Natasha J. Thomas, MD
Setting Boundaries: Why Saying "No" is Tough but Necessary
Updated: Jun 2, 2021
If you've done any counseling, parenting courses, work-life balance workshops, or ever watched an episode of Dr. Phil, you've probably heard at least one therapist, teacher, or thought-leader talk about setting boundaries. You may fully understand what it means to set a boundary but still struggle immensely to do so. Why is it so difficult? And why is it ultimately so necessary? This post will help you reflect on those two questions and begin setting guilt-free boundaries today!
First Things First: Boundary Definition
A simple internet search on the definitions of the word "boundary" generally yield a meaning that has to do with setting or marking a limit - a limit of property, an area, or of an activity. In relationships, whether they be romantic, friendship-, parenting-, or work-related, boundary setting generally fixes a limit or extent to voluntary behavior that one person will do for another, or of behavior one person will accept from another.
But I'm sure you've noticed (and experienced) how difficult it is to translate this simple principle into our dealings with friends, family, children, co-workers, clients, and others we encounter in public places. Thinking about the boundaries of an area is generally much easier to digest than boundaries in interpersonal interactions. Sometimes we mistake saying "no" to a requested favor, imposed expectation, or to intrusive or disruptive requests or behavior as being "rude." I can't even count the number of times I've heard people say, "but if I tell them no, or that I don't like this, I'll feel bad." While that may be true it's unnecessary, and unnecessarily unfair, to punish ourselves for well-held and necessary boundaries.
Why is Boundary-Setting Difficult?
Thanks to different parts of our socialization and domestication process, most people experience a feeling of obligation to always do more, accommodate, and "be nice." American culture thrives on productivity - it's one of those things that leads to and marks success. As such, turning down a request to do a task or favor for someone can often feel like a failure. In addition, people struggle with the true understanding of concepts such as teamwork, being family-oriented, and being a person who "gives back" to the community. We think that in order to demonstrate these highly-valued character traits, we have to make ourselves available to every request we receive. Outside of creating, doing, and giving more, we may also feel it's easier or "being the bigger person" to allow mistreatment from others.
Let's take an example from a work scenario. Bending to a spoken or unspoken expectation to regularly stay beyond your prescribed work hours is a signal that you're allowing your workplace boundaries to slide. Coalescing to belittling or demeaning work emails, side comments, jokes or all-out verbal assaults about your lack of commitment to "the team" is another common form of foregoing boundary-setting for your perceived comfort, ego protection, or financial security. And I do understand. No one is going to feel good or confident about any behavior they think may jeopardize their livelihood. However, as I've discussed in an interview on workplace boundaries here, you may be surprised by the actual outcome of putting limits in place at your job.
Can we apply this to a familial relationship example? Absolutely. I commonly hear about people in the "sandwich generation" struggling with setting boundaries with their siblings over care of their elderly parents. Those same people may also be struggling to set limits with their children over things such as school work, hanging out with friends, and the bane of every parent's existence right now - screen time. How much time are you (or your friends with kids) losing to arguments over YouTube, Fortnite, Tik Tok, Instagram, and the like?
And what about friendship? It is shockingly easy to become the friend who always has a comforting word or available shoulder to cry on - which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so draining (and if you didn't have to go without reciprocation at your time of need).
Perhaps the hardest part of setting boundaries is the reaction you'll receive from others who, a) feel entitled to your time, b) feel entitled to your compliance/service, or c) feel entitled to your constant accommodation of their requests. People may try to lay on the guilt, become cold or distant, lash out, write negative things about you or your business or family on social media, etc. See #4 in the last section on how to deal with this aspect of limit-setting. And if you're attempting to set limits in an abusive relationship, seek help (therapeutic counseling and/or legal counsel) about safe ways to do so!
Why is Boundary-Setting Necessary?
Letting someone know the extent of the treatment you'll accept or the things you'll do/give is probably one of the single most effective mental wellness strategies you can put in place. Truly. And the more you do it, the more powerful the effect. To set limits at work is awesome. To set limits at work, home, and in relationships is life-changing, life-preserving, and SO freeing. Why? Because what you lose in accommodation to others you gain in:
Rest and energy
Finding joy and success in your activities (whether at work or leisure)
Self-reflection time to reevaluate satisfaction with your life direction (and time to change it if necessary)
So, How Do I DO It?
We could probably do an entire series on boundary-setting (and let me know if you'd like to), but to conclude today's post, I just want to give you a simple, 4-step guide to setting limits with others:
Listen to your heart/gut - Whenever we're asked to do or accept something that isn't in our best interest, we feel it. It can feel like that "oh goodness, what do you want now?" feeling when you get a phone call or text from someone. It can feel like a "ugh, I really don't have time for this" or a "I'm going to regret saying yes to this" that sits right in your belly while you decide how to respond. It can even feel like an outright, "No! I'm not doing it," or "I'm not going to let them talk to me like that," but that feeling can slowly fade and then you give in. If you're asked to do things that give you a sinking feeling (not one driven by fear or social anxiety), listen to your body and decline.
Speak what you feel - This is more of a personal exercise than a shared one. When you're grappling with allowing someone or some task to cross your boundaries, tell yourself how you feel about it. Write it down if you need to see it. However you do this step, make sure you spend sometime being honest with the pros and cons of this request for YOU.
Let your "no" be "no" - Sometimes, to offset that failure feeling I mentioned earlier, we give people a "no but" answer when a full-stop "no" would suffice. The "no but" response still leaves you on the hook for doing a task you didn't want to do in the first place, but reduces the guilt of disappointing the one making the request. Also, many times we decline a request, only to backtrack later when the people-pleasing, guilt-ridden versions of ourselves dog us into submission. Resist this! It's ok, and often appropriate and beneficial, to say no to asks you would have to harm yourself or detract from your well-being to accomplish. Try statements like, "I can do ______ but won't be able to do ______," or "I wish I could help but can't right now," or you can even just say "no" and avoid further explanation. Really. Avoid getting into a tiring string of explanations and apologies for recognizing you're at your limit.
Redirect your attention - If you feel sad, shamed, guilty or just like an overall loser when you have to tell someone no, or have to tell someone to watch their tone, attitude, or behavior with you, find a healthy distraction for a little while. I do believe a distraction is just a distraction. It's temporary and gives the brain something else to do for a short while. You will have to come back later and process your feelings (which will help you understand why setting that particular boundary was so difficult for you). But in the meantime, it's fine to find something good for you to do for the short-term.