When I first heard the expression “setting boundaries,” I didn’t think much about the words. But seven years ago, I faced the need to do just that.

Without trying to blame parents or environment, I’ll say I grew up without guidelines on where to erect fences to keep out prying and intrusive people. In our family, when anyone wanted a favor, we granted it. If someone asked a question (no matter how personal), we answered. I don’t recall any of us saying, “That’s none of your business” (or even a softer expression).

Because I didn’t know how to establish limits, people sometimes took advantage of me. For example, almost every week a few individuals phoned and took up immense amounts of my time. Or they asked me to do things for them I preferred not to do but that they knew I would do anyway.

Seven years ago, I promised myself, “I’ll stop them from taking up all that time.” It still took me awhile to figure out my strategy. For me, it was mostly being able to say “no” to things I didn’t want to do.

When someone asked, “Do you have a minute?” (and really meant, “Do you have an hour?”), I learned to say, “I have a few minutes.” After perhaps 10 minutes, I can now say, “I have to hang up.”

Most of the time it works, although a few of those callers want to keep talking. After watching the clock for two more minutes, I say, “I really have to hang up now.” And I cut them off. I don’t like doing that, but they’ve overstepped my private property line.

I want to tell you about the event that made me realize the need to set firm boundaries. I met “Emma” when I taught classes at a writers conference. I skimmed a few paragraphs of what she had written and encouraged her to continue. A week later, she emailed me, “I’ve attached my manuscript. Critique it and tear it up as much as you need.”

She didn’t ask permission to send me material. She didn’t ask if I would edit it. She assumed I’d edit her work – all 293 pages.

I decided to wait a few days before I answered. Three days later, Emma emailed to ask how I was coming along. “I’d like to send it to a publisher at the end of the month.”

That actually happened (and it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime event). I didn’t know if I should rebuke her lack of manners, instruct her on professional conduct or ignore both her emails. Finally I wrote back, “I’m too busy.” That was the wrong answer.

She knew I was busy, but she insisted, “Surely someone helped you in your early days.” After a few more sentences, she concluded, “If you’ll work on the first three chapters, that will be enough for now.” (For now? I assume she still expected me to edit the entire book.)

I didn’t reply and ignored two emails that followed. That was cowardly of me, but I didn’t want more uninvited conversation. At first, I felt bad – really bad – about my response. But then, I thought: I have erected a boundary. I blocked her from intruding. I hadn’t done it well, but it was a beginning.

I’m getting better at it. I’ve learned not to explain because some individuals respond by knocking down each argument. I wish I had learned that strategy 20 years ago. But the good news is that I can do it now.

It also occurs to me that if I take care of my own property and push away squatters, maybe I’ll teach them to stay within their own boundaries.


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