How To Say No And Set Boundaries When You're Used To Being A Doormat

by Kristen Mae

In theory, setting boundaries is a simple, cut-and-dry action: you decide what is best for you and establish limits accordingly.

Your aunt fell prey to conspiracy theories about the democrat leadership being alien lizards wearing human skin-suits? Simple: block her on social media and don’t invite her to Thanksgiving.

A person you thought was a friend has revealed themselves to be a narcissistic emotional vampire? Ghost them — ain’t nobody got time for that.

Your boss wants you to stay late and complete a project while reminding you that he can’t give you overtime pay? Say no and walk out when your clocked time is up.

If only it were that easy.

In reality, setting boundaries with people — especially people with whom you have to interact on a daily basis — is complicated, messy, and requires loads of ongoing maintenance. And if you’re anything like me, saying “no” to certain requests or certain people can give you a leaden sensation in your belly that makes you feel like you just might vomit.

We all know by now how important it is to set boundaries. We know this. We know that if we allow ourselves to be steamrolled that we’ll end up dealing with mental health fallout like anxiety and depression. We know that taking on too many projects at work will lead to overwhelm and burnout. We’ve all heard the old adage about putting on your own mask first before helping others with theirs.

That’s the logical part of boundary-setting — the obvious stuff.

The hard part is developing enough self-awareness and self-respect to not be overcome with guilt when you have to set these boundaries.

“We live in a society that does not glorify choosing yourself. It is not honoured,” relationship therapist and author of the recently published book ‘Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself’ Nedra Tawwab told The Guardian. “We are constantly living in others’ headspace and not our own heart space. We’re thinking about what they might say or do; whether they’ll be angry, or whether setting a boundary will even end the relationship.”

So how do you let go of that gnawing feeling of selfishness that sometimes accompanies setting a boundary?

Listen To Your Gut

“When your life is impacted by not having healthy boundaries for yourself,” Tawwab told the Guardian, “we need to pay attention.”

Simon Biles was widely admired for her decision to pull out of multiple events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She was also widely criticized — mostly by people who never learned to do a cartwheel, but that’s neither here nor there.

But Biles has been an athlete her entire life. Who could know better than her when her body and brain are behaving in a way that makes performing physically risky to her or performatively risky in terms of her contribution to her team?

Why on earth would anyone question what this woman says to be true about her own body and its capabilities?

Most of us aren’t ever going to perform under the intense heat of an international spotlight, but we all have the same ability to check in with ourselves and recognize and acknowledge when a situation is not healthy for us.

Practice Out Loud

Just as you can practice beauty or self-confidence affirmations in your bathroom mirror (and I highly recommend doing both), you can also practice boundary-setting affirmations. “No is a complete sentence.” “I can’t please everyone all of the time.” “It’s okay to put my own needs first sometimes.”

You can go further than this, though, and practice actual conversations. Does your ex needle you passive-aggressively every time you see them? Does your mother-in-law question whether your child really has a dairy allergy, hinting she may “test” whether it’s true?

Practice setting boundaries in these situations in your mirror. You likely already know what the other person would typically say. Practice your response aloud. Hearing yourself say the words will give you the strength to set the real-life boundary when the moment arrives. (Hat tip to my therapist for this one.)

Resist The Urge To Over-explain

This is what it means when we say “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” You do not have to explain yourself beyond what is necessary for the person with whom you’re setting a boundary to know.

Your boss doesn’t need to know about your child’s soccer tournament and how that’s the practical, time-based reason you couldn’t finish that project over the weekend even if you wanted to. They only need to know that you are not going to work the weekend.

Your mother-in-law does not need a history of evidence or a doctor’s note proving that your child is in fact allergic to dairy. She only needs to know that her insinuation that you’re lying about it and consequential suggestion she may test the theory is why she will no longer have unsupervised access to your children.

Remember It’s Okay To Revisit Old Boundaries

With the passage of time, you may feel you’re better able to tolerate the behavior of a person with whom you’ve previously set rigid boundaries. The person in question may have grown enough that you now want to give them another chance.

Loosening a boundary is not an indication of weakness on your part any more than setting the boundary in the first place made you “mean.” Observe and listen to your gut. It’s okay to change your mind about people and situations when circumstances and feelings change. It’s okay to adapt.

Of course, you may go the other direction and make a previously set boundary even more strict. That’s okay too. It doesn’t make you “mean.” You’re allowed to protect your own mental health by not permitting toxic people to pollute your personal space.

Gather A Network Of Support

We all know what setting boundaries looks like. The hard part is the emotional work we have to do to feel worthy to set those boundaries. If you struggle with this like I do, enlist a few friends to lift you up and remind you that you deserve peace. If you can, engage the help of a therapist to give you additional tools and techniques to stay firm with your boundaries. Read books like Tawwab’s ‘Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself’ that offer practical advice.

If you’re used to always considering everyone else before yourself, it can be incredibly difficult to say no and set boundaries. But you deserve to be free of toxicity and overwhelm. You deserve self-care. And trust me when I say, there are few feelings better than the one that comes with setting a clear boundary and then noticing the peace that flows into the space that used to be occupied by toxicity.