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How to Say No (and Not Feel Bad)

Written by Emily Holden, LPC

Reflecting on my goals for 2016, making note of January’s road blocks, I am reminded of the essential role that boundaries play in charting an intentional and meaningful life. Just past the mile marker of February, now is the perfect rest stop if you will, to park your car, stretch your legs, and evaluate or recalculate your course on the proverbial map of life. Whether you are on track, have travelled in a circle, or steered completely off course to some ghost town, now is the time for you to simply note where your route was diverted or the detours you avoided to again choose where you want to go and how you want to get there. If you are like most people, I will wage that your ability to set limits with and “say no” to the requests of people in your life played some part in helping or hindering your 2016 goals. While some people are skilled in setting boundaries with family, friends, and colleagues, most people struggle to navigate these waters. Like shifting gears on a boat, setting boundaries calls for knowledge of your boat, the conditions, and ample practice. Setting boundaries with other people can be challenging, especially if the other person is accustomed to your compliance or believes that you “should” do what he/she wants. It can be difficult to cope with automatic feelings of guilt or discomfort, or to face the blame and anger of others when you say no. Yet, it gets easier to set healthy boundaries that empower you and those in your life, if you remember WHY you are setting limits. The question “why?” can bring us to deeper levels of motivation to change that rely on values that give meaning to our lives. We all have the right to have personal needs and wants. We all have a right to say no to things that don’t align with our core principles and to assert our values when someone crosses our boundaries. However, with this privilege comes the responsibility of setting clear boundaries with others and accepting the consequences of our poorly defined or firmly presented boundaries. In “Mending Wall” Robert Frost illustrates the conflict and cohesion boundaries create in interpersonal relationships (two neighbors disagree about rebuilding a fence on the land). He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'… 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it  Where there are cows?  But here there are no cows.  Before I built a wall I'd ask to know  What I was walling in or walling out,  And to whom I was like to give offence.  Something there is that doesn't love a wall,  That wants it down (24-36).

The narrator scrutinizes the ritual resurrection of the wall at their property line, not understanding its purpose. While the narrator’s efforts to uncover the neighbor’s motivation are fruitless, the inquiry offered does reflect the importance of knowing why we keep boundaries and being mindful of the impact boundaries have on others. Like the wall in this poem, our boundaries may be worn down by natural forces and time.  Like these neighbors, we set about mending the holes in the walls/rituals/decisions that define our lives. We may not know what drives the actions of others, and people will question and test our limits too. What matters is that our actions create a space in which we can be ourselves. The more we live a life that is authentic and based on our values, the more space we can give to others too, to lead their lives in accordance with their will. Of course, boundaries must frequently adapt to standards of the environment. For instance, we acknowledge the importance of professional boundaries that protect individuals in relationships characterized by power imbalances. This is apparent in the relationship between health care providers and clients or between educators and students, in which one party has a significant power advantage and thus holds the responsibility to act in ways that do no harm and prevent forseeable harm to clients, participants, or students and necessarily serve to help the other.   Yet, different boundaries govern the sphere of the home, where romantic and family relationships call for different boundaries and degrees of flexibility to foster a healthy family system. Occasionally, you may have to set restrictions on work in order to maintain commitments to your romantic, intellectual, social, or spiritual pursuits that ground your life in your values. While it might be difficult to say “no” to a senior colleague who asks you to stay late at the office, staying connected with your values and the present moment can help you speak your truth from a place of authenticity and respect for your yourself as well as your colleague. Mayo clinic staff offer the following advice about “When (and how) to Say No.” When

  • Focus on what matters most. Examine your obligations and priorities before making any new commitments.

  • Weigh the yes-to-stress ratio. Is the new activity you're considering a short- or long-term commitment?

  • Take guilt out of the equation. Agreeing to a request out of guilt will likely lead to stress and resentment.

  • Sleep on it. Are you tempted by a friend's invitation? Take a day (or at least a moment and deep breath)-think about how it fits in with your current commitments.


  • Say no. The word "no" has power. Don't be afraid to use it.  Avoid “I don’t know.”

  • Be brief. State your reason for refusing the request, but don't go on about it.

  • Be honest. Don't manufacture reasons to get out of an obligation.

  • Be respectful. Compliment the effort and decline, showing your value their cause.

  • Be ready to repeat. You may need to refuse a request several times. When that happens, just hit the replay button. Calmly repeat no, with or without explanation.

WHY? is yours to determine! Say yes. Say YES to the freedom, responsibility, and commitment that comes with choosing your direction and saying NO to things that keep you from the life you want.

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