How to Set Boundaries With People Making You Crazy

When our kids were young, we hired a new babysitter. At our first meeting, the woman seemed warm and affectionate, and most importantly, our children liked her.

Over time, however, I started to notice that whenever she was near, I felt irritated, resentful, almost angry. It was like there was toxic energy in the air. At first, I thought it was just me. After all, it’s not always easy for us parents to hand off our precious kids.

But we had had other babysitters. And I had never felt this way before. I really start to pay attention. What I noticed was that often, when I asked her to do something, she would ignore the request, or tell me she knew a better way. When I would stand my ground and remind her what I wanted, she kept ignoring my requests, often in very subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

The tipping point was when we came home to find the furniture in our entire living and dining room had been rearranged. Instead of folding the laundry or cleaning the kitchen during our daughter’s nap as we had requested, she had decided the way we arranged our furniture wasn’t right and had taken it upon herself to “fix” things.

Julia Cameron, the creativity guru and author of The Artist’s Way, counsels us to be on the lookout for crazymakers–people who derail us from living the life of our dreams with their drama, crises or distractions. Crazymakers are people who, for one reason or another, have trouble respecting their own or others’ boundaries.

Sometimes crazymakers come in the form of overly helpful people like our babysitter—they poke their noses where they haven’t been invited to go. Other times they come in the form of victim—they seem to experience one crisis after another, and have no other person to turn to (or so it seems) except for us.

Other times crazymakers are addicts—addicted to using substances that make everyone crazy, or to less obvious but equally seductive temptations like clutter, overworking, being in charge, control, raging, talking too much, drama, over-complaining or self-sabotage. They might resemble Pig Pen from The Peanuts cartoon–loveable and sweet but surrounded by a cloud of chaos.

A common thread with crazymakers is that they overstep what we feel is appropriate. They often have no desire to create real harm. However, at the end of the day, their energy is not healthy for us.

The truth is, all of us, at some time or another, have been crazymakers. Children and teenagers are constantly testing boundaries, and so are natural crazymakers. Adults tend to become crazymakers when they are out of balance in some way, or an emotional trauma from long ago is being re-triggered.

Why We “Play Ball” With Crazymakers

Crazymaking is like a tennis serve. Wanna play? People who are “helpers,” have generous hearts, or who have been raised to believe that other people’s well-being is, in part, their responsibility, may find it difficult to resist their bait.

The problem is, returning a crazymaker’s serve, often makes us a crazymaker too—like a player in a whisper-down-the-lane game. If someone’s actions are making us crazy in any way, we have a choice to make. We need to either create a firmer boundary or figure out a way so that their actions don’t become our problem.

When it came to our babysitter, my feelings of not liking her filled me with guilt. After all, she seemed so good with the kids. And she had been referred to us by a friend. And she needed the work. There were so many “good” reasons why I found it hard to draw that line in the sand.

What I have learned is that if we call crazymakers on what they are doing, crazymakers often get crazier, at least at first. If we are critical or show them something about themselves they are not ready to face, they may drink it up as drama and spit it out in our face, pumping up the volume on the craziness. As Denise Linn, who I trained with as a Professional Soul Coach often says, the minute we judge someone, even in our minds, we lose the opportunity to influence them in a positive way.

If we don’t know how to create boundaries safely, our efforts to get ourselves free can actually end up stirring things up rather than settling things down, draining time and energy that would be better used moving forward with our own dreams.

The most important thing to remember is that other people’s actions are always about their perception of reality, and not really about us at all. Remembering that is the key to getting free.

Get Yourself Free: Five Steps to Protecting Ourselves from Crazymaking

Setting boundaries is a personal journey, and we each have to find our own way. If someone makes us feel unsafe, for whatever reason, that’s usually a sign that it’s time to change the way we are interacting. Depending on who the other person is, and what the situation, setting boundaries can go one of two ways.

If the other person is very important to us, or their actions are just gently annoying, then our discomfort may be an opportunity to learn new ways to maintain inner peace in the face of challenge. However, if we are in danger or at risk of being hurt emotionally or physically, then we may need to consider our options.

