Building the Muscle to Say No

4 Tips to Develop Healthy Boundaries and Do The Things You Want To Do

“Would you mind giving me a ride? It’s along your way to work anyway…”

“Jason loves your baking. Would it be too much to ask for you to bake him a cake for his birthday next week…”

“Can you take the trash out?” 

Many of us are afraid to hear “no” but we are even more afraid to say “no”. Why is it easier to say “yes” even though we may be thinking “no, no, no, no” in our heads? Perhaps we are afraid to disappoint or hurt others. You may be afraid that you may appear selfish, unkind or rude. You may be worried that they would get offended or get angry with you, and saying “no” might put you into direct conflict with others. Maybe you don’t want to rock the boat. There are many reasons that prevent a person from saying “no”. In the end without healthy boundaries, we may end up doing things that we feel compelled to do but not things that we should be doing. You may end up spending the weekend baking a cake for a kid’s birthday party while you really should be using the time to tutor and help with your son’s homework.

What are the first few steps in setting healthy boundaries?

1. Know your value 

What’s important to you? What’s your value? If you derive value from the approval of others, you may spend a lot of worrying about what others think of you and saying “no” is difficult. How could you separate your value from other people’s approval? 

Remember that you don’t have to earn someone else’s approval to be valuable, you are unique and special as you are. No one else in this world can make you more or less valuable. Other people’s opinions don’t define you. Sometimes we want to help others as a way to earn their love, attention or validation; but ultimately your self-worth does not depend on how much or how little you do for others.

2. Tune into your feelings and beliefs

Before saying “yes”, take a minute to pause and ask yourself whether you should accept the request. Why are you saying “yes” — do you truly want to do it or is something else driving you? How bad is the guilt, anxiety, disappointment or other emotions you might be feeling if you don’t do whatever’s been asked of you? Is it really worth it to do that thing in order not to feel those feelings? What’s truly important to you? 

Take a step back and also practice self-awareness — “Why am I behaving this way?” “What is the situation that’s making me feel stressed or resentful?” “What am I going to say or do about the situation?” “What do I have control over?”

Developing healthy boundaries requires that you understand your own independent thoughts, feelings, desires and beliefs, remembering that you are not responsible for the feelings, actions, and emotions of others.

3. Practice, practice, practice 

Start small and practice saying no with low risk situations like giving someone a ride or pet-sitting for a friend. Alternatively, you can imagine a scenario and then practice saying no either to a mirror by yourself or to a friend. Find support or seek advice from friends. Ask friends to observe you and encourage you in setting boundaries. Build upon your successes and it will feel less overwhelming to say “no” in more serious situations.

4. Be polite but firm

Be polite when saying no — “Thanks for asking” and don’t say “I’ll think about it” if you don’t want to do it. Be clear — “Unfortunately I won’t be able to help.” In a respectful way, let the other know what it is that’s particularly bothersome to you.

Developing healthy boundaries is a process. It helps us to develop healthy self-respect and allow us to use our time more wisely on things that are ultimately important to us. As Steve Jobs said, “Focusing is about saying ‘no.””

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