Have you noticed lately that a lot of people seem to be really angry? This week alone I heard someone yelling at a child who was walking on their lawn, I heard a mom in a store tell her kid to “get off her nerves” and I watched a woman jump out of a car and yell to the driver, “Happy now? I am out of your car and your life!” Maybe I just travel in places where the anxiety levels are high, but it seemed to me there was a great deal of frustration emanating from all around me. What is it that makes a person want to say, “Get off me!” in whatever particular form they want us to be away? Are we getting less and less patient with others and less and less tolerant of their behavior? It’s such a fine line between setting boundaries and not letting people take advantage of us, and being overly protective of our space. Boundaries are good – they do protect us from people who are asking too much, or who don’t respect the space of others. If we don’t have boundaries, and we let people trample on us, we’ll eventually feel resentful. We need to say “yes” when it is appropriate and we can do something, and to be able to say “no” when the situation crosses a boundary line. But sometimes those boundary lines are too thick and too wide-reaching. We may be having a bad day, or in a bad attitude or dealing with something in our lives that shortens our patience span. We may be just watching and waiting for someone to step on our lawn or our nerves and when they do, WHAM! We are going to let them know they crossed a line they may not have even known existed. We can make the mistake of turning reasonably small offenses into bigger ones, too, by labeling and extending the behavior. The child walking on the lawn is not just trespassing – they represent all of the rude and self-interested kids today that don’t care about anyone else! I’m going to make that person an example of what’s wrong with the world. But, while I am yelling, the child may be thinking, “I didn’t even realize I had stepped over the line! Sorry!!!” I believe we need to balance being assertive – establishing and respecting our own boundaries – with being tolerant and understanding of others’ missteps sometimes. We’d mostly prefer not to admit it, but we all “step over the line” from time to time with others.
What’s critical is to choose the line that matters to us – a way we want to be treated (and not abused by others), a limit to how much we can offer in terms of help and assistance (saying “no” when we need to), getting some personal time for ourselves (not being available to anyone and everyone at every minute!), and learning what we can handle and what we can’t. But once we choose our lines of demarcation, we need to realize that others may from time to time cross them. Now there are certainly those “pushy” folks who cross a lot and love to see how much they can get away with, but many, many people simply don’t realize they are walking on your lawn. They may be preoccupied or oblivious or simply distressed by something else. There was a story in one of my favorite books by Stephen Covey, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” where he talks about a man on a train with his kids running wild. They are irritating all of the passengers and the father doesn’t even seem to be paying attention. Finally one person can no longer stand it, and says to the father, “Aren’t you going to do anything about your kids – they are running wild and annoying everyone!” The father looks up somewhat dazed and says, “What? Oh, I am so sorry. We just buried their mother and I guess they are a little worked up about it.” Of course, after he responds this way silence falls on the train. Letting someone cross a boundary from time to time isn’t the worst thing in the world. As long as we know when and how to speak up assertively, and we set the boundaries that matter to us, we should be able to let someone else make a mistake. The chronic offenders are different and should be treated differently, but the person who intrudes every now and again might be deserving of a break.