Friendship groups can be tricky to navigate, but as life coach and author Michelle Elman shares, boundaries can be powerful tools to ensure quality connections
Ever felt the pain of overhearing a friend talking about you behind your back? Or maybe the guilt of knowing you revealed a secret that was shared with you in confidence? Growing up, I always associated friendships with drama, so imagine my shock when I discovered that this didn’t need to be the case and that, rather revolutionarily, friendships could be simple. It was a long road to get to that realisation though…
Rewind to 2011, and imagine living in a room off a corridor that connects your entire friendship group – your very large friendship group consisting of 25 people. You are woken up by someone shouting: “Nick got with Charlotte last night!” You step out of your room to find everyone gathered outside Charlotte’s door, because someone saw Nick go in it last night. Half-asleep, you walk up to the group of people only to be pestered about what you know because “you always know everything”.
“I was the confidant, advice-giver, and ‘mum’ of the friendship group. While this was an honour to be so trusted, as we matured, it quickly became exhausting”
This was my life a decade ago. Every day I was involved in some new drama. Without the qualifications of being the life coach I am now, I was already the surrogate life coach of our corridor, which meant I was the confidant, advice-giver, and ‘mum’ of the friendship group. While this was a compliment, and initially an honour to be so trusted, as we matured, it quickly became exhausting. The constant drama became annoying, mind-numbingly repetitive, and I didn’t want any part of it anymore. The solution to the drama? A big old dose of boundaries.
Speaking now, with much more understanding of the importance of setting and respecting healthy boundaries, here are four of my essential tips to put these in place – and ditch the drama.
1. Talk it out
Stop talking about the person and start talking to the person. The only one who can solve your issue is the person who caused the issue. When there’s a problem, it can be tempting to get people to take sides and essentially create teams within your friendship group. In the situation above, if you wanted to know about Nick or Charlotte’s relationship, the person to ask would have been Nick or Charlotte, so that’s exactly what I said: “It’s not my information to share. Ask them.” To do anything other than that is to break confidence and trust, and would be disrespecting boundaries.
2. Stop involving yourself in other people’s business
An important boundary to learn is how to say: “That is none of my business.” Yes, you might be curious, but standing outside someone’s door to find out details about their secret relationship is an invasion of privacy – as in my example. A friend is allowed to have privacy around something they are not ready to share, so respect that by letting them tell you whatever it might be in their own time.
Similarly if two friends are in an argument, it’s tempting to want to mediate between the two, but doing so leads to what is known as ‘triangulation’ and creates a more complicated relationship dynamic. Let your friends resolve their own differences, and by doing so means your relationships will be simpler, and one party won’t feel like you are taking sides.
3. Stop bonding over hate
There is a saying that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, and research actually supports this. A 2011 study by Weaver and Bosson demonstrated this by showing that you build closeness with a stranger faster by sharing negative attitudes about a third party, than if you were to share positive attitudes. Within a friendship group, this is how toxic dynamics can form, because if bitching about a mutual friend means you can bond faster, it can be a tempting tactic to use to create closeness.
While the research may show it is effective, you need to be wary of the consequences of this. If a person is willing to speak about another friend behind their back to get close to you, they will also be willing to get close to someone else by throwing you under the bus. It may be faster to make friends through mutual hatred, but it is not a way to build a quality friendship.
4. Ask for what you need
A lot of people believe that a sign of a good friendship is when your friend can predict what you need without you even vocalising it. Spoiler: it isn’t. And testing your friendships by assuming they need to know all your needs without being told, isn’t going to help anyone. If you want to see your friend more, tell them. If they never reply to your texts and it upsets you, tell them. A sign of good friendship is an ability to communicate, and being able to be vulnerable enough to vocalise when your needs aren’t being met.
What do you do if you set boundaries and people refuse to listen to you? At that point, you need to make a call on whether this is a friendship you want. When a person repeatedly ignores what you are asking for, and dismisses your boundaries, it is a sign of disrespect. Boundaries are how you are asking to be treated, and if that is being ignored by a friend, is that person really your friend after all?
If your friendship was a contract, and your friend kept breaking the terms of that contract (“be supportive of my wins”, “don’t talk about me behind my back”), would you keep renewing it? It’s sad to see the end of a friendship and, societally, we often take the end of a friendship to be a sign of our own personal failing, but it isn’t a failure to insist on being respected by those around you. A good friend is better than an old friend. You deserve to have friends you can trust, and you know will support you, even when you aren’t in the room.
How to know when your boundaries are being crossed:
Feeling anger or resentment.
These emotions are your body’s way of telling you that a boundary has been crossed. When your self-esteem is low, it’s easy to question whether your anger or resentment is valid, but instead use these emotions as an alert system to notice when a boundary has been crossed, and needs to be reinforced.
Replaying a conversation in your head.
Have you ever wished you had said something that you didn’t say in the moment? Boundaries do not have a time limit, so you can bring up an old conversation by simply saying: “Hey! Something you said yesterday upset me, and I really want to talk about it.”
Interactions leave you feeling bad about yourself.
Start to notice how the people in your life make you feel. We don’t always process passive aggressive comments or snide remarks in the moment, but you may find later that day your mind is filled with more self-doubt, or your inner critic is louder when you are around a certain person. Even if you can’t put your finger on exactly why, trust yourself, and believe how you feel is legitimate.
To get in touch with a life coach to help you set boundaries in your own life, visit lifecoach-directory.org.uk