Boundaries - The Journey to Being Able to Say “No”

Sadly, you may have had the experience of being punished for setting a boundary or saying "no."  If this was a significant part of your life growing up, you likely have one or more of these challenges as a result:

  1. The ability to consider your own needs equally to other's needs.

  2. Having a sense of being "worthy" of consideration and respect.

  3. Finding yourself saying yes when you want to say no.

  4. Experiencing situations in which you "fuzz out" and lose your voice.

  5. Imagining that there is some external standard that decides whether your needs and requests are okay.  (Seeking validation from others while in a reactive state).

  6. Imagining that there is some external standard that decides when it is okay for you to say no.  (Seeking permission from others to say no).

  7. Withdrawing from or avoiding situations in which setting a boundary would be important.

  8. Letting others make decisions for you.

  9. Keeping people in your life who repeatedly cross your boundaries.

  10. Giving up your needs and preferences when they are different from those around you. 


When someone punishes you for setting a boundary, it is an example of "power over" behavior.  Over the long term, if this is repeated, especially in childhood, you learn to take a "power under" role in order to stay as safe as possible.  When the situation changes and it is actually safe to set a boundary and say no, healing and learning is needed to change the habit of moving into a "power under" role.  

Healing may occur with friends, in therapy, and in community.  There are few keys elements in the healing process to watch for and engage with.  First, begin to discern the difference between those who respect boundaries and those who often don't.  When pressuring, demanding, and convincing has been a part of how you grew up, it can be difficult to realize that these behaviors are boundary crossing behaviors and that you don't have to participate in them.  Set your intention to notice these behaviors and move away from relationships in which they occur or set a boundary when these behaviors occur.

Watch for the behaviors that indicate someone respects a boundary and spend time and energy building relationship with people who respect boundaries.  Here are a few examples of boundary respecting behavior.

  1. Affirmation of choice  "Do what's right for you."  "Take your time to decide." "I'd love to have you there, but it's okay if you don't come."

  2. Pausing to allow a response  When someone isn't attempting to convince you of something, they naturally allow space for you to find what's true for you by falling silent or asking questions about your experience.

  3. Looking for alternatives  Someone who respects boundaries, readily looks for other ways to have their needs met when you say no. 

  4. Mutuality  Someone who respects boundaries, holds your needs as equal to their own and thus is attentive to mutual sharing and mutual access to resources.

  5. Asks rather than Assumes  Someone who respects boundaries, asks what's true for you rather than assuming they know.  This could be in regards to touch, gifts, giving advice, borrowing something, making decisions that impact you, etc. 

Second, strengthen your "I can choose" muscle.  This strengthening process might begin by systematically reviewing situations in which you lost track of your choice and rehearsing what it would have sounded like, looked like, and felt like if you had maintained connection to your choice.  This kind of practice is most helpful when you have a supportive mentor or friend who can cheerlead your process and help you think of creative ways for expressing your choice. Also, build your choosing muscle by setting your intention to check in with your choice in a concrete way in particular situations or perhaps when you are with others you feel safe with.  

Third, seek out affirmation of the validity of your experience from a grounded and mindful state.  Seeking validation from others when you are reactive can feed a tragic cycle. But really taking in validation from a mindful place can help you re-wire reactive patterns.  It can be especially helpful to hear others affirm your experience of a boundary violation. If you have struggled setting boundaries, than you likely have a habit of explaining away or excusing boundary violating behavior of others.  Hearing trusted others say that what someone did is not okay, helps you stand in the validity of your experience which helps you set a boundary in a future similar situation.

As you continue on your journey of confident boundary setting, there are some basic truths that you will integrate:

  1. Your needs are as valid as the needs of others.

  2. You are unquestionably and at all times, worthy of consideration and respect.

  3. Saying no is always an option and can be consistently accessed.

  4. Your needs are valid.  The other person's response to your needs is their own experience and doesn't have the power to invalidate your experience.

  5. You can learn to confidently set boundaries in challenging situations and ask for help when you need it.

  6. If you are struggling with a decision, you may need more information, clarity, insight, or empathy.

  7. You can choose to not have certain people in your life.  Your life energy is precious and you can choose where to spend it.

  8. When your needs and preferences are different from those you are with, you can enter into a negotiation in which all needs can be met.

Review these truths often, rewrite them in your own words, and add to the list.  Then, look for examples of how they are played out with others who skillfully set boundaries.

Practice

Choose one of three categories of practices named above and listed below.  Identify a specific and doable way to practice with one of these in the coming week.

  1. Discern the difference between those who respect boundaries and those who often don't

  2. Strengthen your "I can choose" muscle 

  3. Seek out affirmation of the validity of your experience from a grounded and mindful state