Some people seem to have the gift of no. Boundaries seem to come easily to them. When asked for favors, money, or permission, they hand out noes with blithe unconcern. Others, like me, feel guilty about denying the requests, even demands of the people in their lives. But if you are naturally compliant, suffered under the rule of authoritarian parents, have undergone abuse, or are simply overly empathetic, then saying no comes at a cost.
Strategizing your ‘no’ can help you make and reinforce boundaries that are important to you, whether at home or at work.
Before you begin to take back the territory in your life lost to poor boundaries, recognize your weaknesses first. We first learn to say no at age two. We begin to individuate from our mothers at that age, learning what is me and not me. If our parents wisely gave us room to say no occasionally, then we learn to be unafraid with our forceful two year old noes. After all, we just said no to the giants in our lives. If saying no signaled rebellion to our parents and they quickly crushed it, we learned there was no point in saying no. Learned helplessness takes time to fix.
If you retreat from even simple boundaries, sometime in your life, you learned that whatever limit you set would be toppled. So eventually you stopped trying. Animals in cages don’t leave when the door is left open because of the phenomenon of learned helplessness. But you aren’t an animal. As an adult you have agency over your life and the power to move towards a better life. If you are tired of everyone running all over you, you may have to do some research on what are basic boundaries. Start with your body. Your body and who is allowed to touch it and how are good places to start.
Obviously, learning to accept a negative answer is a part of growing up. For many of us, however, to say no was to invite invasion of our boundaries. Raising children is difficult, to say the least. But allowing children some real say in their lives teaches them to form and keep important internal boundaries. Forcing children to eat when they are not hungry, wear clothes that are uncomfortable, or ignore physical pain breaks down important inner structures. This is not to say that ‘no thank you’ helpings or enforcing some basic dress codes is abusive.
How your parents negotiated your boundaries can have a lasting effect on your ability to form them.
So how do we craft a ‘no’ that is lasting? By breaking down how to communicate a boundary and anticipating the response, we make it easier on ourselves to keep the line we draw to keep us safe or may be needed to keep us in a good place.
Rules of the No
- Know and accept your limits. People with poor boundaries often lack self-awareness. Carefully consider what you need in order to be productive and happy. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t want to do it, you probably shouldn’t. If you are busy doing a lot of things to avoid feeling guilty, you might want to consider stopping. Consider whether you feel used. Believe your internal register; it is there to help you discern what is good, what is needed, and what is unhealthy.
- Anticipate push back. People who are comfortable with saying no are willing to fight for it. If you say no, expect protest, especially if you have previously always said yes. If you feel you must explain, have answers prepared ahead of time. But remember, as an adult with free agency, you are justified in saying simply, “I don’t want to.” Phrases like, “I am not open to discussing this” and “I am not willing to do this right now” will help close down the emotional pressure. There is no argument against, “I don’t want this.”
- Face your fear of rejection. Often we say yes because we think people will leave us. This is not something that can get fixed in a day. But it can be fixed with practice. Spend time imagining the worst, with a key difference. Cultivate a feeling of safety in the face of rejection. Distance yourself from taking it personally. Nobody likes hearing no. But you are not responsible for anyone’s feelings but your own. My rule of thumb is people are more important than things. When someone rejects me for saying no, I recognize that I was merely a means to an end for them. I am worth more than that.
- Get out of the pressure cooker. We try to teach our kids about peer pressure, but nobody prepares parents for the pressure a child can put on a parent! In fact, adulthood is full of pressurized situations. Proper boundaries help us reserve our energy, emotional, mental, and spiritual, for the fights worth fighting. If your family, friends, or work cannot accept no for an answer, it is time to reevaluate those relationships. Being committed does not mean there is not room for negotiation, but ignoring boundaries is abusive. If you have relationships where you are not free to say no, you may need to get out. Here are phrases that help. “I feel uncomfortable right now, “and “I dislike feeling pressured,” proves effective most of the time. Practice those lines on pushy salespeople. They back right on up.
- Buy time when necessary. Get in the habit of delaying decisions. We often admire decisive people, but not all of us process at the same speed. For me, my emotions take some time to download. I learned to ask for time to think about a request. I often regretted saying yes too quickly. If I take time to consider what is involved, I find that my no is stronger and my yes is more enthusiastic.
Learning to define and enforce your boundaries takes time and effort, but a life lived without limit is like a home without doors.
You deserve a home that is a safe haven, that protects against the elements and enemies, and that affords you privacy.
If you regularly feel unsafe and exposed, or even exploited, then it may be time to take a look at the foundations of your life. And remember, God is a respecter of boundaries and does not like it when boundaries are ignored. He will help you defend yours.
The LORD tears down the house of the proud, but he sets the widow’s boundary stones in place. Proverbs 15:25
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. Proverbs 16:6