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3 Ways to Set Boundaries and Learn to Say "No"

It's never easy to turn people down, but you can get tougher with practice.

David Pereiras/Shutterstock
Source: David Pereiras/Shutterstock

For many people, it's difficult to set boundaries or say no to others. This can be especially challenging for those who self-identify as people-pleasers or workaholics. There are tons of articles, books, and talks about "the power of yes." Of course, there are many times when saying yes is a great thing! But learning how to set boundaries and how to say no is the real key to sustaining healthy relationships with yourself and others.

When we say yes to everything and do not set boundaries with people, we can feel stressed, overwhelmed, and burned out. Most of us want to be liked and to please other people. It can be difficult to turn down opportunities or requests that others have made of us. It may also be challenging to set limits with difficult people.

Following are three tips for learning how to set healthy boundaries:

1. Practice tuning in to your inner sense of yes and no.

The first step in learning to set boundaries is to try to uncover what your personal limits and guidelines are. In her TEDx talk, Sarri Gilman, MA, MFT, a psychotherapist and author of Transform Your Boundaries, explains that we can think of our boundaries through the metaphor of an inner compass with two words written on it: Yes and No.

We all have an inner sense of wisdom, which intuitively tells us when something is a yes or a no. The problem arises when we ignore or argue with that inner voice. If you are not used to tuning into your intuition, it is important to practice paying attention to how you are feeling in the moment. Using tools such as meditation and mindfulness is one way to practice paying attention to your thoughts and feelings in the moment.

2. Learn how to tolerate the reactions of others.

"Boundary setting will unleash emotions," Gilman says, “When you listen to your own yes and no," other people may get angry or disappointed. The reality is that whenever you set boundaries with people, they may not have a pleasant reaction. However, you still can work to firmly maintain the boundaries that you have set.

Setting boundaries with people can actually help to improve your relationships in the long run. If you do not respect your personal boundaries (perhaps in fear of someone else’s reaction), it is likely to lead to bitterness and resentment over time. The people you want to surround yourself with are those who will respect your boundaries, even if they initially feel upset or disappointed.

3. Engage in acts of compassionate self-care.

You may have heard the popular saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” If you want to be giving and compassionate toward others, it is critical that you apply the same compassion toward yourself.

You deserve to treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you give to others. Set aside some weekly time for acts of self-care, which can help you relax, recharge, and connect with yourself. We all have different things that feel relaxing and pleasurable for us; pick what works best for you, whether it's cooking yourself a good meal, taking a bubble bath, lighting candles, reading a book just for fun, taking a walk, doing a yoga class, getting a manicure, or spending time with your pets. You can even put it in your planner as a way to hold yourself accountable.

The Importance of Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries can be difficult, but is such an important part of having healthy relationships and establishing an overall sense of well-being. It’s helpful to remember that when you say “no” to things, it frees up your time to focus on the pursuits that truly energize and excite you. Having good boundaries also enables you to experience less stress and to follow your life’s passion and purpose.

When I asked Gilman why she chose to dedicate her career to helping people transform their boundaries, she explained that in her work as a psychotherapist she recognized that boundaries really were at the core of so many relational challenges and conflicts. Helping people learn how to set healthy boundaries is her life’s passion. As her TEDx talk is aptly named, “Good Boundaries Free You.”

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a mental health therapist, intuitive eating counselor, and blogger. She specializes in treating adolescents, survivors of trauma, and individuals with eating disorders and mood disorders.

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