This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.
In five minutes, you’re going to hate me.
But in five days, you’ll have better boundaries. And be a better person.
It’s a bold claim, I know. But read on, and I’ll show you a simple model for setting healthy boundaries with every other adult in your life. And unlike self-help books, I won’t charge a dime.
The secret formula to healthy boundaries is just a mindset: As an adult, I’m responsible for everything in my personal life. Likewise, you’re responsible for everything in your personal life. And we mind our own business.1
You might hear this and say, “Duh!” This attitude toward life seems so obvious, and yet few folks live this way. Instead, they waste their days meddling in others’ lives. And they allow—or invite!—interlopers to interfere in their own affairs.
Don’t do this. Take ownership of your life and trust others to govern theirs.
Let me show you how to apply this principle to three areas of life.
1. Your body
You’re accountable for everything about your body: how you dress, what you eat, when you seek medical treatment, etc. You decide what’s best for your body because you must live with the consequences. Likewise, I’m accountable for everything about my body.
Sounds straightforward, right? Here’s the kicker: you’re not allowed to make comments about others’ bodies. No more suggestions about what they eat or snide remarks about what they wear. Why? Because other people’s bodies are not your responsibility.
Their body → their responsibility → their business.
In the same way, you don’t need anyone’s permission (or approval) to devour another Big Mac, decorate your body, or don a blazer. Furthermore, if someone doles out unsolicited advice, just walk away.
Your body → your responsibility → your business.
And if a busybody invites you to help them cast judgments about what someone wears to the summer barbecue, just shrug and say, “I’m not worried about what other people wear.”
Living like this makes it far easier to be friends with people who live differently than you.
2. Your mind
You’re in charge of your mind. This includes your education, opinions, and beliefs. In the same way, I’m in charge of my mind.
As such, I have no business telling others what to think. I don’t need to persuade flat earthers that the earth is a sphere (although I won’t nominate them to run NASA). There’s a wide spectrum of creeds, and I refuse to squander my time by knocking every door and convincing every soul.
- Half of what I believe is wrong—I just don’t know which half.
- Life is fleeting. Why fritter it away arguing?
I don’t care what thoughts others have so long as they don’t trespass boundaries and govern how I, or others, live.
At this point, you may conclude, “Stewie is full of crap. He has no idea what he’s talking about!” And that’s ok—I’m not obliged to convince you of anything.
You and I can disagree on some things and still be friends.
3. Your obligations
You’re responsible for your job, your bills, and any kids you may have. Likewise, I’m responsible for my obligations.
By now, you see the pattern and where this freight train is headed: every person needs to mind own their business about work, finances, and childrearing. (Disclaimer: Society has a moral obligation to intervene when children are in danger.)
You and I spend money on different things and give our kiddos different bedtimes (or no bedtimes). And that’s ok. We can peacefully coexist without getting up in each other’s business. As my wife likes to say, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
We can have our own set of routines and traditions, while at the same time, getting along as friendly neighbors.
This is hard
The concept is easy to grasp but difficult to implement. It’s certainly not my default setting. Growing up, I thought it was normal to constantly interfere in others’ affairs. We called it “being helpful.” Little did I know how it alienated people.
After a lot of introspection, I discovered three forces that drove my meddling:
- I didn’t trust others to manage their lives—they need me to fix them.
- Intervening created the illusion of being needed—which feels good.
- Meddling was a nice distraction from the grueling work of fixing my own life.
Going deeper, sometimes, I want people to need my help, which encourages me to view others as helpless. The more incapable they are, the more they need me. This is a terrible way to view other people! Taken to its logical conclusion, I become everyone’s neurotic savior.
Meanwhile, everyone around me becomes estranged. This frustration is captured in Sara Bareilles’s song “King of Anything”:
I hate to break it to you babe, but I’m not drowning
There’s no one here to save
Nowadays, when I feel compelled to dive into other folks’ affairs, I stop and tell myself, “They can handle this. They don’t need saving.” But it’s a hard habit to break.
As I’ve changed, I’ve developed better relationships with the people closest to me. Friends and family are more comfortable telling me things because I won’t pounce on them with unsolicited advice. At work, I avoid entanglements, which allows me to focus and be productive. Lastly, I reclaimed time and energy to work on my goals. And life has never been better.
Mom was wrong: the secret to getting along with others isn’t by always being helpful. Instead, create boundaries by adopting this mindset: I’m responsible for everything about my personal life, and I only judge myself.
Specifically, don’t remark on how others look, eat, or dress. Don’t debate with them about what to believe. And lastly, don’t comment on how they handle their home or work obligations.
Living this way is hard at first. It requires time and patience to change ingrained behavior. But it’s worth it. As you transform, your closest relationships will transform. People will trust you more, and ironically, seek your counsel more often. And life will be amazing.
Thanks to Thomas Weigel, Todd Ericksen, and Diane Callahan for reading drafts of this.
The Courage to be Disliked by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi explores these ideas in great detail. ↩