Setting Boundaries with an Upset Friend

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Reader’s Question

My friend from college lashes out at me whenever she is upset or in a bad mood (even if it has nothing to do with me). She’ll put down my appearance and say things like, “Well, you have a big nose” or “Your teeth are crooked”. I’m usually shocked because it comes out of nowhere. Sometimes I’ll just be sitting there and she’ll rant at me. (I don’t say anything to provoke or elicit these reactions from her.)

Does she really think I’m ugly? What is going on?

Psychologist’s Reply

The old saying, “Misery loves company” seems to apply to your situation. In many instances, people who are feeling angry or unhappy seek to make themselves feel better by upsetting those around them, and oftentimes they succeed. When they upset someone else, they can then focus on their companion’s pain, thereby lessening their own. It’s kind of like they’re handing off the ball of distress.

It sounds like you realize that her tendency to lash out has nothing to do with you (i.e., her bad mood has nothing to do with you because you didn’t provoke her), yet you still insist on wondering if she believes what she says. So, the question then becomes not whether you’re truly ugly, but rather, why you allow her to do this to you. Every single one of us is worthy of respect but, unfortunately, we often have to demand it from others, and that requires boundaries.

There are three basic steps for setting boundaries: (1) decide upon the behavior you want to exhibit; (2) express your boundary; and (3) follow through with the consequences. Keep in mind that the only person you can control is you, so you may not be able to stop your friend from being rude. You also must realize that you are not responsible for the feelings of others. Consequently, if your friend is upset, that is her problem, not yours. And know that you have the right to request positive treatment.

So, for example, you setting boundaries for your friend may go something like this. The next time she is rude to you, determine to be polite (step 1). You could say, “I don’t like it when you speak that way to me. If you continue to be rude, I will end our conversation” (step 2). If she persists in being offensive, stop the conversation (step 3). Keep in mind that you must be consistent in following through with your consequences. People do not like to have others draw boundaries for them so she may respond negatively at first. Prepare yourself for the backlash but do not give up. Once people realize you are serious about your boundaries, they will respect them.

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