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Where is Your Personal Boundary? Finding Healthy Ways to Say “No”

It is naturally unappealing to say “no” in many situations where people we care about or want to impress ask us a favor. Instinctively, we do not want to disappoint or risk having the other person think less of us. Other times we do not want to make the other person feel the sting of rejection. This stems from an old, adaptive strategy for survival that dictated a greater chance of staying alive if we could live amicably in a group. In the modern world, the inability to say “no” easily leads to feelings of exhaustion and burden if not kept in check.

The underlying importance of learning to say “no” lies in your personal needs. Although the quantity of time needed to recharge varies from person to person, everybody requires personal time. Personal time is time away from one’s romantic partner, away from the kids, and away from work. It is a break from daily responsibilities to promote self-care and personal well-being.

Take a look at the following challenging examples that highlight opportunities for you to increase your awareness of your personal needs.

After committing to go to a concert of your favorite singer, your supervisor asks you to come in over the weekend because the department is swamped right now.

In this situation, you are facing a power differential where someone who has power over you is asking you a favor. The fear in saying no lies in sparking your supervisor’s disapproval, which could have varying effects in the workplace, the worst case scenario resulting in being fired for refusing to come in.

Do not let your fear get too far ahead of yourself. Try to be realistic about the consequences of your actions, and be thoughtful in how you respond to your supervisor. If you determine that you need to forego the concert (perhaps because this a new job or because you know your coworker is sick so your supervisor is really counting on you), then try to schedule some personal time in the near future.

At the same time, it is important to be firm when you are making plans. You committed to attending an event before being contacted by your supervisor, and you have the right to say “no”. Good supervisors appreciate employees who are honest and prioritize personal boundaries. After all, taking care of yourself is a prerequisite for being productive in the workplace. Tell your supervisor that you apologize for your inflexibility, and if applicable, suggest other things you can do to help the department.

You are feeling exhausted and tired after a long week, and you decide to spend the evening at home to rest and relax. Just after arriving home, your friend texts you to come out for drinks with a few other people.

There is a message given out in our culture that it is lame to spend a night relaxing at home when you could be out “living it up”. The strength of this message varies with age and family experience, but it is common to fear the negative judgment of our friends. In this case, you are fighting against wanting to maintain your friendship with meeting your personal needs.

We all need time to ourselves to recharge, and when that time is most needed is not always going to match up with the desires of those around us. To say “no” in this situation, you need to have confidence in your reasons why staying in is important to you. Consider when you can better embrace your need for social connection, and offer your friend another opportunity where you can get together in the near future.

You are not feeling well, and your partner tries initiating sex with you.

One of the hardest times to say “no” is when we feel like we are hurting or rejecting our partners. This does not mean that you should feel bad for saying no. It simply means that you are responsible for being thoughtful and empathic when communicating with your partner.

Help your partner understand why you are saying “no” to physical intimacy, and express appreciation for his or her efforts to make you feel loved and desired. Remember that when saying “no” in a relationship, you can help maintain balance and let your partner feel appreciated by expressing love in another way. Sometimes this cannot be done until the next day, when you reciprocate by personally initiating physical intimacy or when you can buy a special treat to show your partner that you are thinking of him or her. Other times, expressing kind words and helping your partner understand why you are not feeling well will suffice in helping you both stay connected while also respecting your personal needs and desires.

Healthy personal boundaries offer a balance in meeting your individual and relational needs. The boundary is unique to you, so it is unhelpful to compare it to the boundary held by your friends or partner. Take steps to better understand where your boundary is and see whether you can be more comfortable with saying “no.”

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