How to say no: A guide to setting boundaries and sticking with them

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Living in the 21st century comes with a range of stresses. It's no wonder it often takes a toll on our mental health. That's why we're always looking for ways to feel better.

According to Her World's Health & Wellness Report 2022, 65 per cent consider themselves somewhat mentally healthy and 43 per cent feel like they are pretty balanced when managing it.

However, there are some challenges in the way – 51 per cent are inclined to try to resolve their problems before asking others for help, while 32 per cent don't know what they can do to resolve their problems. And 30 per cent aren't sure how serious their mental health issues are.

One simple way to improve our mental health is to learn to say no. Many of us find it hard to refuse invitations or turn down someone when they ask for help.

Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychologist at Alliance Counselling, believes this is an issue that women experience more, as society encourages us to develop a habit of saying yes as we strive to be generous friends, wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, while achieving a successful professional life.

However, this isn't good for our overall wellness.

"If we continue to say yes, we are headed for a life of burnout, exhaustion and resentment from saying yes too often when we would rather say no," Dr Games explains.

"Actually, when we say no, we can create more mental health stability, as we assess what is important to us and helps us with self-care and building self-esteem and confidence by setting boundaries."

Saying no makes you feel empowered, while still maintaining your relationship with others. It helps you establish healthy boundaries and enables others to have clarity about what they can expect from you.

Dr Games shares a quote by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend, authors of the New York Times bestseller, Boundaries: "The most basic boundary-setting word is no. It lets others know that you exist apart from them and that you are in control of you."

"I help my therapy clients implement these skills in their lives, as I have witnessed how a lack of emotional boundaries and chronic people-pleasing is at the root of many clients' anxiety, depression and family problems," says Dr Games.

Is saying no difficult for you?

Unfortunately, it's harder for some people to say no. Dr Games says sometimes society and different cultures teach us that the word 'no' can be impolite and inconsiderate.

Therefore, we may feel more obligated to agree to do things we honestly do not want to do, in order to be socially accepted, seek others' approval or please others.

And, in the case of high achievers and young professionals, they have a tendency to believe that saying yes makes them better. Dr Games points out that there's just as much power in a wise no as there is in an enthusiastic yes.

Saying yes could also be rooted in fear.

You may ask yourself, what if I say no to that extra project at work or if I say no to chairing that committee and I'm never offered the opportunity again?

What if I say no and that changes what people think about me?

What if people think I said no because I'm incapable of taking it on?

If that sounds familiar, Dr Games says you're not alone.

Stick to your boundaries

People's reaction to you saying no to them could also have a bearing on why you don't say it. They might react with anger as they can't understand why you would refuse them.

However, it's crucial if you've said no that maintaining your boundary will be an important learning point for that person too.

Dr Games recommends steps to consider when someone responds to your boundaries with anger:

  1. Recognise it's not your problem that the person is angry at you for setting boundaries.
  2. View anger realistically. Anger is only a feeling inside the other person. It cannot "get inside" you unless you allow it. Let the anger be in the other person.
  3. Do not let anger be a cue for you to do something. People without boundaries respond
  4. Make sure you have your solid support system in place. If you are going to set some limits with a person and you're concerned they may respond with anger, talk to the people in your support system first and make a plan. Know what you will say. Anticipate what the person will say and plan your response.
  5. Stay calm. Remember to breathe and focus on walking your why – why you decided to say no
  6. Be prepared to physically distance yourself and other limits that enforce consequences.

When no is not the answer

There are some situations, however, where saying no is not appropriate and should never be used as an excuse. This applies if we are avoiding situations due to feeling anxious, fearful or trying to avoid one of these uncomfortable feelings. It could also happen if we're procrastinating on tasks.

If we find ourselves in such a situation, Dr Games says it's important to ask ourselves why we're saying yes or no. If our response is aligned with our values, then we know we are making the right decision.

However, if our response is moving us away from living the life we want to lead or not aligned with our values, then we need to ask what is the underlying reason behind it.

Tips on how to say no

Because it can feel uncomfortable and complex when you're first learning to say no, Dr Games recommends some strategies to deal with it:

1. Leave feelings out of it

One reason why we sometimes say yes when we mean no is to protect others' feelings.

For example, if you're asked to join colleagues for dinner after work, but you'd really prefer to spend time with your family, remove emotions from the equation.

"You're not saying no because you dislike your colleagues, or you don't care about them. You're saying no to prioritise your yes time with your family."

2. Use discretion and know when to explain and when to keep things simple

Sometimes saying no doesn't require an explanation but in other professional scenarios, an explanation may be called for, especially with your boss.

3. Steer clear of defensiveness

On the other side of the spectrum is the tendency to become defensive. Your decision is yours alone - you do not need to defend your choice.

4. Swap 'yes' for 'I'll get back to you'

It's okay to take time to think things through. When you feel yourself about to say yes - even though your heart is leaning towards no - this can be a powerful tactic.

Say you need time to respond, tell them when they can expect your reply and express your gratitude for the opportunity.

5. Build scripts to empower yourself

When you feel tempted to say yes, it can help to have go-to scripts. A few to get you started:

Professional

  • Thanks for thinking of me. Your project sounds fantastic. As much as I would love to be involved, I can't give it the attention it deserves right now.
  • While I would love to be a part of this new initiative, I've learned that this is one of those things I need to decline so I can focus on ___ (finishing the client campaign, editing my book, and growing my business). Thanks for understanding.
  • While I need to say no, consider reaching out to ___ (a colleague, networking connection or organisation member). She may be a good fit and this opportunity could be really great for her.
  • I need to say no to this project, as saying yes requires changes in timelines for other projects. Let's discuss the necessary adjustments for me to say yes.

Personal

  • I'm coming out of a busy season and I'm starting to run on empty. I'm learning to navigate all that's on my plate, so I need to say no.
  • I've promised my family/spouse/children/myself not to take on something new. Thanks for our friendship that lets me be honest.
  • While I don't have the flexibility for dinner, I could ___ (meet for a brief coffee, speak for a few minutes by phone, etc.).

Saying no

"Saying no can be a great step forward to achieving your goals and being there for the people who matter most," says Dr Games.

"Challenge yourself to say no at least once this week just to see how it feels. With a little bit of practice, you'll get into the discipline of saying no to create more harmony and help you become your very best."

This article was first published in Her World Online.