Don’t Dilute Your “No”

I have learned a lot about setting and enforcing boundaries with people. I believe that it’s much like a muscle — the more you practice it, the stronger you will become. And the more confident and comfortable you will be while doing it. One way to enforce strong boundaries is not to dilute your “no”. If you say you will not do something, stick to it. For example, I worked with a woman once (Kim) who claimed she does not work Tuesdays because that is the only day she had to spend with her son. He was a college student with a very busy class schedule who was also interning. Another coworker asked her to switch shifts and work Tuesday so that she could celebrate her wedding anniversary with her husband. Kim asked me for advice about whether she should make an exception just this once. I told her, if you agree to this, expect to be asked again. You will have diluted your “no” and shown that, despite your claims, you are in fact willing to work Tuesdays. After saying “yes” once, that boundary will be compromised and weakened, and it will be easier for others to ask you a second time. This principle can be applied to many situations, with coworkers, friends, and family. On the contrary, sticking to what you say and refusing to compromise that stance even once will more than likely result in your never being asked again. Saying “no” the first time will be uncomfortable and feel adversarial, but it will be much, much harder to say “no” after having already said “ yes”. Saying “no” the first time leads to less wiggle room for arguments. If you have said “yes” before, it will be much harder to justify saying “no” the second time you are asked. Also, if you never budge your boundaries and always stand by what you’ve said and don’t make exceptions, there is less chance of others getting their feelings hurt over perceived unfairness. Ultimately, you want your words to be taken seriously and at face-value by others. This will lead to a greater level of respect and understanding.

The Importance of Setting Boundaries

Boundary-setting is vital to a healthy, happy life. Boundary-setting can be difficult because it requires a strong, stable, confident sense of self. Otherwise, it is easy to fall into the trap of putting your own wishes and needs to the side and allowing others to walk all over you.

There are many different kinds of boundaries. There are physical boundaries, which are the most obvious kind and the type most people instinctively know to respect. For example, most people know not to touch someone or walk into their house without first getting permission or to convince someone allergic to peanuts to go ahead and eat them. And most people feel comfortable speaking up if someone violates these boundaries.

Emotional boundaries are more amorphous, less easily protected, and more liable to be violated. What are emotional boundaries? My own definition of boundaries are those issues we cannot compromise on without jeopardizing our mental, emotional, or spiritual health. So, for example, not working on a Sunday because one’s religious convictions forbid it. Mere preferences, on the other hand, should not be considered boundaries and should be up for compromise. For example, eating your second-favorite flavor of ice cream because the first is not available.

The need for emotional boundaries comes up in different areas of one’s life, including with strangers, loved ones, and at work. The level of closeness in a relationship makes it easier or harder to maintain strong boundaries, as well as what is at stake if one chooses to either maintain or violate their own boundaries. It often feels easier to maintain boundaries with strangers because of safety reasons, as well as the fact we don’t feel we owe anything to strangers. Plus, if we offend them, we never have to see them again, so we won’t experience consequences. However, it can be harder saying “no” to a family member, friend, likable coworker, or boss. These are people we want to like us and whom we might need something from in the future. However, if we betray ourselves by compromising our boundaries with those close to us, it sets a precedent. Unfortunately, the people who are close to you are also those in the best position to take advantage of you. For example, if you refuse to work a certain day of the week and made this clear when you were hired, but a coworker asks you to take their shift that day for them, saying “yes” makes it more likely you will be asked again.

If your boundaries are reasonable, it is important to keep them firm. It is also important to effectively and kindly communicate your boundaries so that you do not criticize someone for doing or saying something they were unaware is unacceptable to you. If a relationship is lost with somebody because they refuse to accept your boundaries, that is a toxic person who you are better off without. Of course, this is easier said than done if that person is a superior at work, given the employment culture of the U.S. However, I have found most people will respect your stance and won’t push it further.

Knowing yourself and understanding why you feel and think the way you do are imperative for healthy boundary-setting. Putting your needs before the desires of others, as well as having the self-esteem necessary to enforce the prioritization of your needs, is also imperative. The emotional maturity needed to endure a possible confrontation with another person is also imperative. If you second-guess your own convictions when you’re by yourself, you will have no chance of holding firm to them when they are questioned or criticized by others.

This is a major area in my life I need to work on. I tend to either waver on what my boundaries are, not communicate them effectively, or not enforce them, and then blow up when they are violated. Are there any areas of your life where you find it nearly impossible to maintain your boundaries, or where you need to begin erecting some boundaries?