Setting Boundaries with Difficult People

Gothic girl with half black and half white face

Dealing with Difficult People

When our granddaughter was three, our daughter, her mom, had gotten into the habit of describing dirty or unpleasant items as nasty. “Ouh, That’s naaasteee,” she would say. One day as they entered the public ladies’ room in a local discount store several Gothic girls were leaving. One held the door for my granddaughter who froze in the entrance, transfixed. She looked directly at the girl in black with black lipstick, dyed black hair, and numerous facial piercings and proclaimed loudly, just as she had heard her mother do, “Ouh, you’re naaasteee!”

In our world there are some ‘nasty’ people and the majority don’t display it so you can see them coming. In fact, most of the nasty people I’ve dealt with are well disguised. And we generally do not have the luxury of simply avoiding the ‘nasties’ who cross our paths. If they are co-workers you have to function with them on a professional level. If they are an in-laws you are stuck with them at least occasionally. If they are your ex and the father of your children you would be wise to devise a plan.  Maybe you are like I was, constantly trying to figure out what the problem was, how to reason with these people. Even, what’s wrong with me that I can’t work this out?

If you find yourself in a place where you must deal with nasty people it helps to identify where boundaries are being breached. These questions will give you a starting point.

  1. Most people function out of their needs. Determine what your nasty person needs. Does she crave attention? Does she need recognition? A wise counselor once told me when dealing with a difficult person:  Speak to her in exactly the same way she speaks to you, then give her what she needs.
  2. Some people have a personality disorder. Notice if others are having trouble with the person. Does she behave in the same nasty manner with other people? Do others show that they have a problem with the person? If so, you can rest easy, it’s not you.
  3. Once in a while you may find yourself in a situation with a malignant narcissist, or an ‘invalidator,’ a truly nasty person, as described by Jay Carter, a psychologist, in his book, Nasty People. Ask yourself; does the person ever mention God? Does she demonstrate pride in her conversation? Does she have an unrelenting will especially when related to her positions or work projects? Does she project onto others her own guilt?

M. Scott Peck, M.D., a psychiatrist and best selling author of many books including The Road Less Traveled, wrote an entire book about such people. His title, People of the Lie, explains “the essential psychological problem of human evil,” to be “a particular variety of narcissism.” These individuals are characterized by an “unsubmitted will.”  They manipulate and control others to their advantage. They refuse to submit to God, their own conscience or any other human being. According to Peck “There are only two states of being:  submission to God and goodness or the refusal to submit to anything beyond one’s own will—which refusal automatically enslaves one to the forces of evil.”

If all nasties were as obvious as the Gothics my granddaughter classified as such, life would be easier. (And I’m not saying all Gothics are nasty people. So no emails on that, please.) Usually, however, the nasties appear to be intelligent, responsible, hard-working people. The evil is subtle and well disguised.  You may notice that those associated with the nasty person are not in as good a condition as the nasty one is. Nasty may appear to be Nice.

One boundary establishing technique that can work is to place the situation back in the Nasty’s lap. “When you give him the responsibility for his actions, an invalidator will almost always back down,” according to Carter, “the best you can do is (1) point it out, (2) stand your ground, or (3) disconnect if he is not willing to see it.

This is all much more difficult than it may appear to be. Nasty people make life unpleasant and often unmanageable. With confidence and determination you can overcome their poison. Take off your rose-colored glasses. See clearly the person you are dealing with. Deflect whatever they toss your way. Respect the person that you are and know that you have the right to receive respect. You are the strong one.

“Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong.”

Leo Buscaglia

This is a personal weblog. The opinions expressed are my own. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time…I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone. They are my thoughts and not intended as professional counsel.  -Gail

You may contact me at

Gail in purple speaking with hand gesturesGail raised three children as a single mother before she remarried. She has experienced the potholes, pests, and perils of being the single head-of-household. As an educator in regular and special education for twenty years she knows a great deal about child development and how to handle kids. She is the founder of SMORE for Women, a nonprofit whose goal is Single Moms, Overjoyed, Rejuvenated, and Empowered. She is a Certified Professional Coach and her stories have been published in several Christian books and magazines. Her book, Living Learning Loving is available on Amazon.


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  7. Hi Gail – I also think that one of the best things we can do in these situations is to first say, “is there anything true about what such a person says about me?” Is there anything I have done to cause this person to feel this way about me”?In other words, sometimes God uses very difficult people to speak truth into our lives. Just because they are sinners, or even sinning against us, doesn’t mean they are totally off base in reflecting to us our own sin!

    Then second, to focus on how WE might be a “nasty” in someone else’s life. Where might someone see US this way, and how can we correct that?

    And ultimately, how can God use this “nasty” person to sanctify me? How can I draw close to Christ, understanding that he was the ultimate innocent, and I the ultimate “nasty” – that he loves anyway? How can my experience with the nasty in my life, and knowing how I feel about being treated unfairly, help me to better understand then the sacrifice that Christ made for me in spite of me being a “nasty”?

    It can very often be such a blessing to us when God allows difficult people into our lives because it can draw us to the cross and to sacrificial love and that can draw us closer to Christ! And, give us more peace with the “nasty.”

    Thanks, Gail!

    Betsy Hart

    1. Thanks, Betsy, for this reminder. There is power in accepting the whole picture of our lives, including all the people in it.

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