How to set boundaries with emotionally draining friends

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Nov 27, 2022

How to set boundaries with emotionally draining friends

Setting boundaries in any relationship can be tough. But how do we know when to set them, and is there a 'best way' to set boundaries with emotionally draining friends?

Sometimes, our relationships can become emotionally draining. Friendships, where we don’t experience mutual authenticity, attention, and reciprocity, can leave us feeling frustrated, mentally and emotionally drained, and, over time, can even affect our overall sense of wellbeing. Setting healthy boundaries isn’t just important in your romantic and family relationships. Clear boundaries can help create the foundations for long-lasting friendships that can grow and flourish over time.

If you find yourself feeling anxious, tired, or frustrated whenever you talk or spend time with a friend, it can be a sign that your friendship has become emotionally draining. If it feels like you’re spending all or most of your time talking about their issues, like you can’t be yourself or ask for support in return, or you're less excited to spend time with them, it could be a sign that new personal boundaries are needed to get things back on track.

What is a boundary in a friendship?

Boundaries are a simple and clear way of letting others know what you are and aren’t ok with. Setting healthy, effective boundaries can help you to look after yourself by protecting your personal space, as well as your mental health and wellbeing.

Creating boundaries within a friendship allows you both to set out what you want and expect from each other. This doesn’t mean that you have to say yes to every request (especially if any proposed boundaries make you uncomfortable!), but it can make it feel easier to speak up when you are feeling hurt, overwhelmed, offended, or taken for granted.

In this video, Life coach and author Michelle Elman explains more about the benefits of setting boundaries.

The benefits of boundaries with Michelle Elman

What are examples of setting healthy boundaries between friends?

Communication is key to both setting and maintaining healthy boundaries with any friend. What that actually looks like can vary depending on different friendships, and the individuals themselves. But what are some boundaries you might set up, and what could encourage you to take action?

  • You’re feeling overwhelmed. Just dealing with our own lives can feel overwhelming. Family issues, work deadlines, financial worries - whatever the cause, you may feel like you’ve got enough to deal with, and don’t have the headspace to take on someone else’s problems right now. Prioritising your own needs is important - and a true friend will understand if you let them know that you’re dealing with too much to give them the time and/or attention they need right now. This kind of temporary boundary can help them to understand that you would usually be there for them, but right now isn’t the best time.
  • Things are feeling unbalanced. Sometimes, our friendships can become unbalanced. If it feels like your friend is always coming to you with problems or when they are feeling down, but you don’t feel that same level of support or ability to go to them, it can be a sign that something needs to change. Setting boundaries around what you expect from the relationship (e.g, you would like to hear from them about good news as well as bad, or that you’d like to feel supported and that they have time for you when you’re struggling too) can help.
  • There are issues you feel uncomfortable talking about. Many of us have dealbreaker issues that we won’t compromise on or discuss. But sometimes, we still want to keep our friendships despite our differing views on big issues. If you find yourself feeling frustrated, exhausted, or uncomfortable talking about certain things with a friend (e.g. politics, climate change, or activism), it’s ok to set a boundary to make certain topics off-limits, or agree that you will only talk about them when you are both comfortable doing so.

What is the best way to set boundaries?

There are many different ways you can set (and keep) boundaries. It’s important to take time out to really consider what you need, what you want, and how you want to communicate these needs and wants in a clear and meaningful way.

It can be helpful to:

  • Take a step back. Taking a step back can help you to assess how you are feeling right now. Are you uncomfortable, resentful, hurt, or angry? What could be causing you to feel this way? Were these feelings caused by a one-off event or a pattern of behaviour that is harming how you view your friendship? Understanding what you are feeling and why can help you to identify unspoken boundaries you may have already set but not shared.
  • Be direct. While it’s not always necessary to spell out some of your boundaries (for example, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect friends to not show up unannounced in the early hours of the morning outside of an emergency), if you feel like your friendship is deteriorating, it can be a sign that it’s time to address things head-on.
  • Be honest with yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in what others are doing and how it makes us feel. But have you taken time to focus on yourself, and to be aware of how you may have changed? Are there any boundaries you previously held but have let fall by the wayside? Have you changed or started doing anything differently? Why are you feeling stressed or resentful now? Becoming more self-aware doesn’t mean you are taking on the blame - but it does mean you are recognising the situation, figuring out what you do and do not have control over, and making a plan about how you can tackle things moving forward.
  • Accept your feelings. It’s ok to feel how you are feeling. Giving yourself time and space to feel this way, to figure out exactly what these feelings are and what they mean, is both healthy and natural. It’s normal to be afraid or worried about things changing in any kind of relationship. You might feel guilty that you are trying to take a step back, or frustrated that you can’t take on everything others expect of you. Acknowledging these feelings is the first step towards working through them and ensuring you are being realistic and fair with your expectations of yourself.
  • Make self-care your priority. You can’t pour from an empty cup. When we don’t put our needs first, we can risk letting our wellbeing fall to the wayside. Practising self-care means you recognise and honour your needs, wants, and feelings. When you create a sustainable self-care routine, you can give yourself a much-needed boost of energy and a sense of calm, and help to foster a more positive outlook on life. Looking after yourself helps you to build resilience, and feel more ready and able to face life’s unexpected challenges – and to support those that you love and care for.
  • Stay strong. If setting boundaries feels tough, find support. Talking with other friends and family members can help you to work through why you may be struggling, and to identify other ways you can address issues with your emotionally draining friend. Once you have put boundaries in place, it’s important to stick with them. When we fail to enforce our own boundaries, it can mean that our friends don’t realise how having these boundaries pushed or broken makes us feel. It can help to start out small. Once you feel more comfortable and confident in speaking up and defending your boundaries, you can begin setting more.

