Setting healthy boundaries is incredibly simple, but unfortunately simple is not synonymous with easy. We need to have healthy boundaries in place in order to protect and respect ourselves. If you haven’t got any boundaries in place, you’re leaving the door open for people to take advantage of you. This is something that can lead to resentment on your part, feeling angry and hurt that people are asking so much of you. It also encourages you to develop a habit of treating yourself in a very disrespectful manner.
So why is it so difficult to set a few boundaries? After all, you’re only protecting and respecting yourself. It’s in your own interest to practise healthy boundaries so it stands to reason that you would have them in place. It stands to reason, yes, but that is forgetting that feelings are so much more powerful than reason!
In our society, we have somehow convinced ourselves that giving to others is more important than respecting ourselves. It is thought to be a sign of a good person to comply with and, if necessary, sacrifice him- or herself for any request that other people may formulate. Saying “no” to people is considered to be unkind in our society, but most of all it is we, ourselves, who nurture this idea. It automatically follows that this prevents us from saying “no” because who would want to be unkind? Human beings need contact with other human beings, so we’re loath to do anything that would forfeit our chance to be liked. Instinctively, we reason that if we want to be in touch with other people, if we want to keep their love, well, then we’d better keep saying “yes”, we’d better keep complying with other people’s requests, demands and desires so that WE WON’T BE ALONE! So that they will keep loving/liking/tolerating us!
It also stands to reason that if you’re guided solely by fear, the fear of losing the love of somebody close, the fear of upsetting a work colleague, then whatever decision you base on that fear is going to be erroneous too, isn’t it? If fear is preventing you from setting boundaries, then I hope you’ll agree with me that this is faulty reasoning.
The irony of it is that saying “no”, not complying, is UNLIKELY to change other people’s feelings for you. If a simple “no” from you can change their feelings of love for you, then maybe what they were feeling for you wasn’t love at all.
Don’t get me wrong! There are several ways of saying “no” to people. You don’t have to be aggressive about it. You can say it gently. If people around you have got used to your always complying, then it’ll be difficult to put up new boundaries that are respectful towards you but that make you less “useful” for others. You need to let people down gently.
On way of dealing gently with a parent’s spoken or unspoken request to see more of you would be to say: “I can’t find the time to see you every Sunday, Mum, but we CAN have monthly family gatherings where I’ll try to get some of your grandchildren together too. How does that feel to you?”
Depending on your family context and traditions, your parent might lay on the guilt! This could just be a way of making you comply. It’s a method that has perhaps worked very well for them in the past. It could be, in fact, that your whole upbringing was based on shaming you into doing things that you didn’t feel like doing. If so, now would be a good time to stop this way that has become traditional of bringing children up in your family and find another way to motivate your children to take on responsibility.
Knowing that the desire to please is at the bottom of your inability to say “no”, you’ll first have to convince yourself that pleasing people is not always what is best for them. Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend talk about hurting versus harming. When you start saying “no” to people you have always said “yes” to, you might hurt them, but would that harm them? Telling your teenage children that they’ll have to wash their own clothes from now on, telling them that you won’t be doing it, isn’t harming them, is it? It’s the contrary, actually. If you explain to them how they can go about it, or even if you leave them with no guidelines, it can be a very empowering experience for them. Instead of being dependent on you, instead of needing you, they’re now able to do their own washing! So you might have hurt their feelings but you won’t have harmed them. As a parent, you are of course responsible for your children, and it would be irresponsible to let a two-year-old play around with a washing machine. As a parent, you’re the judge.
Other than in your care for your children, YOU’RE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYBODY ELSE! You’re not responsible for your spouse’s happiness. You’re not responsible for your mother’s loneliness, you’re not responsible for your colleague’s inability to get organised, you’re not responsible for other people’s shortcomings and mistakes. Making them dependent on you for their emotional well-being or their functioning in reality is actually irresponsible. Making them depend on YOU is another form of manipulating them, making them needy and unable to cope. It could feel good to you because when people need you, you could be tempted to take this as a sign that they love you, but remember, you’re lovable just as you are. There’s nothing you need to do or to be to be lovable (see my post on self-love). It can also give you a greater sense of importance: if you’re not there to get it done for them, it won’t get done. What power! This could motivate you to ask yourself if you really want this power or if you wouldn’t be better off delegating responsibility and know how to other people.
Saying “yes”, complying, is often the easiest solution IN THE MOMENT, but not always the best for them or for you.
So where DOES your responsibility lie? Well, it lies with you because only you are responsible for you. That is why you get to decide what you say “yes” to and what you say “no” to.
If you choose to say “yes” to taking on more work to help out at the office, then you have said “yes”. If you agree to cater to your children’s every whim, then that is a “yes”. If you oblige your friends in organising a skiing holiday that you actually dread, then that is still not saying “no”!
