If you are anything like me, you grew up saying yes to everything and everyone. I agreed to any event I was invited to or activity I was asked to take part in. Saying yes did not stop with my compliance with others; I also couldn’t say no to my own expectations for myself—to earn good grades; to be a competitive athlete; to be the most generous friend, sister, daughter, or peer. This life was emotionally and physically exhausting, to say the least, but it was mildly rewarding—at least on the outside.
My mountain of yeses carefully upheld my self-image, as I was temporarily rewarded by good grades, staying fit, and the praise I received from others for taking on a task or being there for people in moments of need. But I was running myself into the ground mentally and physically. I had convinced myself that I was managing to “do it all” (so surely it didn’t matter that I was falling asleep in my classes!). I was certified in people-pleasing, which, I later realized, made me feel better about myself—at least momentarily. From my adolescence into my twenties, I glorified busyness and wore my lack of sleep like a badge of honor.
What was difficult for me to see was that saying no to others or to myself led to a spiral of shame. When I said no, an inner voice told me I was missing out, I was not good enough, I was letting others or myself down.
It was not until graduate school, in my training to become a marriage and family therapist, that a colleague pointed out this pattern. I take on so much, with good intentions. But then I end up resenting the people I said yes to and feeling taken advantage of and burnt out, with little time for the actual priorities in my life. I soon learned in my studies that this was a typical pattern for someone with poor boundaries.
Especially as women, we are subtly encouraged to develop a habit of saying yes as we strive to be generous friends, wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters while achieving our career goals. At this rate, we are headed for a busy life of burnout, exhaustion, and resentment from saying yes too often when we would rather say no.
Since then, I have been intentional about having boundaries in my life and am learning to say no. “The most basic boundary-setting word is no,” Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, authors of the New York Times bestseller Boundaries, explain. “It lets others know that you exist apart from them and that you are in control of you.” I also help my therapy clients implement these skills in their lives, as I have witnessed how a lack of emotional boundaries and chronic people-pleasing is at the root of many clients’ anxiety, depression, and family problems. Here are the tips I used and advise my clients to follow when learning to set boundaries.
The Most Generous People Also Have the Strongest Boundaries
Often when I say the word “boundaries” people have adverse reactions. We have been taught to equate self-care with selfishness. Not only is setting boundaries and saying no at times not mean, rude, or selfish—it is necessary. Maintaining boundaries allows us to take care of ourselves so that we can actually be more generous with others. Just as airlines instruct parents to put their oxygen mask on first before assisting others in the case of an emergency, we have to make sure our metaphorical oxygen is flowing so that we can help others—especially under stress.
When we make time for what we need (our sleep, our nutrition, the relationships and activities that fuel us) and say no to what drains us (an overpacked schedule, people-pleasing, overextending ourselves), it allows us more mental, physical, and emotional energy for the yeses we do give. As counterintuitive as it may sound, boundaries are exactly what allow us to give of ourselves freely and compassionately, rather than reluctantly and resentfully.
In Rising Strong, Dr. Brené Brown explains this: “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
Boundaries Actually Improve Relationships
Implementing boundaries can be especially confusing with close friends and family. It is helpful to remember that boundaries are actually meant to foster a healthy connection, not to lead to relational disconnect or cut-off. Boundaries communicate safety—they figuratively demarcate where I end and you begin. Thus, boundaries allow us to make clear what is our responsibility and what is not. Much emotional turmoil and distress comes from taking on what is not ours, or letting others take responsibility for what is actually ours.
Boundaries within a relationship actually serve to protect and enhance that very relationship. Hear me out. Say a friend suffers a break-up or a devastating death in the family. Of course you are there for her, listening to her, providing a shoulder to cry on, or even making her treats or a meal. All of this is kind, generous, and still within healthy boundaries. The relationship may continue on like this, “unevenly” for a while, as you recognize that your friend cannot be there for you right now in the same way you are for her. But a healthy boundary is crossed when this becomes the norm in the relationship—one person always giving more or doing more for the other. This is where resentment creeps in—resenting that your friend isn’t giving as much as you are, or resenting that you aren’t receiving affirmation or appreciation for all you are doing.
There is nothing wrong with one’s good intentions to support, love, and be there for loved ones, especially in their difficult times. But when we try to be someone else’s savior, we not only burn ourselves out; more importantly, we imply to whomever we are helping that she is not strong enough without us. When we come to the rescue, time and again—although our intentions are good!—we deny our loved ones the opportunity to grow through the struggle. As painful as it is to witness others go through hardships, we cannot fight their battles for them—we can only be their cheerleader. Having healthy boundaries involves realizing when others have the resources to care for themselves.
Be Okay with Disappointing Others
Setting boundaries and saying no is difficult because sometimes that means disappointing others. For a people-pleaser like me, getting comfortable with the disappointment of others was the most difficult part of learning to say no. But I learned that saying yes out of the fear of rejection or because I needed others’ approval was a thinly veiled way of propping up my own sense of self-worth. By chronically saying yes and not disappointing others, at least I could reassure myself that others thought well of me—right?
Dr. Brené Brown shares her wisdom on this, too: “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others. We can’t base our own worthiness on others’ approval. . . . Only when we believe, deep down, that we are enough can we say ‘Enough!’” While setting boundaries and saying no may be intimidating and uncomfortable at first, doing so eventually opens us up to an internal sense of worth, rather than basing our worth on others’ opinions.
Say No to Good Things, So You Can Say Yes to Great Things
I like to call this choosing your yeses wisely. The reason why saying no is difficult sometimes is that we are usually not conflicted about saying no to bad things—that choice is often easy and obvious. Saying no to good things, on the other hand, is hard.
When offered many social events in a week, I do not want to miss out on the fun (#FOMO). But I have recognized when I say yes to all of this good stuff, the first things to go are my priorities (time with my husband, prayer) and self-care (a decent night’s sleep). Declining an enticing invitation, a work opportunity, or a late-night call is more than self-care; such nos create space to give a great yes.
That special social event you did say yes to will be more enjoyable since you’re not worried about rushing off to the next event. Given the choice between two enticing school or work opportunities, you can give your full attention and engagement to the one you’re more interested in, rather than feeling pulled in several directions as you anxiously try to get everything done (and sacrifice sleep to do so). And instead of being half asleep during your friend’s late-night call, you can have a more fulfilling conversation on the phone—or better yet, over coffee!—later in the week when your schedule is actually open. If you’re able to be there wholeheartedly, you and your friend will both appreciate the conversation more.
After learning to implement boundaries, this recovering people-pleaser soon felt its effects. For the first time in my adult life, I was getting enough sleep and actually felt rested, to start. I had—rather, I made—time for my priorities, the things that really mattered to me. I could choose to happily say yes to requests out of my generosity, rather than reluctantly or out of my guilt. I experienced joy rather than resentment in activities and relationships, as I was able to be fully present. My days and weeks have become less hurried and so much more fulfilling.