My cousin called me a total of six times the day before my birthday and on the actual day, even though I texted that I would call him back later.
The same cousin typically speaks to his mother, once a day. But for five days, she was with me. This time, he was not only calling to see how she was faring on vacation, but also to inquire about me and why I wasn’t answering the phone, during dinner…in Aruba…every day. As a result, she tried to coax me to speak with him. One time, she said she would call and pass me the phone.
So, I told her, “I know how to use the cellphone, Auntie. I’ll call him later, like I already said.”
Another time, she tried to cajole me into answering by saying that “Someone very special, who you used to cut up with, wants to talk to you very badly,” while we were in process of hailing a cab to ride to downtown Aruba.
The same cousin asked his brother, who was with us on the island, if I was angry with him. I assured his brother I was not, that I was having an amazing time doing all of the things. Then, I dipped my blue tortilla chip into a ramekin of guacamole, enjoyed my appetizer, and cackled with my daughters and good friend.
My cousin called me again, and I ignored it.
After we sat down for my birthday dinner, at a beachside restaurant, where the sun lowered into oblivion, my aunt asked if I was going to call my cousin. That’s when I gave this speech:
“I am not angry. I am fine. I have chosen to pay attention to the 11 people who are in front of me today, to the people who spent lots of money to be with me. I think it’s important to do that. It took a lot of time and energy for everyone to be sitting here. I don’t think I should spend it talking on the cellphone to people who are not here. This is called a boundary, and I want to explain this to you before I have another drink when it won’t sound this nice.”
She laughed and said she understood.
The following day, I called my cousin. He was alive and well; his life did not implode because he couldn’t speak with me when he wanted to; neither did mine.
The example I’ve provided is called a time boundary. This year, I decided how I was going to spend my time on my birthday. Although I always appreciate the outpouring of well-wishes, I wasn’t going to be responding to texts and talking on the phone all day. I replied to most people late that night. Others, the next day. But here’s what this interaction reinforced:
- Experts suggest you explain a boundary before enacting it. Maybe. A lot of examples I’ve seen require some lengthy speech with consequences. I don’t have the bandwidth for that right now. My cousin didn’t have to know what or why. His job was simple. Wait for me to call. However, my aunt was going to continue ignoring what I said, so I had to explain.
- People don’t have to agree with your boundaries for you to create and enforce them. Obviously, my cousin had another agenda he thought I should follow. That’s fine. Other people’s agendas don’t negate what you choose for yourself.
- People will try and manipulate you to do what they want. That’s their issue, not yours.
- It is your responsibility to stick to the boundary. Had I answered the phone, I would have been sending a message to my cousin, his brother, and his mother that I was not serious about what I decided. Furthermore, it would have set the stage for future interactions.
- You are obliged to enforce the boundary. That can look like re-stating what you already said or explaining (see bullet one).
Good luck boundary setting, good people! Please feel free to add more helpful suggestions about boundaries in the comments.