The questions published in The Idealist Revolution article, 15 Things You Don't Owe Anyone at All (Though You Think You Do) are great prompts for thinking about boundaries with others. In psychology we teach about interpersonal boundaries and the dangers of "enmeshment," that is, "not knowing where you begin and end and where I begin and end."
The patterns of how we interact with others are modeled by our parents and families from earliest childhood. When boundaries are lacking --or are deliberately ignored as a means to emotionally control and manipulate others, a child will either maintain the malignant pattern of interaction into adulthood or will consciously act to change that pattern. Emotional manipulation and enmeshment are both habits of attitude that can either be strengthened or abandoned by deliberate practice. The choice to abandon a patterned attitude takes a high amount of energy and self-discipline. Continuing a habitual way of thinking or acting takes little effort and is easy. This is why so many people who are emotionally manipulative and enmeshed with others and do not change -it simply takes more effort and insight to change habitual patterns.
Each of us has had the experience of being buttonholed by a family member or acquaintance from our past who does not respect social boundaries. They ask questions, many of which are on this list, that can be intrusive, belittling, or even abusive, depending on the motivation of the prober. Sometimes the question is an innocent act of social ignorance. The latter can be excused and overlooked, perhaps even gently redirected. But how do we best handle the malicious or narcissistic variety of social intrusion?
The first step in dealing with boundary issues is to examine our own attitudes and behaviors. Self awareness of the motivation for why we are choosing to ask an acquaintance a certain question is the first step in setting healthful boundaries with ourselves and others. The questions on this list are examples of questions that serve the interests of the inquisitor, and are not sincere acts of social interest in the other. How does one handle the acquaintance who asks intrusive questions that make us feel uncomfortable?
The first step in setting healthful boundaries is to recognize the difference between a friend and an acquaintance. A friend does not ask self-serving questions. If they do, they are not a friend. Beware.
Silence and a smile is technique that is worth becoming comfortable with. The folks who are in the habit of manipulating and controlling others with questions like these are often not accustomed to being met with an inert response. A smile & silence often halts the transaction in its path.
Asking the question back to the questioner is another way of dealing with an intrusive inquiry. "That's an interesting question, how about yourself?" This response can bring to the attention of the other person just how intrusive their question is. It forces the other person to experience their own intrusion, as it is framed from their own motivation.
Another great method for deterring an intrusive inquisitor was taught to me by my mother. When once asked a question that she was not interested in answering she replied, "I will forgive you for asking if you forgive me for not answering." I like that one.
The best approach is to teach by example. Don't ask intrusive of manipulative questions of others and they will learn not to ask them of you. Gently redirect a crooked question with a straight answer, followed with, "why do you ask?" Trust your gut. When you meet someone whose encounter you feel lifted up from, seek out that person in the future. If there is someone in your life that gives you the collywobbles, be prepared to set a healthful boundary with them; chances are they are simply not capable of doing so for themselves.