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The art of saying no: how to set healthy boundaries

Struggling to set boundaries? Feeling like a doormat? Don’t know how to say ‘no’? Here are MTA’s tips on how to create healthy limits and thrive…

Do you struggle with asserting yourself and setting limits with others? Here are some ways to create better, stronger boundaries in your life…

‘No.’

It is a simple, powerful and necessary word. So why are so many of us afraid of saying it?

And when we do manage to say it, why is this so often followed by a wave of guilt, shame and fear? For instance, guilt that you let someone down. Shame that you aren’t a saint or superhero who can help everyone all the time. Fear that you may have damaged or even lost a relationship.

Or maybe the last time you said ‘no’ to someone, you got a negative response? Maybe they went into a huff, gave you the silent treatment or tried to change your mind? And maybe you dread that ever happening again?

With all the unpleasant emotions and reactions that saying ‘no’ can create, it’s no wonder that it can feel so much easier to agree to everything, whether it suits us or not.

‘Yes, I’ll work overtime this weekend.’

‘Yes, you can borrow more money off me.’

‘Yes, I’ll babysit again tonight.’

‘Yes, I’ll take care of your three hyperactive dogs for a fortnight while you’re in the Maldives.’

And yet when we refuse to ever refuse people the effect on our wellbeing can be devastating, leading to frustration, burnout and even breakdowns. What’s more, we might find that our relationships become rocky or broken.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with helping others out, lending a listening ear or offering support in emergencies. But if you feel that your ‘yes’ is out of control (while your ‘no’ is quivering at the back of your sock drawer, afraid to ever come out), then you might just have a problem with boundaries.

Signs of boundary issues

Boundary crossing isn’t just about your time, attention and energy, it can show up in many different ways. If someone devalues your emotions, they have violated a boundary. If they pry into your private business, they have violated a boundary. And if they speak to you inappropriately, they have violated a boundary. A boundary is any line that is crossed, whatever that line might be.

With this in mind, can you relate to any of the following?

  • You struggle with saying ‘no’ — and feel guilty when you do so.
  • You worry that if you refuse a request you might damage or lose a relationship.
  • You often feel that you don’t have enough hours in the day.
  • You find some of your relationships challenging, draining or dramatic.
  • You often feel depleted or overwhelmed.
  • You like to please people and be obliging — sometimes at your own expense.
  • You feel that people don’t respect you.
  • You prefer to show your anger and frustration in indirect ways.
  • You sometimes overshare — and people overshare with you too.
  • You are the person that everyone turns to in emergencies.
  • You feel that people don’t listen to you.
  • You have frequent fantasies of running away from it all.
  • You feel that you have to answer texts and calls immediately.
  • You feel like you are losing sight of your own hobbies, passions and goals.

Unsurprisingly, weak boundaries can lead to mental and physical health issues such as depression, anxiety and fatigue, which is why it’s crucial to put strong ones in place. In fact, healthy limits are probably as essential to our wellbeing as taking vitamins and drinking water.

But how do you go about creating them? And how do you communicate them to others, especially when they might have become very used to hearing ‘yes’ from you?

What are boundaries anyway?

Before we answer these questions, it might be helpful to examine what boundaries are in the first place — and what they’re not.

First of all, a boundary is not a rigid and intimidating ice fortress that you place between yourself and others. It is not about shutting people out, nor is it somehow ‘cold’, ‘uncaring’ or ‘rude’. And despite the title of this blog post, a boundary is not always about saying ‘no’ either — at times, it might actually about be saying ‘yes’ but selectively and with conditions in place (‘Yes, you can borrow my car, but only if you return it with a full tank).

Put simply, a boundary is just a limit that you set in your relationships and then communicate to others. And this limit could be around time, money, privacy, touch, belongings, behaviour, communications or anything at all that matters to you. So for instance, you could create a boundary that the next time you lend your friend money, you will set a date for when you expect to be paid back. Or tell your brother that you can only babysit for him once a month and no more. Or decide that you are no longer going to answer personal questions from strangers about your age, salary or when you plan to have children.

Boundaries are a way to practice self-care, honour your feelings and protect yourself from harm. They are also a way to respect yourself and show the world that you expect respect. In the words of therapist and author Nedra Glover Tawwab, ‘A boundary is a cue to others about how to treat you.’

But if you’re not sure where the boundary issues are in your life, then pay attention to the times when you feel frustrated, angry, exhausted, overwhelmed or anxious (or just want to escape or hide away). Often, those feelings indicate that you lack healthy limits with a certain situation or person.

What causes weak boundaries?

People can lack boundaries for all sorts of reasons yet very often, the roots lie in childhood. According to a 2020 article by Boundaries authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, ‘Adults with boundary problems…had learned patterns early in life and then continued those out-of-control patterns in their adult lives, where the stakes were higher.’

For instance, if one of your parents had a disability, mental health issue or addiction and needed your support as a child, then you might often find yourself in a helper or rescuer role in adulthood. Or if a caregiver didn’t respect your privacy or space (for instance, by going through your things or coming into your room without knocking), then you may not feel that you have a right to privacy as a grownup.

Or if you experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment, then you might still find it hard to assert yourself, because you were taught for so long that your feelings didn’t matter. What’s more, you may feel so terrified of being abandoned or rejected again that saying ‘no’ becomes almost impossible.

