Could someone please let me know the synonym of "paint someone/somebody into a corner". I don't know any and have to use the idiom all the time, it will be good to know its synonyms.

I generally use this idiom to denote situations where somebody is left with limited options or a hard choice (mainly due to their own behavior/actions) as in:

By insisting on a pay rise, I seem to have painted myself into a corner. I will have to find another job if I don't get the raise.

  • Please give a few examples of how you are using this idiom already, so we can tell (for instance) whether you are using it transitively (as in "His opponent backed him into a corner") or adverbially (as in "The boxer retreated back into a corner"). Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 17:54
  • Welcome to EL&U. The following is the rule of this community. Questions on choosing an ideal word or phrase must include information on how it will be used in order to be answered. Please edit your question and include full context with an example sentence.
    – user140086
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 18:00
  • @BrianDonovan Sorry, I had mistyped the idiom. Please see updated question with example. Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 18:02
  • 1
    As already offered parenthetically in @BrianDonovan 's good answer, if you don’t mind staying close to your original “paint/back into a corner,” you could just use “corner/ed” as a single-word verb: “I seem to have cornered myself by asking for a raise” /“By asking for a raise I seem to have let myself get cornered.” (transitive verb: to force (a person or animal) into a place or position from which escape is very difficult or impossible [M-W])
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 19:15
  • See idioms, The Free Dictionary idioms.thefreedictionary.com/paint+into+a+corner and see corner: idioms.thefreedictionary.com/corner
    – rogermue
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 10:59

8 Answers 8


It's comparable to "to burn one's bridges" as in

I've burnt all my bridges.

but this idiom has more of a moral aspect to it than yours. Painting oneself into a corner can be done through carelessness, while burning bridges implies will.

  • 1
    There's also the rather similar "burn the ship(s)" which has an even stronger implication of intent at the time.
    – Peter
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 21:44
  • 1
    This answer is wrong/inaccurate. "Burning bridges" have a completely different meaning than "painting oneself to a corner". "burning bridges" doesn't merely imply "will" but explicitly indicates it. Cutoff the way back to where you came from, making it impossible to retreat, is done on purpose.
    – Pacerier
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 2:02

A good synonym for "painting oneself into a corner" is

leaving yourself no other option

When a person is painting the floor of a room, for example, and he literally paints himself into a corner (with nothing but two walls and a ceiling by which to escape), chances are he will be forced to step on wet paint to extricate himself, thus ruining his work.

Your use of the phrase metaphorically is quite apt. By insisting on a pay raise "or else" (I supply the "or else"), you have no other viable option than to quit and look for employment elsewhere if you're not given the raise.

In a different context (say, in a courtroom) a lawyer should never ask a witness a question to which she does not know the answer. If she doesn't, she might just be painting herself into a corner by eliciting unanticipated and damaging-to-her-case information from the witness. In so doing she could very well leave herself no other option but to concede the case. In other words, she'll be forced to live with the damage she's caused through her lack of planning and foresight.



[put oneself] in a bind

Also, in a box or hole or jam or tight corner or tight spot. In a difficult, threatening, or embarrassing position; also, unable to solve a dilemma. All these colloquial terms allude to places from which one can't easily extricate oneself. The phrase using bind was first recorded in 1851; box, 1865; jam, 1914; tight spot, 1852. The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms

[get oneself] up a tree

up a tree: (idiom) in a difficult situation without an easy way to escape Idiomeanings

  • those don't carry the meaning of being there because of your own actions.
    – njzk2
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 3:46

Another phrase you might find useful as a (partial) synonym of "painted ... into a corner" is "gone out on a limb".

out on a limb In a difficult, awkward, or vulnerable position, as in I lodged a complaint about low salaries, but the people who had supported me left me out on a limb . This expression alludes to an animal climbing out on the limb of a tree and then being afraid or unable to retreat. [Late 1800s]

[Out on a Limb. (n.d.) The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. (2003, 1997). Retrieved December 13 2015 from http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/out+on+a+limb .]


If the sense is to put someone at a posture of desperate defense, the expressions bring to bay or at bay may be used. Dictionaries are surprisingly unhelpful regarding this usage, though the OOD does gloss at bay.

Shakespeare appears to use bayed as a simple transitive verb meaning (according to my Pelican Shakespeare) “brought to bay, cornered” (and corner thus as a verb is another option for you), but astonishingly that usage does not seem to be glossed even by the full OED, and in any case I would avoid it as archaic and obscure:

I was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear
With hounds of Sparta. (Hippolyta, A Midsummer Night’s Dream 4.1.111–13)


An appropriate phrase for having to face the consequences of your actions is:

I've made my bed [and now I've got to lie in it].

This phrase is often said without the second part.

Reference: idioms.thefreedictionary.com


Contextually, the point of no return may fit:

If you say that you have reached the point of no return, you mean that you now have to continue with what you are doing and it is too late to stop.

(Collins Dictionary)

To use your example:

By insisting on a pay rise, I seem to have passed the point of no return. I will have to find another job if I don't get the raise.

(A similar literary expression would be to cross the Rubicon.)


"Build a boat in the basement"

  • 2
    Please edit this answer to include why it's related to painting oneself into a corner.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 16:55
  • You'll notice all the other answers have way more detail and references, which is what we like here. I can see why 'build a boat in the basement' could work, but it might not be so obvious to others. Please clarify. Commented Jul 11, 2017 at 20:52

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