Do you have a neighbor who ‘drops in’ any time of day—uninvited? Do you know a child who can’t keep his hands off of other people’s property? Do you have friends who call you and expect you to be available to talk—with no concern for what you might be doing at the moment?
Though your first reaction might be to blame your neighbor, the child or your friend, the problem here most often begins with (you guessed it): You! What these people all have in common is a lack of boundaries, and it is up to you, as a courtesy to them AND to yourself, to set those boundaries.
Think of a boundary as a fence around your life. Fences send a message that you’re not supposed to cross through them, at least not without recognizing that crossing through is a privilege, not a right.
Most of us have been taught from childhood to be ‘neighborly’ and ‘tolerant.’ But, when ‘neighborly’ and ‘tolerant’ turn into annoyance, resentment and dislike, boundaries and limits must be set. Chances are, your neighbor’s ‘dropping in,’ your friend’s frequent calls, or the child’s unrestrained curiosity are not meant to annoy, so what kind of neighbor or friend would you be to continue letting them impose on you? Gently setting boundaries is what makes for genuine relationships.
So how can you set limits on others without hurting their feelings? The secret is to put your boundaries into play before people get into the habit of crossing them. For example, you might tell your neighbor, ‘I take a nap in the afternoon, so please give me a call before you drop by so I can have the pleasure of spending time with you uninterrupted.’ Or, when your friend calls, you immediately say that you are busy, and suggest a particular day or time for them to call, so ‘I can really enjoy our conversation.’ Suggest to the parent of the uncontrolled child that you worry about his safety because many of your knick-knacks are breakable and could hurt him.
If these people truly value you as a friend or neighbor, they will get the hint. If they continue to impose on you, then it might be time to evaluate the role you are playing in their lives. Good friends respect boundaries, and want to do so. When they realize they might have overstepped things a bit, they will immediately feel like they want to correct the problem to maintain their friendship with you.
If you get a different kind of reaction, there could be a problem. If the friend is resentful or indifferent after you set the boundary, he’s telling you something. He’s telling you that he doesn’t really care what you want; he only cares about what he wants. We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘It’s all about you.’ This applies to the person who has too few boundaries, or just doesn’t care for the concept of boundaries in general. Do you really need someone like this as a friend? Do you really want to be in the good graces of someone who acts as if your time, your feelings, and even your own property simply don’t matter all that much?
I know this sounds like strong language, but nobody is entitled to steal your time. People can steal our time by holding us on the phone longer than we want (in spite of numerous hints and insinuations to the contrary), or by being habitually late. Do others really mean to steal your time? Not likely. Most people are not that malicious. But it doesn’t change the fact that this is, in effect, what they are doing. When you agree to meet someone at 8 pm, and they show up at 8:30 (not just once, for a good reason, but all the time), then they’re stealing your valuable time. That’s 30 minutes of your life you’ll never get back. The same applies to people who keep you on the phone longer than you want.
Am I encouraging you to get angry over these things? Not exactly. But here’s an attitude I suggest you try: ‘I’m LETTING her keep me on the phone longer than I want to talk.’ Or: ‘I’m PERMITTING him to annoy me by dropping by my house unannounced.’ Or: ‘I’m ALLOWING myself to be put in an awkward position by letting her child scamper through my house unattended.’ If you begin to recognize your own part in the problem, the problem will start to go away.
When setting boundaries, be calm, polite, and yet, at the same time, direct. ‘It’s been great talking to you; but I really do have to run.’ Or: ‘Our house isn’t exactly child-proofed. I’m so worried about little Joey hurting himself.’ Or: ‘I know you’re busy, but it’s annoying when you’re always late. Do you mind trying to be more on time, or at least call me when you’re running behind?’
All of this runs counter to what many of us were taught, which is to suck it up and never, ever risk hurting anyone’s feelings. Of course, when I look around the world, I see a lot of hurt feelings anyway, mostly because ‘sucking it up’ leads to resentment, anger and less-than-polite interactions down the road. Doesn’t it make sense to risk a few hurt feelings by being honest from the start, and avoid bigger problems later on?
Bottom line: Your time is your own. Just like your money and your possessions, it has value. So treat it that way. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone.