Your time belongs to you

Do you have a neighbor who ‘drops in,’ uninvited? Do you know a child (or an adult, for that matter) who can’t keep her hands off of your property? Do you have friends who call 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 most often begins with (you guessed it) you! What these people all have in common is a lack of boundaries. It’s up to you, as a courtesy to them AND to yourself, to set those boundaries for them. Think of a boundary as a fence around your life, and crossing through it 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 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 intended to annoy, so what kind of friend would you be to continue letting them impose on you? The gentle setting of boundaries makes for genuine relationships.

So how can you set limits on others without hurting their feelings? The secret is to put the 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 enjoy our time together.’ Or, when your friend calls, you immediately say that you’re busy, and suggest a particular day or time 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’ll get the hint. If they continue to impose, then it might be time to evaluate the role you play in their lives. True friends WANT to respect your boundaries. When they realize they might have overstepped them, they will try to correct the problem to maintain your friendship.

If the friend acts resentful or indifferent after you set the boundary, she’s telling you that she doesn’t really care what you want. She only cares about what she wants. The popular phrase ‘It’s all about you’ applies to anyone who has too few boundaries, or just can’t be bothered by the concept. Do you really need someone like this as a friend? Do you really want to be in the good graces of somebody who feels that your time, your feelings and your property simply don’t matter all that much?

I know this sounds like strong language, but nobody is entitled to steal your time. People steal your time by holding you on the phone longer than you want (in spite of numerous hints to the contrary), or by being habitually late. Do they really mean to steal? Not likely — most people are not that malicious. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is what they’re doing. When you agree to meet someone and they show up a half-hour late (not just once, but all the time), then they’re stealing your valuable time. That’s thirty 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? Not exactly. But try thinking this way: ‘I’m LETTING her keep me on the phone.’ Or, ‘I’m PERMITTING him to annoy me by dropping by unannounced.’ Or, ‘I’m ALLOWING myself to be put into an awkward position by letting her child scurry through my house unattended.’ If you recognize your part in the problem, it will start to go away.

When setting boundaries, be calm, polite, and direct. ‘It’s been great talking to you, Mel, but I really do have to run.’ Or, ‘Murleen, our house isn’t exactly child-proofed. I’m so worried about little Emil hurting himself.’ Or, ‘I know you’re busy, Tatiana, but it really throws me off when you’re late. Do you mind giving me a call when you’re running behind so I can plan accordingly?’

I know that much of this runs counter to what many of us were taught: 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. Doesn’t it make sense to just be honest from the start?

Your time is your own. It has value just like your money and your possessions. So treat it that way. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone.