Reinforcing boundaries and saying no

Saying no is not selfish

Setting boundaries, saying no and prioritising our own needs is often discouraged in our society. As children we’re taught to be helpful and to look after others. Repeatedly we are told ‘don’t be selfish’ or to ‘stop being so attention seeking, it’s not all about you’.

Although self-sacrificing behaviour can be emotionally rewarding it can also be extremely damaging. Yes, it is important that you are compassionate and sensitive to other people’s needs. But problems occur when your attention is so externally focused on others that you cannot identify what you want, need and what your boundaries are. The consequences of not reinforcing our boundaries can be feeling overloaded, resentful and unfulfilled. It is not healthy for you or the other people to say yes when really you want to say no. You need to prioritise taking care of yourself, especially if you have other people relying on you.

The air-plane metaphor

Watching the safety demonstration before a flight contains important lessons about reinforcing boundaries. They always tell you that in an emergency you need to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. Why? Because if you try and save them before saving yourself you will probably pass out from oxygen deprivation and need help yourself. If you focus on helping others at the expense of your own needs you will become so emotionally depleted it’s likely you will need help yourself. Even if you really want to help other people, the first step is taking care of yourself. Prioritising your needs is not selfish but essential. You and only you need to be your number one priority.

There are two sides to this. The first is using the self-care strategies we practised last week: getting enough sleep, eating well and connecting with others. The second side is focused on examining how you interact with others, reinforcing personal boundaries and learning to say no. Many clients who come to counselling find it very difficult to say no. Below are six tips on how to reinforce boundaries and say no.

Homework – how to say no

Buy some time

It can be hard in the moment to reinforce boundaries and say no. So buy some time that will allow you to check in with yourself. When asked something try and get in the habit of not answering immediately. Instead say ‘I’m going to take some time to think about this’ or ‘I’ll call or text you back, I have to check if I can fit that in'.

Check in with yourself

Use this time to check in with yourself and see a) whether this is something you want to do and b) what affect it will have on your needs and wants. This may feel difficult at first if you feel disconnected from your feelings and needs, but over time it will become easier. There are a number of mindfulness techniques that you can use to tune into yourself that I will talk about in a later article.

Consider your medium

Is it easier to say no via text or email than in person? If so while you are still getting used to setting boundaries use text or email instead. If you feel nervous about saying no in person try role-playing what you want to say beforehand with a sympathetic friend or counsellor.

The power of no

No is a complete sentence. Try it. If you are having a real difficulty with saying no, you can practise repeating the word in the mirror at home. This might feel a bit silly at first, but you’ll find that on repeating it’s just another word. No scarier than any other.

Do not explain or apologise

Be as concise as you can and do not explain. Instead practise saying ‘Thanks for asking me. But I can’t do that.’ By explaining you are opening yourself up to a negotiation and giving the other person an opening to persuade you. You do not need to build an airtight case to justify why you are saying no. What you want to demonstrate by your words and actions is that no means no, and this is not a matter for negotiation.

Be kind to yourself

Maybe you won’t get this right the first time you try this, or the hundredth or the thousandth time. That’s OK. Maybe you flip between feeling too firm and too lenient with your boundaries. That’s OK. When you feel that you could have handled this situation differently try using it as a learning situation, not an excuse to mentally beat yourself up. It might feel uncomfortable at first, change often does. Learning to reinforce personal boundaries is a process not an end result.

So, tell me in the comments what are you going to say no to this week?

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