"I love my family," says Kelly, who lives with her teenager and aging mother. “But they drive me nuts. My daughter’s always on Snapchat. Ugh, and Mom’s constantly moaning that she could have had a career if she hadn’t sacrificed her best years to raise me. Usually I just take some deep breaths and keep smiling—but then Paige forgets to make her bed or Mom blasts her TV...and I find myself smashing dishes. So maybe I’m not very good at letting things go. But what am I supposed to do, bring up every little grievance?”

Kelly has a problem—but it’s not with her family. Here’s her real trouble: She’s made the very false assumption that when someone bothers you, the only way to feel better would be to get them to change. The unalterable truth is that we can’t control anyone else. Sure, we can act like traffic cops, issuing citations for every infraction, but that just drains our energy and breeds resentment.

Fortunately, there is someone we can change—guess who? That’s right; only by focusing on ourselves can we set the boundaries that let us live harmoniously with others. I told Kelly that as soon as she’s finished hurling dessert plates, she should take a moment to sit down, get quiet, and lovingly ask herself what’s happening. Is she exhausted, enraged, grieving? Whatever Kelly’s feeling, she should offer her tired, sad, frustrated self permission to feel it, and then do something nurturing—nap, have a cup of tea, vent in her journal.

Once she’s feeling calmer (and not a minute sooner), Kelly needs to reconstruct the events that led to her explosion. This is a bit like finding the black box from an airplane crash, then going through the flight recording to see when the pilot lost control. Kelly’s last outburst may be a good place to start: Chances are, right after she expressed her anger, she felt relieved for a while. The next time Paige was glued to her phone at dinner, I bet Kelly thought, Oh, well! What can you do? Let’s call this state of mind the green zone. As time wore on, though, she felt the familiar twinges of annoyance, working her way into the yellow zone. Eventually she got so hot under the collar that her nose hairs were singeing. Then she hit the red zone: tantrum time.

Kelly needs to learn to monitor her feelings not only when she’s alone, but in real time, as she interacts with others. This takes practice because it’s easy to get caught up in big emotions rather than observe them. She’ll probably have to go through a period of trial and error (and a few more flare-ups). But after a while, she’ll be able to stay aware of her feelings as they arise, and notice the zone she’s in.

Kelly’s goal should be to speak up for herself while she’s still calm and collected, using this script: “[Person’s name], when you do [frustrating behavior], I feel [name your emotion]. Next time it happens, I’ll have to walk away for a while. Otherwise, I’ll end up blowing my top over some little thing, and that hurts both of us.” This strategy isn’t about criticism or blame. Kelly’s taking responsibility for her own reactions and establishing boundaries around the sole territory where she has jurisdiction: her self.

Next time someone in your life is getting your goat, I suggest trying this approach. Most people will at least hear you out. If they ignore you or get defensive, you have to create some physical and emotional distance—not to punish the offender, but to remain in tranquility. The good news is that Kelly has loving relationships with her daughter and her mother; given the choice to make Kelly happier, they’ll probably opt for peace and cooperation. As fallible human beings, they may need a few reminders—while Kelly’s still in the green zone, of course. But ultimately, their relationships will be even stronger.

When we make a practice of caring for ourselves, we feel not only more serene, but more powerful. Knowing we can meet our own needs frees us to love without condition—and by staying open to love, we can drive ourselves sane.

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