Doing something that you fundamentally don’t want to do breeds resentment. Instead of being disappointed in yourself for saying “yes”, you start resenting others for having asked. But as long as you say “yes”, people will continue to ask! You could be inwardly fuming, saying something along the lines of: “How can they expect me to do all this work?” or “It’s so inconsiderate of them to expect me to organise everything for our skiing holiday!” But just remember that they expect you to do this because you said “yes”.
Until you learn to say “no”, people will always expect things of you and they will take it badly if you don’t live up to expectations. So much for trying to please!
This brings me on to the subject of choice, and as I said earlier, it’s all very simple: your choice is “yes” or “no”! Sarri Gilman talks about our inner compass: it can either point you to “yes” or it can point you to “no”(you can check out her TED Talk here) But how do you decide which of these to choose?
Choosing implies knowing what it is you want. If we take one of my examples from earlier, if what you want to achieve by taking on the extra workload at the office is to please your boss or your colleagues, then instead of rushing in to do the extra work, ask yourself if you’re sure to please them by doing this. Could it be that they might not attach the same value to it as you do? What are their motivations in asking you to do more? Have they got your highest good in mind? Are they looking out for you or are they looking out for themselves? Have a look at what you’d be sure to achieve by doing it. Will you get a raise? A promotion? If so, be sure that they understand that this is what you expect in return. If you don’t say it, they won’t know it because very few people are mind readers. If you don’t inform people of the expectations you entertain in that respect and that your expectations are then dashed, it’ll only be an occasion for you to feel disappointment, slight and inconsideration, something that would strongly add in favour of a firm “no”. Then also have a good look at the downside to taking on extra work. Are you willing and able to cope with it? What will you be saying “no” to if you say “yes” to the extra work? Time for your leisure? Time for your family and friends? Sleep? Will you also be saying “yes” to stress?
All this presupposes that you are crystal clear with yourself about what you expect to get out of it. If you’re just looking for what it will avoid, you’re not going deep enough and you’re just putting off the problems for later. It can be good to talk it over with somebody you value in your life. It can help clarify your thoughts. If you don’t want to share it with anybody, take some time to commit to paper your thoughts and FEELINGS about it. Have that tough conversation with yourself.
If you decide that YOU REALLY DON’T WANT TO DO IT, make sure nobody can bully you into doing it. Some people like to manipulate others and thus get what they want from them. They do this by talking to your emotions. This is something most of us know from our earliest childhood. We were probably brought up by somebody shaming us into doing something that they wanted us to do for them:
“Eat up! People in Africa would be delighted to have half of what you have!” “Tidy up your room otherwise what will your classmates think of you when you bring them home for your birthday party?” “If you don’t finish your homework, I will be so sad and disappointed”.
As adults, some of us are still reacting to this by complying. Of course, the threats and manipulations have taken on a different style, but, in essence, they work the same.
The first thing to do with requests or demands made on you are to swiftly separate them from your feelings. This can be extremely difficult, but practice makes perfect 😊 Here’s a list to help you flex your “no”-saying muscles.
- Be clear on what it is that YOU want out of it then SAY it
- Ask yourself if you’re only motivated by a wish to avoid something
- Buy time by not committing instantly
- Let people down gently
- You don’t HAVE to justify
- Increase self-care to get a rock-solid sense that you’re who’s most important to you
- Talk it over with somebody or commit your thoughts to paper
- Get more information about it before making a choice
When I advocate letting people down gently, this could be by proposing an alternative to what they’re expecting and can feel safer for you because it’s not an outright “NO!”. See it rather as a negotiation. If you don’t want to go round to your mother’s every Sunday, suggest an alternative. The more you and she feel happy about the new solution, the more successful your negotiation was. You might not arrive at something entirely satisfactory to both of you. Maybe, to begin with, you could be willing to settle for something less than ideal that would still be acceptable to her. Maybe you’d want to split the satisfaction in two equal parts. This is up to you. Remember, you’re practising flexing your muscles!
To practise a flat out “NO!”, you could try it out with people who want to sell you something. They’re hopefully not emotionally engaged in selling you something, so a “no” from you won’t feel as soul-destroying as it would to your mother. There’s no need to be rude about it. There’s no need to be offensive or defensive. A “no” is all you need. It would be polite to say: “No, thank you!” There’s no need to justify either. A “no” suffices if you really mean it. If you feel that the person is not ready to accept it, you have got the right to say something along the lines of: “I can see that it’s difficult for you to accept my refusal. What would make it easier for you?” This normally throws people off balance because it obliges them to have a look at their motives. You will have placed the ball firmly and squarely in their court. If you choose to justify your “no”, then remember that this is your choice. Nobody obliges you to justify. Justifying something is leaving the door open to argument. This is something you might want to indulge in with your nearest and dearest, but not with a shop assistant. Or perhaps even colleagues.
I hope that this has been helpful. I’d love to hear from you. You can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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