Pema Chodron, one of my favorite meditation teachers, tells the story of a Buddhist monk who chose to keep a meddlesome worker around because he knew that inner peace didn’t come by getting rid of everyone who presses our buttons, but rather by working with our own mind.

On the other hand, as Pema Chodron also teaches, no one feels good about themselves when they are hurting others, or making other people crazy. When someone’s energy is making us feel unsafe in any way, setting boundaries is often the most compassionate thing we can do–for them as well as ourselves.

While learning to set healthy boundaries and take better care of myself are skills I am constantly working on, here are five strategies that I have learned that can help.

#1: Identify our limits (they are different for everyone)

As with all things, the first step to returning to a state of sanity is beginning with honest self-awareness, owning our own feelings and our own truth. We can’t tell whether or not a boundary has been crossed unless we know what is important to us, what we value and what our limits are.

When we are in new terrain the way I was with our babysitter, we can be particularly vulnerable to allowing others to overstep what is healthy for us. When we give ourselves the time, space and permission to first figure out what is important to us and where our personal lines are, we are in a stronger position to reinforce and protect them.

Simply asking ourselves what is right for us and knowing that whatever that is, it is okay is a good place to begin. We need to take time to tune inward so that we can make choices and establish boundaries that are in our best interests, regardless of what others think they should be.

#2: Practice educating people rather than reacting

One of the biggest problems that causes boundary issues is assuming that everyone is functioning according to the same social norms and should be, or that there is only one “right” and “wrong” way to act.

Differences in what two people view as appropriate is often a result of culture, personality, upbringing, perspective or emotional well-being rather than character flaws. Most of us yearn for respect, space, love, autonomy and being heard. The ways in which we prefer to have these needs met, however, differ for each of us.

Most people have good intentions and cross our boundaries simply because they have incorrectly guessed what we need, were on autopilot and self-absorbed, are not very skilled at taking care of their own emotional needs, or just have very different rules for their lives than we do for ours. When we can express our needs while also seeking to understand where someone else is coming from, a solution that can meet both can often be found.

On the other hand, sometimes crazymakers act almost as if they are in a trance, reacting to their own inner wounds or driven by an insatiable need. They may be confused about what they really want, what we want, or both. Or, they may not care. Crazymakers are often seductive and master manipulators, often without even realizing it. If they meet our efforts to create safe boundaries with outrage, assertions that we are the ones who are nuts, or more drama, it may be time to try something different–like creating more space or establishing a hard limit. Your (and their) mental or physical health may depend on it.

#3: Don’t engage with temper tantrums (including your own)

If someone is reacting from an emotionally charged place, it can be helpful to have a few personal ground rules. A common parenting technique is to never give in to a child having a temper tantrum or who is treating us badly.

We train people how to treat us. If someone gets what he wants by crossing over our boundaries and we don’t say anything, most likely he will do it again and again. The ideal is if we can catch him in the act and gently call him on it in the moment and remind him what our boundary is.

We might say something like, “I see you are very upset right now. I only want to have this conversation if we are both feeling calm and grounded. “

On the same token, we all get triggered. When we are feeling emotionally charged, it is a good practice to be honest with others about that. It may be helpful to say something like, “I am not happy about what happened but am too emotionally triggered right now to be able to discuss it in a calm, rational manner. I would like to discuss it in an hour or so when we are both feeling calmer.”

Sometimes crazymakers use emotional outbursts, attacks or distress as a way to avoid confrontation or difficult conversations. If we think a temper tantrum or outpouring of emotion is a ploy to get us to avoid confronting them on something (even if they are unaware of it), it is okay to calmly persevere.

Perhaps, saying something like, “I know you are upset, but I actually need you to hear me right now” can help. Or, make an appointment or set a time when you will follow up, and stick to it no matter what. This also goes for someone in an altered state as a result of drugs or alcohol. When someone is under the influence of a mood-altering substance or is not mentally well, it can be helpful to wait to have important discussions when they can really hear you, or if that never happens, to get professional support to help you intervene.

