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10 Steps to Setting Boundaries and Sticking to Them

You have to really mean it.

Setting limits and boundaries with the challenging people in our lives is difficult. Other people may react with anger and disapproval. When that happens, it’s tempting to go back to our old ways and conclude that change is not possible.

People won’t love you for becoming a stronger, more assertive self, at least not in the short run. If you become more assertive, don’t expect applause. Instead, expect the other person to make a countermove (“How can you be so selfish!”) to reinstate the status quo.

You can’t control other people's reactions. You can, however, say no in ways that will make the challenge of boundaries go more smoothly. Here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. If you’re feeling even slightly uncertain about a request, don’t give an immediate answer. No matter how much pressure you feel, you can always say, “I need a little time to think about it. I’ll get back to you later this week.”
  2. Choose carefully when you really want to say no. If you don’t feel comfortable saying no in a particular situation, that’s OK.
  3. When you do say no, make sure your explanations are only about you (“I’m not able to take on anything else at this time”) and not an implicit criticism of the other person.
  4. Don’t try to change the other person’s response. If your sister is furious that you won’t drive her to the airport, don’t tell her that she’s wrong to feel that way. Instead try, “I understand that you’re angry about it, and I wish I had boundless energy but a trip to the airport feels like too much for me.”
  5. Avoid becoming defensive or providing lengthy explanations for your decision. If you’re having trouble being heard, it’s fine to say something simple like: “I’m not sure why, but I’m just not comfortable doing that.”
  6. Try to stay calm and low-key, even if the other person reacts strongly. Intensity breeds more intensity and anxiety breeds more of the same.
  7. Steer clear of blaming others for your choices and behaviors (“My father is so impossible that I can’t say no to him”). Other people may make it hard for you to set boundaries or turn them down, but it’s your job to choose how you will respond.
  8. Connect with other women and men in your family to learn how they managed the dilemmas you are struggling with. Have they also had trouble saying no? (Or the opposite problem where they didn't sufficiently consider the needs of others?) The more information you have about family patterns, the clearer you will become about setting your own boundaries.
  9. Go slowly and start small. If you try to change from an accommodating person to an assertive one overnight, you’ll rev up a lot of anxiety in yourself and others and end up not changing at all.
  10. If you say no in an important relationship, and the other person reacts negatively to your greater assertiveness, try not to distance yourself, become defensive, or retreat into anger.

Changing an old pattern is possible but not easy. You probably will feel guilty. In my generation, women learned to feel guilty if we were anything less than an emotional service station to others. I can only assure you that guilt is not terminal and it will eventually subside. And saying no brings with it the possibility of next time saying yes with a lighter heart.

Other people’s resistance is not the only barrier to setting new limits and boundaries. More importantly, we ourselves may not have established where our responsibility to others ends and our responsibility to ourselves begins. It's often hard to distinguish what's being selfish from what's being self-ish, that is, having a self.

Finally, consider that your difficulty saying no, although admittedly a problem, may also reflect your kindness and generosity of spirit, qualities the world needs more of. Few things are all good or all bad.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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