Following are excerpts from Carolyn's spring 2001 live discussions on washingtonpost.com.
I've set up a terrible "borrower-lender" dynamic with my roommates, allowing them to borrow everything of mine (particularly my two big-ticket items -- car and computer) with no boundaries. Result has been that I've found my car filled with their CD's but never filled with gas, my computer taken over by their files, software programs loaded for toys I don't have, blankets I've lent being used as rugs, and so on.
Obviously I have a problem with confrontation -- or else this never would have gotten so far. But it has, and I feel pretty taken advantage of -- true, I lay down on the floor, but they are just wiping their feet all over me. So now how do I fix this problem, retain some sense of friendship, and still feel like I'm being generous to these people I care about? I don't need my things to be off-limits; I just want use of my things to have limits.
-- Suffering Quietly
Oh boy. I feel for you, it's hard to break the habit of serial pleasing. But you have to find a way to like yourself enough to believe that people will still be your friends even if you don't keep handing them stuff in return.
To that end, I don't think you're stumped at all. I think you know exactly what you need to do -- repeat after me, "Hey, guys, you're abusing my stuff, I'm going to start setting some limits" -- but you're scared as hell. The next line is one you repeat in your head: "My friends like me, not just my car."
I know you're right -- I need to set some limits and know that they'll either like me or not based on me, not my stuff.
But now to the nitty-gritty. I don't even know how to BEGIN this conversation. Some ideas: "Um, I feel like I've been really bad about setting boundaries" (blaming myself); "I'm feeling really taken advantage of" (blaming them); or "This is really hard for me -- weep, sob -- but I'm torn up about the dynamic we have going here" (dramatic yet true and blames no one).
How do I feel? My fault for not setting boundaries, their fault for running roughshod over even obvious human boundaries. And yeah, I am almost mad enough to just let loose with "Where are you from that it's okay to borrow someone's blanket and use it as a rug?!"
But I'm scared. Screwing up the courage to have this conversation is hard -- can you help me script it?
-- Still Suffering Quietly
No no no, just look at how you keep phrasing things! What are your feelings or emotional failings even doing in this conversation? "Hey, I'm happy to loan out my stuff, but not when you guys abuse it. From now on, if you leave a mess in the car or don't refill the tank, you're off the list." You can do it. Just don't make it about you, because that's your internal battle to fight, not theirs.
Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and join Carolyn's live discussion at noon Fridays at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.