Helpful friend needs help setting boundaries


Q. I try to help others: I’ve given money to a friend, bought her groceries, and driven her everywhere. She is capable of working, but she doesn’t. How can I set a boundary between being helpful and having people take advantage of me?

A. One of the first indicators that it’s time to discontinue being used by someone is your increasing feelings of anger. According to Dr. Susan Biali, writing for “Psychology Today,” do not let your guilt propel you to continue to be responsible for someone else. Of course, it is necessary and expected for everyone to ask for help when it is truly needed, but consistently to take advantage of someone’s kindness is pathological.

According to Dana Giota, Ph.D., most people are not trained in setting boundaries and do not do it well. Often people who are kind become the victim of those who have a sense of entitlement. Giota offers some suggestions you may find helpful:

• Give yourself permission to set boundaries. You will find that you have an increased sense of empowerment and self-respect.

• Be assertive. Do not let anyone coerce you into doing something that consistently takes your time or money. People who ask others for help should be willing to reciprocate even in a small way.

• Set your limits. You may not mind driving her to the store occasionally, but if she asks you to buy her groceries you should refuse. Instead, give her the name of food pantries that will help. Explain that it is time for her to be more independent. She may become angry, but remember her reactions are not your problem. They are her problem.

• Examine your other relationships. Have you consistently played the role of caregiver with little reward? Do you often do things you don’t want to do just to please others? If you answer “yes” to these questions, it’s time for you to be more assertive.

I suggest that you purchase “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. You likely will find it extremely helpful.

Q. I love my job, but a bullying co-worker makes me miserable. She claims everyone’s ideas as her own, tells everyone what to do, talks behind everyone’s back, works hard to impress management, and refuses to help anyone else. What can I do?

A. In my experience, these tyrannical co-workers eventually fall out of favor with management because their games come to the surface. However, you may not want to wait until she has been fired or moved to a different position. Often people like you will become disillusioned and look for employment elsewhere. Meanwhile, your company will still have the tyrant, who will bully the next group of workers.

According to Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert writing for “Psychology Today,” one should first diplomatically challenge the bully’s authority. I worked with someone who was always spouting research findings, but would never tell anyone where the studies were published. You and your co-workers should question the bully’s statements. How does she know that? Where can everyone find the information?

Don’t accept assignments or suggestions from the bully. Since she is not your boss. Simply respond with “I have too much to do” or “That’s an interesting idea. You should look into it.” If you see her headed toward your office, pick up the phone.

If your co-workers are equally upset, go to your manager as a group after you have documented the problems. Tell your manager that you need to clarify the lines of communication rather than allowing the bully to control the staff. Your manager may also be frightened of her. If nothing is done, warn the manager that a group of you may seek a solution higher up. This “threat” often gets the attention of the manager.

Until some action is taken, ignore the bully. If that is not possible, it may be time for you and your co-workers to brush off your resumes.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a private practice.