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Common Issues Series – Setting Boundaries

Do you go out of your way to help and support others while neglecting your own needs?

Do you ever find yourself saying yes to things you actually do not want to do? Going out of your way to help a colleague while you are yourself actually very busy? Agreeing to watch your neighbours kids even though you want a quiet night with your own family?

If yes, you are not alone.

It gets called all kind on social media. People pleasing. Lack of boundaries. Fear of rejection.

It is often presented as a bad thing. As something we need to work on. A sign that we are insecurely attached and have a high need for other’s approval. There is certainly an element of truth to that. But it is not the whole story and what I do not like about focussing only on this side of the story, is that it limits us and almost sounds like helping others is actually a sign of psychological distress.

There is also an incredible strength in the desire to support and be there for other people. 100% of the clients I see who feel they need to say no more also say that helping others is a core value they want to live by. So saying yes is not (only) a sign of psychological distress. It is also, possibly more so, a sign of strength.

But as often the case with strength, we have to make sure we navigate it well.

So let’s unpack this a little.

Why saying no can be difficult

First, let’s look at why saying no is hard for you. Think back to a recent example of when you said yes to something that you actually did not want to do. Why did you say yes?

Less hassle? Fear of disappointing the other? Wanting to come across as the person who can handle ‘everything’? Wanting to help that person because they need it? Another reason?

Your answer can be one or all or some of the above.

If your ‘yes’ came from a sense of fear of lack – meaning that you were afraid of disappointing others or indeed needing to show you can handle everything, then it is possible that the reason why saying no is hard for you has, at least partly, to do with the fear of rejection.

We all fear rejection in some shape or form. We are humans, we need to fit into a social group for survival. So fear of rejection is a very normal emotion, and it can be an important reason why saying no is hard. We might have learned in our past that our boundaries do not matter and that saying no gave an unwanted and unsafe reaction. However, it is not an emotion we need to always act out of as an adult. We are now able to make our own situation safe, and so being held back by old habits gets in our way.

So much for the more challenging side of why saying no is difficult. Because it is always, in my experience at least, just part of the story.

Saying no can also be difficult because we really want to help.

We know that our neighbours need us, we know our colleague is struggling with their workload. We want to help, but if we look closely at ourselves we do not have the capacity to help right now. Maybe because we are already busy with our own work, maybe because we ourselves are struggling with something. We know we should say no, but we say yes based on our desire to help others. The motivation here is not bad, it is good for us to help others, our society depends on it, but we need to make sure we can help without depleting ourselves.

How to say no …. and yes!

The first step to saying no is to understand why you are inclined to say yes. Awareness of your own mind habits. You can answer the questions above, but also dig a bit deeper and ask yourself ‘what would happen if I say no’ ‘ what am I afraid of when I say no’ ‘how would I feel if I say no’ . If you notice that your answer is focussed on the other then that might be a sign that you are struggling with saying no because of a fear of rejection. For example: If I say no they will not like me. Or If I say no they will think I am selfish. If, on the other hand, you notice that your answer is focussed on you, that might be because you are not quite in balance with your desire to help. For example: I wish I could but I am so busy. I want to help but I am too tired.

The second step is to be brutally honest to yourself about what your capacity is right now to support others. Do you have the space, the time, the mental capacity to say yes? If the answer to that is no, then your answer to whoever is asking you for something is also ‘no’.

The third step is all around communicating your ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with care. You do not need to aggressively say ‘no’ or expect masses of gratitude when you say ‘yes’. If you are setting your boundaries from a healthy place both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ are compassionate for you and for the other. It is also important to realise that whoever you say no or yes to does not need to understand why you say no nor do they need to be in your debt if you say yes.

The fourth step is to work towards building a life where you can authentically live your values. If one of your values is to help others, then you can build up habits in your life that give you the space, time and mental capacity to say yes more often, and to say no without guilt or aggression. It also allows you to ensure that supporting others is in fact not depleting your energy, but adding to it.

I know it is hard to change this. Changing habits is hard, because those habits were formed for a reason and have kept you ‘safe’ for a long time. However, if now you feel that these habits are getting in the way of your wellbeing, it is time to change. You can reach out for support at anytime (in Dutch or in English)