There’s a saying I once heard (probably from Oprah) about when it comes to the people you interact with on a regular basis:
“We teach others how to treat us.”
And I used to think that was bogus.
Not that I thought that I was immune to “haters” or tactlessness, but I resonated more with the school of thought that how people treat us is a reflection of who they are, not who we are. Which is true…
Here’s the thing, though: in this state of mind, I was only thinking of others being kind vs. being unkind. At the time, I was a perpetual people-person, the one who was there for everyone, and strongly averse to drama or gossip. Why someone wouldn’t treat me with respect – their own issues withstanding – was automatically viewed as their fault, not mine.
It’s funny, because at the same time, I was consistently feeling lost inside myself, pulled in twelve different directions, and reaching with all my might for a hazy life vision and career trajectory that had seemed to morph into something I could no longer control.
What I realized is that changing the way others treat us isn’t just about “treating them the way we’d like to be treated,” or kindness vs. cruelty – it’s about managing their expectations.
When we feel an imbalance in who we are or who we think we should be, it’s a red flag that something else is going on below the surface. Whether it’s a lack of clarity in through line or that awful feeling of being uncomfortable in our own skin, our body-mind-soul trifecta will always let us know that something’s going awry. Most of the time, we just don’t choose to listen to those signs.
Every text message, email, conversation and interaction is a way we teach the people in our lives how to treat us. Whether we’re responding to work requests at 11pm, saying “yes” to every single invitation/obligation/favor, or staying out late for that last round of drinks when we’d rather be cozy in bed, each decision we make is a little piece of our property. Time. Energy. Values.
Way too often, we give that property away. And way too often, it’s because of one thing: we fear what will happen if we don’t.
How many times do we stare down at our phones or computers answering every single email, text message, gChat, etc like rapidfire? Sure, timeliness and efficiency are important – but every time we respond to something that drains us instead of fuels us, or simply can wait until we’re free, we’re unconsciously telling others that THAT is how we conduct our lives. To get overwhelmed and angry at the requests, pushes, and pulls coming at us is usually not the fault of anyone else but ourselves.
In general, people don’t want to overwhelm you, stress you out, or steer you further from the you you know you’re meant to be. They’re just taking cues from how they see you’re living your life.
Setting boundaries doesn’t have to be a dramatic shift. How do you teach others how to treat you? By being thoughtful with the way you present yourself and respond.
A few small-but-huge examples of how to teach others how to treat you:
IN YOUR CAREER: Whether it’s via email or in the middle of a meeting, many times we’ll talk a certain way in order to be liked, to make others feel included, or just to give off a “good impression” of being a team player. Sometimes it comes from modesty. Sometimes it comes from empathetic skills in overdrive. But as we’ve talked about so many times, confidence is not synonymous with narcissism or vanity. Instead of using filler words like “maybe,” “kind of,” or “just,” state your case as fact. Be the authority on what you think and what you know. We’re so attuned to thinking this is bitchy. It’s not. It’s owning yourself and owning your power.
ON THE PHONE: Remember when all we had were land lines and “message machines,” as we called them in my house? Remember when we needed to memorize people’s numbers, and if we needed to reach someone while we were out, we needed to find a pay phone or business that would loan us their line? Somehow, we all managed. Just because we’re now all reachable right away doesn’t warrant a response right away. Not feeling that text message? Wait to respond. Need some solitude and the phone rings? Let it go to voice mail and call back later. If there is an emergency, usually people will find a way to get ahold of you (think multiple texts and calls one after the other). In more cases than not, whatever is happening
GOING OUT: I don’t know about you, but I usually hit a wall at about 9:30pm when I’m out socializing. Any later, and my introverty HSP self does an energetic nose-dive from the high board of fun into the pool of self-loathing and anxiousness. I used to think that there was something wrong with me that I didn’t want to stay out late, even if just with family members, close friends, or small groups. But what I’ve come to learn and accept is that not only am I not a night owl, but it takes me about two full hours from leaving a social event to wind down and fall asleep for the night. When you’re ready to leave, people might sometimes give you shit and beg you to stay. That can feel good. That can make you feel wanted. But stand your ground. Say no to events that begin later if you’re not feeling them, and if you are, give yourself the permission to leave whenever you’re feeling it. No apologies, and no hanging around when you’re energetically drained. The more you do this with grace, the more the people you love will understand this about you. Just give them the chance to know that part of you. People don’t want you to have a bad time or pretend – they want you to be YOURSELF. (Danielle Beinstein and I talk a little bit about this in her WANTcast episode.)
So often, we don’t set these tiny boundaries because to us, they seem just that: tiny. But it’s those small instances, over and over, that end up making a HUGE difference for the better. In all areas of your life.