When to Say “No” or “Not Now”

Setting skillful boundaries is an act of self-protection and self-compassion.

Posted Aug 24, 2011


As I reflected on the best way to assess if it would be wise to set a self-protective boundary and say "no" or "not now," the Buddha's teachings on wise speech came to mind. In essence, he cautioned us to speak only when what we have to say is true, kind, and helpful. Wise speech is one of the factors on the Buddha's eightfold path to the cessation of suffering. What we say matters because speech that is true, kind, and helpful alleviates suffering as opposed to intensifying it.

In setting wise boundaries—that is, in deciding if it's time to say "no" or "not now"—I suggest applying a variation of the Buddha's three-part test: Apply the test of true, kind, and helpful to the effect of your speech and actions on yourself.

Is it true to yourself? Ask yourself if the speech or action you're about to engage in is true to your values. Are you going to say or do something because of social pressure or just because it will impress others? I spent a good part of my younger years speaking and acting in just this way, even if it didn't reflect my deepest values, and I suffered for it. (I once smiled in implied assent to a racist comment because the speaker had contributed money to my husband's political campaign; although it happened 25 years ago, I can still feel the self-incrimination arise as I write this.)

By not engaging in speech or action that violates our values, we are, in effect, saying "no" to ourselves—"no" to speech or action that will intensifying our own suffering. We're setting a wise, self-caring boundary.

Is what you're about to say or do kind and helpful to yourself? These two factors often involve looking at the timing. Maybe what we're considering (e.g., inviting people over) meets the test of true, kind, and helpful to others, but given the limitations imposed by our health, it's time to set a self-caring boundary because we're not well enough to expend the energy it takes to engage with others.

The best practice to help us make these assessments with wisdom is mindfulness which, in this context, means paying careful attention to how we feel at the moment, both in body and in mind.

Let me share a story from my own life that illustrates how I came to apply these tests in a way that allowed me to set skillful and compassionate boundaries for myself.

In the early 1990s, I left the comfort of the classroom to become the dean of students at the law school on the campus of the University of California—Davis. Little did I know the stresses and conflicts that awaited me. Student after student came in and poured out his or her life troubles to me, partly because I already had the reputation of being approachable as a faculty member.

I felt I owed every student 100% of my time and effort, even if it meant skipping lunch or working into the night. I never said "no." Students asked for help with difficulties I had no training for. Some of them should have been at the counseling center (which is where I eventually sent them). This work was in addition to the many administrative tasks I'd taken on-supervising the financial aid, placement, and registrar's offices—to name just three.

After a few weeks on the job, I was utterly exhausted. I went home at night and sobbed to my husband that I'd made a terrible mistake.

But something else happened the same year I entered the Dean's Office. Four months after taking the job, I took a trip to Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County for the first time. Two women I'd never heard of were leading a daylong retreat: Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg. (Sylvia has written the Foreword to my book.)

By the end of the day, I was on a new path. I began going to Spirit Rock on weekends and reading every Buddhist book I could get my hands on. Most of them I took out of the main library on the U.C. Davis campus. In one of the books, I found this story from the ancient Buddhist texts:

One day the Buddha told a story about an acrobat and his assistant. The acrobat erected a bamboo pole and told his assistant to climb up it and stand on his shoulders. Then the acrobat said to his assistant: "Now you watch after me and I'll watch after you. This way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole."

But the assistant replied: "That won't do teacher. You watch after yourself and I'll watch after myself and in that way we can show off our skill and come down safely from the pole."

The Buddha said: "What the assistant said is right in this case because when one watches after oneself, one watches after others."

This story had a profound effect on how I approached the dean of student's job. I realized that to do my best for the students, I had to watch after myself, even if it sometimes meant saying "no" or "not now." And so, I began the work that continues to this day of mindfully assessing whether what I'm about to say or do is not just true, kind, and helpful to others but is true, kind, and helpful to myself.

© 2011 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books:

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015). The theme of learning to say "no" is expanded on in this book.

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010)

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information and buying options.

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