What are the types of boundaries and how do you set emotional boundaries with friends?

Setting up boundaries with friends can feel awkward at first. It’s important to remember that if you’re at the stage where you’re looking to set up new boundaries, it means that something needs to change before your friendship starts to feel strained or damaged.

Boundaries aren’t necessarily a sign that something is wrong. If anything, they are a sign that you value a friendship enough that you want to set expectations to allow for a long-lasting, healthy, meaningful friendship that can flourish and grow over time.

Some different types of boundaries you might consider setting can include:

  • Emotional boundaries. If you’re overwhelmed or at capacity with your own feelings, emotions, or challenges, you may not have the time or bandwidth to help others with theirs. Setting emotional boundaries can help you to let them know that you care, but now isn’t a good time, or that something is a tough topic for you, and you would rather talk about something else.
  • Intellectual boundaries. Friendships are built on mutual respect and trust. While we shouldn’t be dismissive of friends’ thoughts or views, it can be healthy to set boundaries around conversations that you know may be unhelpful for your headspace or wellbeing.
  • Material boundaries. If your friend borrows things and is careless with them, frequently borrows money without paying you back, or uses your things without asking, you may wish to set new material-based boundaries. This could mean saying you would rather not share your food, that you are happy to lend them something but need it back by a specific time, or saying no to lending them money while offering to support them in other ways.
  • Physical boundaries. Not everyone feels comfortable with the same level of physical touch. It’s ok to say you aren’t comfortable with unexpected hugs or touching or to set areas of your home as off-limits.
  • Time boundaries. If your friend is always late, gets upset when you are busy, or keeps cancelling on you, setting time-related boundaries can help you both to feel more valued and less frustrated.

Once you know what type(s) of boundaries you want or need to set, figuring out how to set these boundaries can feel tough. Being clear with your friend about how much you value your friendship can be a great way to open the conversation in a non-confrontational way. Speak openly, respectfully and clearly about how you are feeling and why you think boundaries may be helpful. Ensure you ask them what they think, how they feel, and if there may be any boundaries they would find helpful, too.

Remember: it’s ok to compromise! Being willing to compromise and meet in the middle can be a healthy way of maintaining your friendship while respecting differing boundaries. Sometimes, our different communication styles, values or beliefs may make things tricky, but by showing we are willing to compromise and meet in the middle, we can still show how much we value each other and want the friendship to work out.

What do I do if my friend doesn’t respect my boundaries?

Boundaries help us to protect ourselves and our wellbeing. A healthy friendship will typically strengthen and grow when both parties feel like their boundaries are being heard, understood, and respected. But not everyone is willing or able to respect our boundaries - no matter how hard we try and reinforce them.

You are responsible for looking after and protecting yourself. Ask yourself: if a loved one had a friend who constantly forgets, disrespects, or ignores their boundaries, would you think it was ok? Or would you encourage them to reinforce their boundaries, have an open and frank conversation, or even reconsider if that friendship is really giving back and offering them as much as they are putting into it?

It’s ok to walk away from unhealthy relationships. This can mean taking a break, limiting contact, or even ending a friendship. You don’t have to make yourself uncomfortable or push yourself beyond your limits to accommodate other people - no matter how long they have been your friend. Your time, space, and energy are yours, no one else’s. And it’s up to you who you decide to share them with.

Getting help for setting boundaries

Setting boundaries doesn’t come naturally to everyone. This can be due to any number of underlying reasons. You may be a people pleaser who struggles not to let others down. Maybe you’re worried that if you don’t always say yes, you may lose your friendships. Or perhaps you’re worried that you won’t recognise who you are if you aren’t doing things for others.

Working with a therapist can help you to better understand yourself, why you are struggling, and how you can make changes to put yourself first. Working with a counsellor doesn’t mean that they will give you all of the answers, but it does create a safe space for you to speak without fear of judgement and to work through what is worrying you.

As therapist Lauren Street (MBACK; MNCS Accred) explains, “Putting boundaries in place doesn’t make you selfish - it means you’re taking an opportunity to put yourself first and do what’s right for you. You can’t emotionally give out what you don’t have. It can be challenging, but the reward can be so beneficial to people in your life and, most importantly, for you.”

Ready to speak with a professional? Connect with a professional therapist or counsellor using the Counselling Directory.

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