Defend Your Boundaries to Take Back Control

Learn how and when to draw the line after someone asks too much of you. 

One summer, I was struggling with feelings of resentment toward a family member. Let’s call her Carol. I loved Carol very much, but every time I saw her number on the caller ID, I  got a sick, overwhelmed feeling. I started avoiding her calls. I realized, thanks to a candid chat with a friend, that I was steering clear of Carol because she always wanted something from me. And I always said yes. I was so invested in having Carol think well of me, that no matter what she needed or wanted, I figured out a way to make it happen and ended up creating chaos in my life as a result.

A friend suggested I write NO in big letters on a notecard and set it on my coffee table. Then each time Carol called, I  was to sit down and stare at that notecard until I got the gumption to just say no.

Boundaries are tricky—we don’t always realize that we’re unhappy or unproductive because of a lack of boundaries. It’s much easier to blame someone else for our distractions, resentments or messes. But in truth, we’re in charge.

Property Lines

The trick to being in charge is recognizing what we have control over—and what we don’t. John Townsend, Ph.D., is a business consultant, psychologist, leadership coach and co-author with Henry Cloud, Ph.D., of Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. He says the best way to define a boundary is to think of it as a property line. “It’s a demarcation in our lives between those things that we are responsible for and those things we can’t be responsible for,” he says. “For example, you and I are responsible for our own careers, and we might want to help each other and support each other, but we can’t take on each other’s careers—or our feelings or our relationships or our money or our time.”

Once we establish what we have control over, we also determine the areas where we can make choices. Townsend says problems and dysfunctional relationships result when we try to take on somebody else’s areas of responsibility—when we trespass on their property.

Sometimes this trespassing looks a lot like helping, taking the form of big favors, as in the case of my relative Carol. But other times, trespassing just looks like someone copying you on every email they send to a client.

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