cannot grow as human beings. But you can predict their behavior or reactions based on their past reactions and behavior patterns.

Offer Them A Pearl

Adam Young is a licensed therapist, and I love to listen to his podcasts about engaging with those that have harmed us.

Note: This is a Christian podcast, but the mental health concepts apply to most situations.

If you are interested, check out his podcast “The Place We Find Ourselves” and episodes 93 through 98.

Adam talks about offering people a pearl, which in this case, would be telling family and friends what you need in a given situation.

If you want to know what type of person you are dealing with (ie. respectful or difficult), take a small but vulnerable step forward. Share with them a few complexities of food allergies and the importance of keeping your children safe.

That is a promising start if they take that tiny pearl and listen kindly. Your family can then decide the next steps that can be taken in spending time with those individuals.

On the flip side, if they take that pearl, argue with you, judge you, or harshly criticize you, then they do not respect you.

I know. Being treated like that hurts. The pain might even take your breath away.

But we cannot control others. We can only control our own choices and behavior.

You can set the boundary of choosing to restrict how much time you spend with those people.

Additionally, you can choose to limit the exposure you and your family have to those types of people in specific environments.

My Equation for Creating a Food Allergy Boundary

You might be thinking, “Yeah, Katie. This is all great and wonderful, but how do I figure out a boundary for my own personal situation?”

Well, I’m so glad you asked.

I want to share what I have learned on my boundary setting journey. So here it is, my equation for creating a clear boundary.

Evaluate past events + determine comfort level + understand the “why” + communicate clearly + state the consequence + follow through on the consequence = a clear and effective boundary

Yeah, I’m quite the mathematical prodigy. 😉

So in order to set healthy boundaries that keep our family safe and sane, we need to evaluate the above factors with the different types of people we interact with.

Evaluating Past Events

When we know we are going to be around certain difficult people, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Has this person made me feel uncomfortable in the past?
  • Have they openly disrespected me or argued with me about my boundaries?
  • Do they typically respect my thoughts and hear a clear “no” in certain situations?
  • Do I feel emotionally/physically safe to share my thoughts and concerns with this individual?
  • Does this person communicate with me in a calm and respectful manner?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, then you need to identify how comfortable you are actually being around that person.

Determining Your Comfort Level

This one is hard because only you can answer this question. How comfortable are you being around this person (or people) when you don’t feel respected by them?

Here are a few things to consider:
  • Are you able to be around this person for a few hours at a time?
  • What exactly are you uncomfortable with? Do they make fun of you? Are they brushing off your concerns? Do they use sarcasm to belittle you?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable because you feel that you’ve already communicated your boundaries and expectations to them countless times before?
  • Does the location play a factor? Do you feel more comfortable in a public setting or in your own home?
  • Do they cause so much verbal/emotional/physical damage that it is hard to even stomach being in the same room with them?
  • Are you choosing to be around these people in order to keep the peace with others in your life (ie. your spouse, children, friends, family)

If you normally push aside your own comfort level in order to maintain a relationship with someone that is potentially toxic, or even abusive, that is not healthy for you, sweet friend.

If you suspect that to be the case, I highly suggest reaching out to a licensed counselor to talk about strategies for working through that.

Determining your comfort level is going to give you a clear answer on HOW you choose to engage with a difficult person.

Understand the “Why” Behind Your Answer

Knowing your comfort level helps you determine HOW you will spend time with a difficult person, but knowing the WHY behind your choice is essential in upholding your decision without wavering.

Example #1

The HOW: My family chooses to be around this person for a few hours at a time only.

The WHY: In the past, when we’ve gone longer than a few hours, I start to feel uncomfortable and lose stamina with their difficult words/behaviors.

Example #2

The HOW: I cannot be around this person during this particular season of my life.

The WHY: Because my anxiety spikes to unhealthy levels when they argue with me about food allergies or try to feed my child an allergen. This person’s words & actions feel too harmful. This person’s pattern of behavior puts my child with food allergies in legitimate danger.

Example #3

The HOW: I am comfortable spending time with this difficult person, but only in my home.

The WHY: Based on past interactions, I feel that it is less stressful for me if I offer to host the meal/gathering in my own home. I can control the food easier, which lessens the risk to my child.

Understanding your “why” will boost your confidence and your conviction as you proceed with the boundary setting process.

Communicate the Boundary Clearly

Next, the boundary needs to be communicated in such a way as to leave no room for misunderstandings or alternate interpretations.

Here are a few examples:
  • “I do not like that you are doing ____. Please refrain from doing that in the future around my family.”
  • “Please do not bring any outside food to our home.”
  • “We ask that no one offers our child any food. As their parents, we will feed them.”
  • “We ask everyone to take off their shoes at the door and wash their hands upon arrival.”
  • “Please do not tell our children to ‘toughen up’ or say ‘just one bite won’t hurt’ to them. We feel that it is highly inappropriate and emotionally damaging.”

State the Consequence

Hopefully, people will be respectful after having been told your established boundary.

But for arguments sake, let’s pretend the boundary was not received well by the other person. Maybe they started arguing with you, yelling, cursing, or accusing you of things.

Firstly, that is highly inappropriate behavior in any context. Secondly, they need a consequence.

Now, please hear me clearly. I am not using the word “consequence” to threaten or belittle someone. It’s simply the natural outcome of someone disrespecting your essential boundaries.

Consequences might sound like:
  • “We respectfully asked that you not make statements like that to our children or us. Unfortunately, we will need to leave now because we no longer feel comfortable.”
  • “We are open to discussing food allergies, but we are not open to judgments or condemnation. Your comments are unhelpful and feel rude. We’ve asked you to keep them to yourself. We will ask you to leave our home now.”
  • “These comments about our food allergy rules feel harsh and appear to be a pattern of behavior. We have voiced our dislike in how you speak to us. Let’s take a break from visiting for 2 months.”
  • “I remember that we clearly said ‘no’ to that. We must ask you to leave now since you are not respecting our wishes.”
  • “I value myself and my family. We need to take a break from communicating because you are yelling at us (or belittle/judge/make fun).”
  • “Kindness is something we want to model to our kids. This does not feel kind right now. We are leaving.”

I know. Some of those feel harsh. But darling, THEIR words and actions were harsh first, even after hearing you voice that you’d like them to stop.

Removing yourself from that environment or asking them to leave is a courageous consequence. You are demonstrating that you respect yourself and your family.

Furthermore, you are showing a difficult person who is unregulated in their words and actions that you care about them as a fellow human being. You care enough about them to not participate in their unhealthy behaviors or allow them to treat you disrespectfully.

Follow Through on the Consequence

Following through on a consequence means that if you say you will leave the situation, then do it. If you say you are going to take a break from communication and visiting, then do it. Do what you said you will do.

It seems simple enough, but in reality, it might feel like you are jumping out of plane without a parachute. You might feel downright terrified.

And that’s okay! I 100% understand and identify with that.

However, I will lovingly say this.

If you do not respect yourself enough to follow through on a consequence, do not expect a difficult person to suddenly decide to respect you either.

It most likely will never happen.

We cannot control how other people will respond. There is no magic formula to alter their behavior and make them see the error of their ways.

But you can control YOUR own actions and words.

For me personally, I no longer want to sacrifice my own feelings for the sake of keeping the “peace” with others when that “peace” was just a fabricated reality in my imagination.

I’ll never again trade authentic peace for a cheap, knockoff version of “harmony” ever again.

Consequences are tough to implement, but vital to follow through on if you want people to take your boundaries seriously.

Let’s Run an Example Scenario

Let’s practice putting this equation into action.

Imagine that you and your family are invited to go to a relative or friend’s home that you suspect might struggle to respect your boundaries. You came to this conclusion after evaluating past interactions you’ve had with them.

One, or several of your children, have food allergies. You clearly and respectfully communicate ahead of time the serious medical needs of your children.

“Thank you so much for the invite. We would love to come! However, our children’s food allergies are life-threatening. In order for us to feel comfortable, we will bring our own safe food and ask that people not offer our children food.”

The visit is going well until your child follows the host into their kitchen. The host pulls out a box of donuts and tells your child they can choose one.

You calmly and respectfully say something along the lines of:

“Hey, thanks for the offer, but we talked about the issue of food ahead of time. We brought our own safe food and we do not want people offering our kids food.”

Maybe the response back sounds like this:

“I don’t understand why you are so overprotective and uptight about this. The kids need to eat their allergens in order to build up a tolerance for it. That will never happen if you keep acting like a helicopter parent.”

Yikes. Let’s identify the problems with that response:
  • They knew the boundary ahead of time, but refused to comply.
  • A verbal and personal jab was thrown out by saying, “You are so overprotective and uptight.”
  • There was clear disrespect and disregard for the parents’ decisions in keeping their children safe.
  • Offering a food that may have contained an allergen after being told “no” ahead of time was a deliberate and potentially physically endangering decision.

The boundary was stated, then restated, but the person chose to respond in a disrespectful manner.

Now, it’s time for the consequence.

“As we discussed prior to our visit, in order for us to feel comfortable, we would bring our our food. We also asked that no one offer our children food. Whether you believe it or not, their food allergies are life-threatening and this now feels unsafe. We are leaving.”

After saying that, it would be imperative to pack up your family and go.

You are teaching that person that you will act out a brave and firm consequence. They must be allowed to feel the awkwardness of the situation they created.

At the same time, I want to point out that you effectively modeled to your children how to handle a situation in which their boundaries are blatantly being abused.

That is such a beautiful gift that we can give to our kids.

They need to see that we treasure them enough to protect them. We are teaching them to love themselves, no matter what tough situation they find themselves in.

More On Setting Boundaries

The knowledge of how complex this topic can be is not lost on me. That is why I want to link a few more resources on boundaries for you!

Here are a few of my favorites:

A Hopeful Promise

Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is a common struggle for millions of families.

You are not alone, nor are you weak, to need those boundaries. Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise.

Life is hard sometimes. Relationships are hard. Food allergies are hard. I can almost guarantee that setting healthy boundaries will feel tough at first. But I can PROMISE you that you are worthy of the hope and peace that boundaries can provide.

Don’t stop reaching out for support. Keep climbing and growing, beloved. You’ve got this.


What to Read Next, “5 Ways to Help a Food Allergy Mom”

One response to “Setting Boundaries with Difficult People”

  1. WOW – this post is a must read for all food allergy families. Well done! We have had experiences with family and had to leave a family party because not respecting our food allergy boundaries. It took over a year of us no longer attending any family gatherings or visiting them for the person to call us and apologize. This really showed our kids that they have power over their food allergies (not the other way around). And they have a say in how they are treated (priceless lessons). Thank you for sharing your very personal journey – it is so impactful. xoxo

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