Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Is It So Hard to Set Boundaries?

Learn the power of a two-letter word.

Source: Shutterstock

Are you that “yes person” who can barely pronounce no? Are you glued to the treadmill of overcommitment? Yes, people have a zest for life. They crave experience. They love helping just as much as they hate letting someone down. But when our default is set to yes, we might end up putting a time squeeze on the things that can truly make us thrive.

Research shows that when we align our behaviors with our values, we are more likely to flourish, and get to the “good life”—the term positive psychologists use to describe a life characterized by mindful presence, connection, and impact.

Why is it so hard to set boundaries? Oftentimes, it signifies a deeper value set. If you’re the type that always wants to be there for people you care about, it’s because you value relationships. If you’re the one at work who says yes to every project, it reflects how much you value learning. But when we only say yes, we might be missing chances to invest our time and energy in ways that help us take our values and goals to new levels.

In my therapy room and classroom, I’ve seen key reasons why we stay on auto-yes-pilot.

FOMO (fear of missing out)

The thought of missing any kind of opportunity for growth, fun, recognition or something that leads to a feel-good result catapults you into a sea of over-commitment and perpetual quest for experience. FOMO reflects a desire for excitement, mobility, connection, and adventure. On a healthy day, this can help you learn and engage in dynamic ways. Operating in the extreme can lead to constant chaos and little time to be more selective and intentional in your activities and how they relate to your long-term goals.


You’d rather eat the stress than let someone else down. You want to bring your absolute best to everyone and everything you set out to do. You believe that saying no might be a sign of weakness or a moral failing. On a healthy day, your conscientiousness serves you well. It helps you stay focused and striving for excellence. When you take it too far, you become obsessed with performance and end up with a high sensitivity to mistakes and feedback that is anything but glowing. This can lead you to impulsively say yes to please people and redeem and/or prove yourself.

Social conditioning

Our identities are often tied up in how much we’re doing for people. This is especially true for women, who have long been in positions where “emotional labor,” the work of nurturing and tending to people’s emotions, is expected and demanded of us.

Some researchers have called this the “third shift,” the part of life that requires us to write out the holiday cards, make sure no one forgets the aunt who lives alone, and that everyone is using their Sonic care toothbrushes. We’ve long held the seat as relationship managers, orchestrators of all things holiday, and holding space for everyone whenever they need it. Double whammy for cultures and communities emphasizing such norms of self-sacrifice. If you are in a position of pressure to over-perform because of gender, cultural or religious norms, work to self-advocate and distribute the work in a more fair and equitable way. It is nearly impossible for anyone to stay healthy if they are required to say yes without respite.

If you’re living your life like you’re Jim Carey auditioning for the Yes Man movie, it’s time for a change. Too many yeses can leave us exhausted and missing out on greater opportunities to stay focused on the kinds of goals that help us to flourish. Here are some ways to develop healthier boundaries.

1. Define what’s most important to you.

What are your core values? How are they showing up in your daily life? One of my favorite tools to get to the heart of values is Dr. Martin Seligman’s Values in Action inventory. You can take it here.

2. Look at the big picture.

Living your life like a Superhero wanna-be can exhaust even the most earnest, noble-hearted of humans. Let your no be someone else’s yes. Say no to less important things and yes to ones that matter most.

3. Buy time.

If an opportunity presents, ask for time to consider the request. Go back to your values. Ask yourself:

  • Is it the right fit at this moment?
  • Is there a sense of urgency, will this opportunity come up again?
  • If someone is requesting a favor of me, will they similarly be capable and willing to help me out down the road if I need it?
  • Does this new commitment infringe too dramatically on my ability to properly engage in foundational self-care practices (ie sleep, exercise, meditation, me-time)?
  • What is the value added of engaging with this? What potential risks and benefits exist?
  • Does this commitment truly align with my values and goals?

4. Practice saying no.

Ready? On three: nnooo! Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford emphasizes the value of mental rehearsal on our capacity to change behavior. Come up with a few one-liners to help you avoid on-the-spot pressure. Try:

  • "That sounds like a great opportunity and I want to help. Is it OK if I give it some time to think about?"
  • "I’d love to, but I know I’m overcommitted and won’t be able to give this the time it deserves."
  • "Can you approach me again on this in a few weeks?"
  • "It’s really hard for me to say no, but I have to this time."

The secret to setting boundaries is giving yourself permission to live true to your values, not everyone else’s demands and agendas. You can’t say yes to everyone and everything and still stay healthy.


Ruch, W., & Proyer, R. T. (2015). Mapping strengths into virtues: the relation of the 24 VIA-strengths to six ubiquitous virtues. Frontiers in Psychology.

More from Kristen Lee Ed.D., LICSW
More from Psychology Today