There is also a gender element to boundaries. For instance, there can still be an expectation in our society for women to be caring, helpful and self-sacrificing, and to carry out the bulk of the ‘emotional labour’. For this reason, many women believe that setting limits with others is selfish, wrong or even impossible.

Also, if a person suffers from societal discrimination or is somehow isolated and marginalised, then they might let themselves be taken advantage of so that they can be accepted and liked.

Whatever the reason for having weak boundaries, the good news is that you can learn to strengthen them. In fact, like most things in life, it’s just a matter of practice and persistence.

Seven tips for creating healthy boundaries

Unfortunately, a boundary isn’t something you can just keep in your head in the hope that everyone will magically know about it. Like it or not you have to express it to others, otherwise how will they even know it exists?

However, it’s also possible to set boundaries politely, respectfully and lovingly — and by doing so, your relationships can become healthier as there will be much less room for simmering resentments. As Brené Brown points out in The Gifts of Imperfection, ‘When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.’

And while you might experience feelings of guilt or unease at first, the more you practice your ‘no’ the easier it will become to say it (and the more others will get used to hearing it too).

There are various ways to communicate boundaries, depending on the situation and relationship. Here are a few tips for how to do so effectively:

State your feelings and set limits

Explain calmly how a particular behaviour affects you, then follow this by putting a clear boundary in place.

For instance, ‘When you make jokes about my weight, I feel terrible. Please stop.’ Continue to repeat this as often as you need to until the person gets the message, but remember to keep your cool while doing so. If they refuse to stop, then it is possible that the relationship is bullying or abusive and you may need to seek support.

Be short and to the point

If you set a boundary in a way that’s overly complex or convoluted, then people might not even understand what you’re saying at all. While it’s fine to want to be polite, subtlety can sometimes be the enemy of being heard.

So aim to keep it simple, beginning with statements like ‘I’d like…’, ‘I need…’ or ‘I expect’. This has the benefit of being straightforward and also keeps the focus on you instead of the other person, meaning that they are less likely to feel attacked.

Never apologise

It’s all too easy to feel that every ‘no’ must be followed with a ‘sorry’, but that’s not the case at all. You have a right to your boundaries and don't need to apologise for them. In fact, saying ‘sorry’ can sometimes weaken the effect of setting a limit, as it suggests that you think you are doing something wrong.

Instead, aim for polite but firm statements like: ‘Thanks for the invite, that sounds like fun but I’m not free.’

Don’t let people poke holes in your ‘no’

If you find it hard to refuse people, then you might feel you have to offer detailed explanations for doing so. But the problem is that when you over-explain, people can use it as a way to find weaknesses in your boundary. So don’t say, ‘Thanks for inviting me to your party, but I can’t make it as I’m not drinking alcohol right now for health reasons, you know?’ If you say this, then you run the risk of your friend promising to make you tasty mocktails and nagging you until you change your mind.

Instead say, ‘Thanks for inviting me to your party, but I can’t make it.’ It’s not necessary to explain why you can’t make it. If the person pushes you for more details then you don’t have to give them, however if you decide to, keep it short and sweet.

Be resilient to guilt trips and manipulation

There might be some people in your life who simply can’t handle the word ‘no’. They might needle and wheedle until they get their way, throw tantrums, give you the silent treatment or just ignore your boundary altogether.

If this happens, remind yourself that boundaries help to keep relationships healthy, so you will both benefit from having them in place. It’s also worth remembering that people can take time to get used to new boundaries and might test them for a while, especially if they are very close to you.

However, if you feel that you are struggling to maintain boundaries with certain individuals then you might benefit from talking to a therapist about this.

Get comfortable with negative emotions

Stating boundaries — especially when you’re not used to doing so — can bring up feelings of guilt, fear, shame, panic, unease, sadness or awkwardness. Learn to expect this as a natural part of setting new limits in relationships, rather than as a sign that you were ‘wrong’ to put one there. If it helps, you could create rituals for processing any feelings that come up, such as meditation, journalling or simply going for a long walk.

Create consequences for boundary violations

For instance, ‘From now on, if you raise your voice at me on the phone, I will hang up’ or ‘If you don’t pay me back the money on the date we have agreed on, I won’t be able to lend you any more in future’.

However, it’s important that you follow through with your promises or your boundary won’t get taken seriously. Also, accept that you might have to uphold your limit several times until the person gets the message, especially if their problem behaviour is longstanding. Sometimes, it just takes patience, persistence and resilience. Remember that if someone crosses a clear boundary then this is their responsibility, not yours, so they will have to deal with any consequences.

Learning to set limits with people isn’t easy, so try not to be too hard on yourself if you don’t do it ‘perfectly’ at first. Also, don’t be surprised if you get a bit of pushback, feel overwhelmed with guilt or find yourself apologising. Like any other interpersonal skill this is something that you will refine over time. But it’s all well worth it as when you develop stronger boundaries, your life starts to thrive. For instance, you might feel less burned out, have more time for your passions and just communicate better in general.

Boundaries are about having your needs honoured by others, but they are also about honouring your own needs. So while setting healthy limits can improve your relationships, remember that by practicing the art of saying ‘no’, you can also improve your relationship with yourself.

Struggling with boundaries? You might benefit from talking to an expert, accredited MTA therapist. Browse our directory of professionals and find out about different therapy options.

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