A User's Guide for Adding 'No' to Your Vocabulary
Setting boundaries requires the courage to be (temporarily) disappointing.
Posted March 23, 2023 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- We practice setting boundaries as we would any other skill, one "no" at a time.
- The word "no" is a complete sentence, one that doesn’t need a thousand explanations and apologies to accompany it.
- "No" is an experience of "both-and," not "either-or."
This post is Part 2 of a series.
I ended Part 1 of this series on learning to say "no" by asking the question, How do we give ourselves permission to start incorporating ‘no’ into our life, and indeed into our very identity? How do we start living differently—with boundaries? The very uncomplicated answer is that we just do it; we start actually saying "no" out loud in real life. We practice setting boundaries as we would any other skill, one "no" at a time.
Maybe we say "no" when our host offers us more homemade gravy for our already over-gravyed meal. Or "no" to the friend who requests that we be her running companion for the midnight marathon on New Year’s Eve. We start small, when it’s really obvious that we don’t want to do what’s being asked, and gradually work our way up to the bigger challenges, like telling our mother we can’t go on the annual family trip this year—because we can’t. But we practice saying "no" with the awareness that it’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process; one day we can effortlessly say "no" to a good friend while the next we’re agreeing to walk a colleague’s dog on the other side of town for the entire week she’s away. It’s all OK; however your change process rolls out, it’s your process and how it needs to happen. And, indeed, this is how change usually happens, in many little increments over time. Stay the course…with practice, awareness, and intention, "no" becomes the more obvious answer and far easier to utter.
A Complete Sentence
It’s also important to remember that the word "no" is a complete sentence—one that doesn’t need a thousand explanations and apologies to accompany it. "No" can be the beginning, middle, and end of a communication, if you will let it be that. When you practice saying "no," you must also practice what follows the word "no"…namely, nothing. Staying silent and stopping speaking is often the harder part and where we get tripped up.
The trick is to say less, not more, and not manage the other person’s response to your "no." Let your "no" sit out there without trying to soften or sweeten it or make it OK. It’s OK if the other person is temporarily not OK; a big part of learning to set boundaries is being able to tolerate other people’s disappointment and/or disapproval when you don’t give them what they want—and just letting that be. Remind yourself, disappointment is not terminal; other people can survive it, as can you. And sometimes it’s necessary.
"Both-and" not "Either-or"
As you’re getting the hang of saying "no," remind yourself, too, that "no" is an experience of both-and not either-or. You probably really want to help your friend, and, also, you don’t want to (or can’t) help your friend in this way at this time. But we are taught to believe that saying "no" is synonymous with rejecting and abandoning the other, and ultimately saying that we don’t care about their needs. This then makes us feel guilty and selfish, like a bad person. To avoid this, we say "yes"—again and again, until we're spread so thin we can't do it anymore.
In learning to set boundaries, you need to break this either-or thinking, to recognize and acknowledge inside yourself that you care about your friend’s needs and want to help—and—you also care about your own needs, for which you are also responsible. For these reasons, it can be helpful to not just say "no" to your friend but also to share your genuine wish to help, and to be honest about the disappointment of not being able to help, and also the need to take care of yourself. In essence, this is sharing the limitations of being human and having to meet life on life’s terms. It might sound something like, "I so want to help; I care about you—and—I can’t make it work this time. I wish I could do both and be OK, but, in this case, I can’t, and that makes me (fill in the blank)."
Learning to set boundaries is about accepting your limitations and the limitations of life—acknowledging (which may feel more like admitting) that there are limits to what you can do and be, and still be OK. When you’re the person who always says, “Yes, I will make it work (somehow)” you’re often denying reality and behaving as if your energy and attention are infinite and infinitely available. And that’s just not true…not if you’re human. And, in fact, when you fight with reality, reality always wins. That said, consistently going past your limits, pretending they don’t exist, and pretending you’re super-human comes with heavy consequences.
You may also believe that people will reject you if you set boundaries. Saying "no" is radical because it challenges what may be a core belief, that your value and likability depend on your willingness to be what everyone wants you to be, no matter what you want. Or perhaps the core belief is that the best way to take care of yourself is to take care of everyone else’s wants and needs. Check it out for yourself: see if other people can respect and like you—even—knowing that there are limits to what you can do. See if taking care of yourself by setting boundaries can take care of you in a deeper and more authentic way.
Fundamentally, learning to say "no" is about self-compassion. If you grew up female, what you may not have been taught is that you're allowed to care about yourself, not just other people. Here's the real untold secret: You also matter—what you want and need, what takes care of you—these things matter. When you know this deep in your cells, and really believe it, then you can act on your own behalf and say "no" without guilt or shame. When you put yourself on the list of those who deserve kindness and care, then taking care of your own well-being by setting boundaries becomes natural and unconflicted.
Remember, you didn’t get to be an always-yes person overnight and you won’t stop being her overnight. We’re deeply conditioned to be pleasing and help others, and to give other people what they want regardless of what we want. Giving others what they want may have always felt like a safer bet than going with what you want, as far as its ability to create emotional safety, belonging, and even self-esteem. When you give other people what they want and say "yes" without limits, they like you (more), and so life goes smoother and easier in some ways—until it doesn’t because you’re burnt out, depleted, and resentful—until there’s nothing left of you to give. But there’s a better way of living, a more authentic and sustainable way of being that includes you and your needs in your relationships and your life.
Learning to say "no" is eminently doable. But, at the risk of repeating myself, I will—setting boundaries can only happen with practice, perseverance, and intention. To do something differently, you have to—actually—do it differently (it’s not rocket science). This requires baby steps, one "no" at a time. Keep taking those steps and stay on your own side...you'll get there.