At some point or other in therapy with just about every client, the topic of healthy boundaries comes up. Most of us struggle to a greater or lesser degree with knowing how to separate the ‘me’ from the ‘we’. As a result, we find ourselves exhausted, confused and/or overwhelmed by one or more of our relationships. Ann Lamott sums up the literature on boundaries in a beautiful, simple but powerful statement: “No” is a complete sentence.
It would be super great if we could make that statement, have it immediately resonate, and then apply this information in our daily lives. If this is how we as humans operate, there would only ever need to be one self-help book written, and all of us would be perfectly well-behaved, relational beings. But it isn’t, and of course we’re not. Thank goodness! (how boring would that be?). The depth and breath of the topic of personal boundaries is something that has and does span volumes. Books are written – all the time – on this very concept. But here we are. The Oh-So-Wise Chicks trying to filter it into one blog post. Get outta the way – here we come 😉
“Most of us struggle to a greater or lesser degree with knowing how to separate the ‘me’ from the ‘we’.”
We’re told anyone who has taken a journalism course knows all about the ‘Five W and One H’ questions. Apparently, without answering all six of these babies, a story just isn’t complete. They are Who, What, Why, When, Where and How. Let’s use this as a rubric for today’s musings about “No.”
Who can we say ‘no’ to?
Anybody and everybody. If Marcy suggests in the most flattering way that your lasagna is just the best, and she’d love you to prepare yours for her 30-person dinner party next weekend (because, you know, she’s just an awful cook). Yes, you can say no. Your neighbor who asks you to feed their dogs every day because they will be out of town for two weeks? Also, no is just fine. That apprentice you met last week who is super nice and flattering and who obviously just needs a break (and they think you might be it)? No might be just the right thing to say.
In what circumstances is a ‘no’ okay?
In most circumstances, ‘No’ is a perfectly acceptable answer. Will there be fallout for saying ‘No’ in some situations? Yes. Will the world end? Likely not. The caterer just called to say that the five course meal they were supposed to deliver on Saturday will now not arrive. And Marcy still does have those thirty people coming over. And she’s a mess. And you do not (as far as she knows) have any other commitments that afternoon (or all week, for that matter). That’s what’s happening (the context). So, there’s no “good reason” you couldn’t do it. And “No” is still completely acceptable. Even if you do feel guilty. Or feel like you might let her down. Or you feel the world might end. (Remembering that guilt is appropriate only when we do something that is actually wrong).
Why should I say ‘no’ (when I feel like I should say yes)?
When we say ‘no’, we are making a positive choice in self-care. While we run the risk of losing another person’s approval by saying ‘no’, constantly saying ‘yes’ results in us losing ourselves as well as the respect of others. Saying yes once in a while? Absolutely (that is called being caring, considerate). Saying yes all the time is referred to as selfless. Self-less. Think about it – strange how people often strive to be described as having no ‘self’. Bonus question: Why do I feel guilty when I say No? No quick answer here. But simplified answer is that we are either socialized to be polite and say yes (so we’ve never practiced saying ‘no’) AND/OR we fear losing the approval/acceptance/love of the other person(s) if we say ‘no’. And at the risk of repeating ourselves – Guilt really is appropriate only when we do something that is actually wrong.
(Insight: When we do not have a strong sense of ‘self’, we have a greater need to be acknowledged and validated by others, and thus much more likely to say ‘yes’ than to say ‘no’).
When is a ‘no’ better than a ‘yes’?
If saying yes costs you more than you can afford (financially and/or emotionally), then say ‘no’.
Concrete example: If your very favorite charity was asking you for a donation of €/$40 so they could feed a homeless person for a week, but your bank account was in the red, you weren’t sure whether you could make rent this week, and you had a child of your own at home to feed, the answer would be simple. Difficult, but simple. The same logic should hold for saying ‘no’ in an emotional situation. Saying no is not always easy (in fact, most times when we struggle with saying no it is because it is not easy). But defaulting to a ‘yes’ will ALWAYS be at a (significant) cost.
Where is the best place to say “No”
Okay, easiest one to answer. Anywhere. Obviously, however, if you have any fear of a persons reaction, say ‘no’ with another person or persons present (having witnesses or back-up is not a bad idea). Neutral territory is also good (sometimes meeting your best friend at a coffee shop to tell her that you do not, in fact, want to co-host the baby-shower for her work-mate is going to be easier than sitting in her living room surrounded by ‘it’s a girl’ balloons).
How do I say no (when I’ve always said yes)?
Obviously, we are going to say: “Just Do It! Say “No”! But for anyone who has struggled with saying no in the past, we know that this is far more difficult than it sounds. For some, it might almost seem like a complete personality shift to even consider trying. To those who struggle with this, we would suggest that more in-depth reading, and ideally talking to an experienced therapist, would be a good path to take. But you can certainly do this on your own too!
Like any new skill, saying no takes practice, and persistence in learning requires some success. So, practice your ‘no’ in situations that are less threatening to you, first. And use comfortable, easy words to soften the situation. “I would rather not” “Thank you for considering me” “I’m afraid it just isn’t possible for me right now.”
Do NOT, however, defend your situation (that opens the door for the persistent types to try to undermine you and your decision). Your decision does not require defending. So, no need to tell them that you’re “..not sure if it’ll work out because Muffy might have to get a gallstone removed at the vet, blah blah blah” (because Ms. Persistent will continue to follow up with you about it until you get worn down, and say YES!).
Start easy. Tell the cashier that you would rather not supply your email address, thank you. Let your neighbor know that you will not be purchasing girl guide cookies this year. Tell your weird neighbor that you cannot, in fact, feed the gerbils for the next week.
Don’t forget to breathe – this new approach will no doubt bring up some anxiety for you. Keep ‘em guessing. You have a (new) life – one you do not have to explain. Practice this over the next few weeks. Even if all you do is start to notice how much you do, in fact, practice self-care – or indeed how desperately you need to begin – that is a few steps further towards having healthy boundaries.
The holidays with those near and dear should give you ample opportunity to practice – we know we will be 🙂