‘If you can’t recall the last time you told someone no, you probably have trouble with setting boundaries‘

It’s Friday afternoon

You’ve had a long work day and you’re ready to close your computer and leave your desk (or your office, if you’re one of those rare few who are still working at the actual office). You’re almost logged off when a coworker calls you… ‘Could you please have a look at…?’

Before they can even finish their sentence, you have already said yes – because that is what you always seem to d – and you are back staring at your screen. You will probably work late tonight but saying no was not really an option. Or was it?

Setting boundaries without feeling guilty is something a lot of people struggle with, especially those who come from a service oriented mindset by default.

The good news is: you can learn how to set boundaries without having to experience that everlasting feeling of guilt. 

Why is it so hard to set boundaries?

If you can’t recall the last time you told someone no, you probably have trouble with setting boundaries.

As children, we were used to saying no to whatever it was we didn’t want to do and it did not bring forth a feeling of guilt. You didn’t want to do something? You probably made it loud and clear. Did you feel the need to apologize and explain why? Probably not.

There are multiple reasons why, as adults, we have a harder time to set those boundaries.


Letting someone down can be the worst thing imaginable, especially when there are a lot of people around you thart you do not want to disaapoint.

You want to show them your absolute best, deliver top quality work and you feel like saying no might be a sign of weakness, incompetence or maybe just unwillingess.

This commitment and loyalty however, might be a good thing on healthy days, it can be a real pain when you are already swamped with work and feeling more than overwhelmed.

When you take things too far, performing becomes an obsession and you might become sensitive to mistakes and negative feedback. This can lead to you impulsively saying yes to please people, simply to prove yourself.


Social conditioning
How much we’re doing for people is a big part of our identity.

This especially rings true for women.
We have long been in positions of emotional labour; the work of nurturing and tending to people’s wants and needs. 

Cultural or religious norms can also play a big part in your inability to set boundaries without feeling guilty. Self-sacrifice is a norm in many cultures and communities.


Fear of missing out
If you have heard of FOMO, you probably associate it with feeling the need to attend every party, take every opportunity to do something exciting and to meet new people.

This is often tied to the urge to share life’s most enjoyable moments on social media.

FOMO can also occur in a professional setting. The thought of missing any kind of opportunity for growth and recognition drives you straight into a sea of over-commitment and the quest to experience everything your professional life has to offer.

When you experience FOMO, this can lead to constant chaos and little time to be selective in your activities and how they relate to your long-term goals.

Create Healthy Boundaries

with Minou Hexspoor Coaching

How to set boundaries

You might recognize yourself in the points above. Whatever your reason to not set the much needed boundaries is, it’s fixable!

You can go from being the person that always gets piles of work thrown into their lap because everyone knows you won’t say no, to someone that will only be approached with requests based on your abilities and knowledge… and with respect for your time.

This might sound counter-intuitive if you are a natural helper, but it will actually really make people feel you are helping them because they know clearly what to come to you for and what you deliver or help them with.


Define what’s most important to you

To start setting boundaries, you will want to establish an idea of what is important to you. Anything that isn’t, can go on the ‘no’ list. 

That doesn’t mean that you will always have to shoot down any request coming your way, but it will help you realize that you won’t gain much from saying yes just for the sake of saying yes.

What are your core values? What are your long-term goals?

If you are hoping for that next promotion, saying yes to a small but time-consuming request from your coworker won’t help you to get there.


Ask yourself: does this help me?

If an opportunity presents itself, ask for some time to consider the request. That will give you time to go back to your values, goals and priorities. Ask yourself some questions before you say yes or no:

  • Is it the right fit at this moment?
  • Is there a sense of urgency?
  • Will this opportunity come up again?
  • Will committing infringe on my ability to practice self-care?
  • What is the value added of engaging is this? 
  • Does this truly align with my values and goals?

If it doesn’t seem like it will be in alignment with those questions, and it will only take time away from what is actually important – both in the work space and in your private life – just simply realizing that, might make it easier to set boundaries.


Buy time

Are you one of those people who will say yes to anything without even thinking it through consciously? Make it a habit to buy time. Even if it’s an opportunity you would love to commit to.

Getting used to this habit will help you evaluate what’s asked from you. No matter whether it’s a big or small request, don’t respond immediately. If it’s an email or a text message, take a couple minutes or maybe even hours. You might be surprised what wonders time can do to the urgency people believe things have! Sometimes, giving things a few hours before you respond, can make all the difference. Who knows the problem might already have been solved!

If it’s a phone call or an in-person request, make sure the first thing you answer is ‘Please give me some time to think about it, I will get back to you soon.’ That will give you time to consider whether this is something you want to do.


Don’t apologize

Now that you have a feeling of what boundaries you need to set, it’s time to put your knowledge into action.

If you have ever said no to someone, it’s very likely you stated your boundary with a follow up like ‘because…’ and a list of reasons why.

Whether it is a coworker that has the same job function as you do, one of your employees or your manager, you don’t ever have to explain yourself. It is most effective to be direct when it comes to communicating your boundaries.

Justifications, excessive explanations, and apologies water down your message. Notice the difference between these two statements:

‘Hey, Lisa, I’m sorry, but it turns out that I can’t help you out with the proposal today.’

‘Hey, Lisa, I’m really sorry, but I can’t help you out with the proposal today. I really want to, but, you know, my daughter has a dance recital. I feel like I should be there for her. I know I told you I could, but I forgot about the recital. I hope you’re not upset about it. I’m sorry it came together like this.’

Do you feel the difference? The first message is clear and cordial. The second message is watered down, infused with guilt and takes away from you setting your boundaries. When you express your (unnecessary) feelings of guilt, it will only add fuel to the fire inside of you. 


Practice saying no

On the count of three: NOOO.

Mental rehearsal has a big impact on our capacity to change behaviour. Come up with some go-to answers to help you avoid giving in on the spot.
‘That sounds like a great opportunity and I want to help, is it alright if I give it some time to think about?’
‘I’d love to, but I know I won’t be able to give this the time it deserves at this point.’
‘It’s really hard to say no, but I have to this time.’
The secret to setting boundaries without feeling guilty is giving yourself permission to live true to your values, not everyone else’s demands.


Look around you

Take a good look at the people around you. Your family, friends, coworkers and anyone else around you. Think about the times you asked them to do something for you. The chance of everyone around you always saying yes to everything is very slim.

Think about the times people denied a request from you. Did you think they were weak? Did you feel like they weren’t good people and they should have said yes? Of course you didn’t’. It’s mostly ourselves we don’t cut any slack.

Put yourself in the shoes of the people around you and remember that they will be as understanding of your boundaries as you are of theirs.

When you are a ‘yes person’, saying no and setting boundaries might be very hard.

When you finally manage to, feelings of guilt will probably be part of the deal. Setting boundaries is like a muscle that needs to be trained.

Having boundaries doesn’t make you weak, it makes you stronger for not giving in to everyone’s wants and needs, and start hearing yours.

It will help you manage your time wisely, with more than enough time to balance all the things you find important in life, without the feeling of guilt.

And above all, with a touch of self care.

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