#4: Stay present to avoid becoming a crazymaker too

As I have experimented with learning to set boundaries, a mistake I have often made has been reacting emotionally. Doing this, I have discovered, is an easy way for a crazymaker to make me out to be the “bad guy” –giving them the perfect “out.” Emotionally reacting can make a crazymaker feel less safe, limiting the possibility of any construction solution-finding.

In my own process of striving to learn the skill of boundary-setting, I often tell others how they “should” act so that I will be comfortable. Pema Chodron often shares a story about the whole world being covered by sharp shards of cut glass that cut our feet whenever we walk on it. What do we do? Do we try to control others, tell them how to act and cover our outer world with soft leather so we don’t get hurt? Or do we over our own feet with soft leather moccasins by doing our own mental self-care?

I have discovered that the more I stay with my own experience, the less interested I am in trying to “fix” others. When we can stay present in the moment, and approach our relationships as exchanges between two equals rather than one person needing to call all the shots or do more of the work, the solution often unfolds naturally. If we can’t do this, or find ourselves meeting someone else’s craziness with our own, that might be a sign it is time to set firmer boundaries, even if in our own minds.

#5: Be willing to take action, and do something different

At the end of the day, how much emotional access we give other people is our responsibility. For example, if someone is entering our house (symbolically or otherwise) without asking, it’s important to tell him that doing so is not okay if that is how we feel.

If it keeps happening, we have to assume that he didn’t get the message, and try another way to communicate the same message. If words don’t work, then it is our responsibility to take action and create firmer boundaries so that, no matter what, the action stops. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” as Einstein is often quoted.

Example of changes may be saying no and backing it up with action, ending conversations before the other person says things that trigger our emotional reactions, turning down invitations even if we feel guilty or impolite doing so, expressing and then reinforcing certain consequences for behavior that crosses our boundaries.

At some point, we need to be prepared to walk away–particularly if we are in danger in any way, or if it doesn’t seem repairable without causing more harm to you or to them. Remember Paul Simon’s song, 50 Ways to Leave a Lover? I think the wisdom about getting ourselves free in whatever way works for us applies when a crazymaker’s choices are making us feel unsafe.

If we are truly not safe (or if the other person isn’t), whether that is physically or emotionally, then the best way out is the one that causes the least harm to either of you. It’s important to remember when setting boundaries that your own physical and emotional well-being is your top priority.

Be Honest About The Hidden Pay-Off of Keeping Crazymakers Around

Whether we want to admit it or not, if there is a crazymaker in our life, most likely we gain something from keeping him or her around around. Sometimes, its sheer entertainment. Other times, it’s because we really love him or her. Or, we may sense that we have something positive to learn from the relationship, perhaps about how to set loving limits. Or we may feel financially or legally trapped.

Other times, we may resist setting boundaries with crazymakers because we are scared of losing the crazymaker’s approval or being abandoned. When learning any new behavior, we have to first be willing to let go of the unconscious benefits we have received from doing things the “old” way.

One of the most common hidden benefits of “playing ball” with a crazymaker is that we get to play the role of victim, which can be a convenient excuse for not tending to other things in our life that really need our attention. Toxic energy can wear us down gradually, and cause us to lose sense of the big picture when it comes to our own well-being. When it comes to setting boundaries, the best advice is to experiment—see what works for you and your unique situation through trial and error.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not ever responsible for what goes on in another person’s heart or mind. We are the only person truly responsible for how we interpret and experience life.

In the case of our babysitter, we ultimately said good-bye and parted ways. After we did, we felt a lightness and an increase in our energy levels that was completely worth the change. It’s amazing how much time and space drama can fill. When we finally draw a line in the sand, we free up so much more energy for living our dreams and being our best selves.

Copyright © 2020 Laurie Smith. All Rights Reserved. Photo credit: Johnny Sajem/Shutterstock

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