How to set up boundaries with harmful people.

Helen asks: Your Pawprint article about your friend Rob really hit close to home. My mother also suffers from Depression. She does take her medicine, but it doesn’t seem to make her any happier or more peaceful. She is always aggravated and says some very hurtful things, so I haven’t talked to her in a very long time (It will be a year in November). It makes me sad that she missed out on some very important times in my life, like my first play, but when she IS in my life she makes me sad and stressed. Sometimes I worry that she will do the same thing as Rob because I won’t be around to help her. When can I say, “I gave it my all,” and not feel in my heart that she will ever make more of an effort to not hurt me? And is it selfish to make such a decision? Is it like giving up on her? I’m sorry about your loss of a good friend.

Hi Helen –


This is a terribly difficult situation.  The only way I can deal with it is to divide it into two parts.  The first is to discuss how we deal with people we care about who hurt us.


It happens to everyone.  Maybe your best friend betrays you, maybe your boyfriend, girlfriend, or even husband or wife cheats on you, maybe you find out someone’s been saying awful things about you behind your back.  Or maybe it’s all out in the open and a close friend yells horrible things at you or sends you hateful letters.  In any one of these cases, you are put in the awful position of making a decision you never wanted to make.

In all these cases, it really becomes about Boundaries.  When do you say “Enough,” and drop them as friends?  Different people (and dogs) have different boundaries, and that’s fine.

You’ve maybe heard the old saying “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  What that person’s saying is that if someone’s betrayed them even once, they should never trust that person again.

Now you might find that a bit drastic (I certainly do).  So you might go with the baseball version, “Three strikes and you’re out!”  That’s okay too.

Or you might be like some others, who constantly try to see the best in people, and give them chance after chance after chance, till eventually they cross a line they can’t tolerate.  (The tough part of being like that is that, once you make that decision, there’s no going back.  If you always put up a boundary after the first betrayal, you might be open to negotiation about fixing the friendship.  Like, maybe if the other person really apologized or sent you flowers or something.  But with this last group, too late is really too late).  It’s all up to you to choose.  And the better you know your own boundaries, the better it is for everyone involved, especially yourself.


But then comes the second part of the problem.  This isn’t just a friend you’re talking about, and she’s not behaving this way for reasons you don’t understand.  This is your Mother, and she has an Illness.  This makes it MUCH harder to set clear boundaries.

Now I might be able to offer one bit of scientific advice here:  All the studies show that, with people in Depression, therapy can help some, and medication can help some, but therapy WITH medication is immensely better than either one alone.  So when you say she’s taking medicine, is she also getting weekly therapy?  It could help enormously.  Most likely she’s in a lot of mental pain, and is taking it out on you – when it would be way better for everyone for her to take it out on a professional, who knows how to deal with it, and who… well… isn’t her daughter!

But even if she does get a good therapist, it’s not going to be easy for you.  We want our parents to be supportive of us, encouraging, and offer smart sensitive help forever.  And sometimes that’s just not the case.  So what can you do?

My advice, then, is maybe pretty obvious.  I would say that what you need to do, Helen, is to connect with your mother All You Can. But when I say that, I mean to do everything you can do while protecting yourself.  When you did that play, maybe you simply couldn’t risk the possibility of her saying negative, hurtful things right before you went out into the spotlight; if that’s the case, you were right to avoid her.  But on another day, are you strong enough to take it?  Maybe some day when you don’t have any big risky event coming up?

We only get one mother.  We can have stepmothers or adoptive mothers or surrogate mothers or foster mothers… but we only get one actual Mother.  And even one with a mental illness will have knowledge and love that you can’t get from anyone else.  And one day, she may be gone.  So you should try to get whatever time you can with her while she’s here.


See, I’m thinking that you can take it like an athlete.  Now when a boxer steps into the ring, she knows she’s going to get punched, and it’ll hurt.  She knows she might get cut, or even get a broken bone.  So she’s prepared for it.  And no matter how much she’s pummeled by her opponent during the match, she knows it will end, and she’ll be able to recover from it over time.  And she also knows that she might win!  So she’s okay.

But if that same boxer is walking down the street one night and a gang of creeps jump her and beat her up, she’s not going to feel okay about it at all.

So I think it probably is a good idea to try to talk to your Mom.  But don’t go expecting her to be Carol Brady or Clair Huxtable.  She might be warm and supportive, or she might be Muhammad Ali!  You need to be prepared for both.  You need to be sure you’re ready when you call, and you need to make sure you have someone “in your corner” in case it doesn’t go so well.

And Know How to Protect Yourself.  Do what you need to do to keep her from hurting you too much.  Maybe you need to “ration” your talks with her, to a certain number of times a month, or a year.  Maybe you need to arrange that it’s always you who calls, and not her.  But I like to think that, the more you take care of yourself, the easier it will be to deal with her – negative comments and all.  And that over time, you won’t need to have such strong boundaries with her.  Truly, that is my wish.


In closing, Helen, you have every right to say that This Isn’t Fair.  It’s not.  There’s no good reason why some people should get nice healthy mothers, and you got this difficult one.  But you can use this experience to learn so much about people, and about how to handle relationships, in ways that your friends might never learn.  You know that other old line about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?”

Well, Helen, if you can handle this situation well, you’re going to come out VERY strong!


Good luck with it, and if there’s any help I can offer, please don’t hesitate to ask!


Your friend,




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