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Cheryl Richardson: Making Boundaries

Pauline was at her wit's end. A self-employed medical researcher, she wrote to me for help in dealing with an overbearing mom. "Because I work from home, I need uninterrupted time while the kids are in school to get my work done. Mom knows this, but she still calls me daily and wants to talk for at least an hour. There's no limit to the amount of time she wants from me. I need to put an end to this, but here's the thing: I don't know how to tell her to stop without hurting her feelings." As I read Pauline's e-mail, I knew just the kind of person she was facing: a boundary basher.

Often clueless about the inappropriateness of their behavior, boundary bashers step over the line and ignore others' needs for the sake of their own. They'll invade privacy, offer criticism without permission, or intrude on emotional or physical space. This person could be anyone, but the most difficult violators are those we've spent the most time with: our parents.

Pauline's mom had a history of being overbearing, and the problem only increased when she moved within a mile of her daughter. Phone calls, I soon learned, were just the beginning. She asked for favors at the last minute, interfered in parenting decisions (in front of the kids), and criticized her grandchildren's behavior at family gatherings. Rather than confront the hurtful behavior, though, my client stuffed her feelings. "Over the years, I've learned to ignore her. Now that she lives close by and it's happening more often, it's getting harder to keep my mouth shut."

Good thing. While Pauline thought she was ignoring her mom's behavior, I can assure you that her body and soul were registering every word.

Straight Talk
I suggested we start by putting limits on the daily phone calls. Pauline agreed, but said she needed ideas for telling her mom the truth without damaging their relationship. Although we can't control the feelings of others, I explained, we can control how we communicate our needs. To overcome a fear of confrontation, most people simply need the right language to tell the truth with grace and love. Here's the language we came up with: "Because our relationship is important to me, I need to be honest. Since I work during the day, I need to limit my time on the phone. Rather than let you know this, I've taken your calls and have often ended up feeling frustrated later on. I'd like to cut back on how often we talk during the week. Are you willing to help me with this?"

Once Pauline asked for agreement, she would remain silent, regardless of how uncomfortable that felt or how tempted she was to make her mom feel better. Silence would underscore the seriousness of her request. She also needed to be clear about how she wanted their phone schedule to change. If her mom attempted to debate the request, Pauline would hold firm. Her mom would be left with no choice but to hear her needs.

Pauline didn't wait for our next meeting to share her good news with me; she e-mailed right away. "I called my mother and, believe it or not, she was actually relieved. She'd been feeling awkward about phoning me all the time and said she wished I'd call her now and then. We agreed to talk every other day after work for 20 minutes. I couldn't be happier. Having the right language in hand going into it made all the difference."

Now that Pauline had shared the truth with her mom, she needed to back up her boundary with action. Most boundary bashers will test our resolve either because they forget, or because they're used to getting their own way. Sure enough, after just one week, Pauline's mom started calling again every day. But it only took three days of hearing her calls go to voice mail for her mom to get the message that Pauline meant business.

Graceful Confrontation
With phase one of our plan in place, it was time to tackle the challenge of confronting her mom's shaming behavior -- and not a moment too soon. A big family dinner was scheduled for the coming week. "Mom will probably start in on my daughter, Amanda, about how she looks. In the past, when I've asked her to stop, she's turned on me and I've backed down. Now I see that I've shortchanged myself and set a bad example for my daughter."

When confronting a bully, it's often best to initiate a private, not public, conversation about what you will and will not tolerate. This saves face for both parties and gives the relationship its best chance of healing. That said, you also need a public response ready, should the person regress to old behavior in front of everyone. Once again, we got to work on a plan. Pauline would call her mom before the dinner and request that she not comment on Amanda's appearance. If her mom reverted back to her critical ways at dinner anyway, Pauline would say, "It's not okay with me that you talk about Amanda." This line needed to be delivered in a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone that said, "I love you, but you need to stop this -- now."

As it turned out, Pauline didn't have to wait for the dinner to face a confrontation. A few days before, her moth­er attended her grandson's soccer game and openly criticized his performance. This time, though, Pauline spoke up. "I called her the minute I got home and told her that the comment was unacceptable. It was the first time I'd ever confronted her. She apologized and admitted she regretted saying it as soon as the words left her mouth. While I was at it, I also mentioned my expectations for the upcoming dinner. I still can't believe she backed down." It did not surprise me, though. Pauline's mom was like most bullies, who, when faced with a firm request, often surrender.

The dinner a few days later went off without a hitch, and as Pauline and I wrapped up our time together, I made a point to help her see how setting boundaries would affect her whole life in a powerful way. "I get it," she said. "I can think of so many times when I tried to keep the peace by allowing people to hurt me rather than face a disagreement. Now things are going to change. It's time for me to take control, and I'm ready." And that's exactly what setting boundaries is all about -- drawing a line in the sand that says, "This is where my life begins."

Need Cheryl's Coaching?
Each issue, our life coach helps a Body+Soul reader work on life challenges. Write to Cheryl, describing your situation: Cheryl@bodyandsoulmag.com. Cheryl Richardson is a life coach, speaker, and best-selling author of four books, including "The Unmistakable Touch of Grace." Visit her at cherylrichardson.com.

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