How many times have you found yourself in one of these situations?
“Hi, would you bake cookies for the meeting / serve on this committee / come home for the holidays / pick me up from the airport / wear this dress and not those pants / take over the project for me?”
And how many times have you found yourself baking / serving / going / wearing / taking over that project that was not yours and you didn’t want?
If you’re human, this is probably familiar. If you’re a woman balancing multiple roles, this is probably a daily experience. For women in particular, since many of us are raised to value caring for others over ourselves, be nice, and avoid conflict, learning to set boundaries can be a lifelong process. We can often recognize the signs that our boundaries have been pushed after the fact because we feel some combination of resentment, guilt, anger, frustration, exhaustion, or other emotional sign that something isn’t right.
Listening to those feelings and finding the words to protect our time, energy, physical bodies, and emotional wellbeing is well worth the effort, but it takes practice and courage.
People who are used to us agreeing to meet their requests generally don’t like it when we start saying no, and in general, the agreeable souls we are prefer people to be happy with us. Getting comfortable setting boundaries is a learning process, and it’s incredibly common for us to be good at setting boundaries with one person and terrible with another. Family members are notoriously tricky to set boundaries with. Just ask any mom with a tantruming toddler or adult child with an emotionally needy parent.
A transitional way to say no is to use the “yes, yes, no, yes” method of saying no. What’s lovely about this approach is that you get to cushion that no in a pile of positive statements to ease yourself into a boundary and out of the demand on you. For example, “Sharon, I’d love to help with the prom committee and I’m sure it’s going to be a fabulous night for the kids. I can’t, unfortunately. Try me again next year!”
As you might have noticed in the “no” statement above, when you keep it a simple “I can’t”, it’s a winner. There’s no excuse for you to remember, no problem for the asker to troubleshoot, and it’s deeply empowering to not apologize, over-explain, or have to think on your feet. Follow that up with a question or statement that changes the subject (otherwise known as distracting your listener) and odds are you won’t need the next tactic below.
Another boundary-setting trick is to be a broken record. This works great with toddlers of all ages. All you do is simply put your “no” on repeat each time the request is made. You don’t have to be creative and come up with new no’s. Recycle the one you’ve got — it’s still valid. “No, I can’t serve on the committee this year.” “No, I still can’t serve on the committee this year.” “No, I will not be serving on the committee this year.” Following a few of these statements with a topic change or a warm goodbye is totally appropriate.
Being proactive with your boundary — saying no before the ask — can stop a boundary pusher in their tracks. “Mom, we’ve discussed our holiday plans for this year and have decided we are taking the kids skiing instead of coming home. We need a getaway for just our little family of four to have some fun and this is the only time we have to do it. We will see you at Easter.”
Simply put, the better we become at setting boundaries, the more likely we will not feel the resentment, guilt, anger, frustration, and exhaustion that comes along with over-extending ourselves. And ironically, in turn, the happier and more enthusiastic we will be about the relationships we are a part of.
Saying a real “YES!” is only possible if we can say a real “No!”