About ten years ago I realized that I’d collected in my life a lot of Takers. Takers are people who, as the word suggests, take things without giving anything in return: parasites, freeloaders, mooches, leeches.
(Okay, those might be strong words.)
I reflected on why this might’ve happened, and I realized that Dr. Phil is right: we teach people how to treat us. I’d created this dynamic by trying to live out two very good and truthful statements—
1. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, and
2. Be a friend in order to have a friend.
—but I’d never coupled these mantras with appropriate boundaries.
Boundaries help keep good stuff in and bad stuff out. No matter which side of the MAGA-Build-The-Wall debate you’re on, you probably have an understanding of how fences work. (If you’re outside the US and you don’t know what I’m talking about, God bless you and can I come live where you live for a while?)
So how do you know if you’re feeding a flock of Takers?
You have friends/family members who only contact you when they want something.
Your own calls/texts/asks for attention or assistance are met with crickets.
Serving these people often feels like pouring your love into a sucking black hole.
Before we talk about offloading all these Takers, it’s important to take note of one other thing: not all Takers should be offloaded.
There are two kinds of Takers in the world: those who DON’T give back, and those who CAN’T give back.
People who can’t give back are genuinely in need. They are physically, emotionally, financially, mentally, or in some other way unable to take care of their own needs well enough to create the overflow that characterizes healthy, two-way relationships.
I have people in my life to whom I give—attention, time, love, resources—because I have the capacity to care for them, though they do not have the means to return the favor. I recognize this, and I expect I will get nothing back. (Sometimes I actually do, which is gravy!)
But people who won’t give back simply because they don’t want to? Those people don’t get my time or attention anymore.
Here’s how I shed them:
1. I identified them using the bolded statements above.
2. I stopped asking them for anything.
3. I started saying, “No,” when they asked me for things.
That last one, No. 3, was really hard. I’d spent a lot of time doing a lot of things I didn’t want to do, and a lot of time being mad about doing those things. But I’d had no real training in how to say, “No,” i.e., to establish boundaries around my time and resources.
So I got a coach.
K. knows how to refuse a request, and can do it with a smile on her face. She agreed to be my boundaries Yoda. When I got a request to do something I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t know how to refuse it, I called her.
“You just say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not going work for me,’” K. explained.
The earth stopped moving. “I can say that?”
“Of course you can.”
I enumerated all the arguments I expected this person to throw back at me, explaining why I could, in fact, do the thing asked of me.
“I don’t think you’re going to get that kind of pushback,” K. said. “But if you do, call me again and I’ll tell you how to respond.”
So I hung up, held my breath, and texted, “I’m sorry, that’s not going to work for me,” to the person who requested my services.
“Okay, no problem,” they texted back. “Thanks anyway.”
Holy Not-Gonna-Do-It, Batman. It worked.
If you’ve never tried this, you will not believe the freedom it gives you when you do.
The Takers vanish almost immediately. They aren't used to hearing “No,” and when the script gets flipped they're suddenly thrown into foreign waters in which they’ve never swum before. Sadly, they'll probably flail over to get rescued by someone else’s lifeboat. But at least they’re not swamping mine anymore.
Real relationships get better. When I agree to do something, I mean it and I find more pleasure in it. When I don’t agree, others respect my time and resources even more, because they recognize that those hours and assets are indeed finite and valuable.
I resume authority over my life, and no longer feel at the whims and demands of other people. I discover that I don’t need anyone else’s approval or appreciation to feel that I and my life are worthy of being. I can give out of my abundance, rather than out of a need for validation.
Yes, I’ve lost some people.
But I don’t miss them at all.