The New Magic Word: No. And Other Tips for Setting Boundaries
If you’re anything like us, you might have a very difficult time setting boundaries for yourself in both your personal life and your love life. For many, this stems from the need to be a people pleaser, constantly wanting other people to feel happy and supported by you. And while this may seem like a good thing at face value, it often means that you prioritize the needs of other people over your own needs and/or that you don’t have healthy boundaries set up in your life. So what are boundaries anyways? Boundaries seem like a pretty abstract concept, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Boundaries dictate how you interact with people on a regular basis. Boundaries also determine how much space you save for yourself in your relationship. Your boundaries are basically your comfort level with different things like social interactions, emotional vulnerability, how much time you spend with people, your comfort with sharing things and (for romantic relationships), and physical and sexual intimacy. Boundaries are an important part of any relationship, whether it’s a friendship, relationships with your family members or a romantic relationship. Boundaries help ensure that you are comfortable and respected in the relationship, and that your needs are valued as much as the other person’s. Setting boundaries can often mean saying “no” to things that make you uncomfortable, things that are emotionally taxing, or things that create unnecessary stress in your life. Saying “no” can be really hard for some people, but it’s a crucial skill to have when setting boundaries.
Some people don’t recognize that they have a hard time saying “no,” but find themselves in situations they are not comfortable with or end up doing things out of obligation. If you often feel like kicking yourself for agreeing to do something you find taxing, draining or just flat out boring, then newsflash: you may have a problem setting boundaries! When you are setting boundaries for yourself, it’s important to ask why you typically say “yes,” and what the risk is of saying “no.” Do you say yes because you are worried about disappointing someone? Or not being supportive enough to them? Or do you think that it’s easier to inconvenience yourself than it is to inconvenience someone else? If you recognize an unhealthy pattern of saying yes to things that you do not want to do or are uncomfortable doing, you should challenge yourself to assess the risk of saying “no” in these same situations. Most of the time, there is really no risk in saying “no”. People don’t expect you to bend over backwards for them, and a lot of people are half expecting the answer “no” when they ask you for something in the first place. If you do find the courage to say “no” when you usually do not, and the other person has a problem with that, you should consider having a discussion about boundaries with that person.
If you are feeling taken advantage of in a relationship, you should consider if/how your boundaries (or more likely, lack thereof) contributed to the situation. While we don’t want to blame the victim in any way, it is important to recognize that failing to establish healthy boundaries in a relationship creates an environment where you can be taken advantage of. Because everyone’s boundaries are different your partner, friend or family member may not know that they are overstepping if you do not establish what your boundaries are. A good illustrative example of this phenomenon is people that don’t like to be hugged. Everyone knows someone that shies away from a bear hug and has to tell people that they “aren’t a hugger.” This comes as a surprise to many people because hugging is so ingrained in the culture and most people just assume that everyone is okay with a quick hug to greet or say goodbye. But making this assumption could cause someone that hates hugging to feel disrespected or even violated, because their boundaries related to physical touch are very different from your own. It’s important not to assume you know people’s comfort level with things that seem as arbitrary as a hug. If you have had a conversation about boundaries and you find that someone is still not respecting your boundaries, then you should consider whether the relationship brings more positivity or negativity into your life.
After all, we cannot and should not be accommodating to other people at all times, even if they are your romantic partner! If they respect you, they should respect your boundaries and your ability to make decisions and say “no.” Sometimes it can be very difficult to set boundaries on your own, especially if you are not used to doing so. Here are some tips for how to set boundaries in your relationship:
The first thing you need to do when you are thinking about boundaries in your relationships is to think about how your relationships make you feel. As cliché as this can sound recognizing that you have a boundary problem is the first step in fixing your boundary problem. Think about your relationships and evaluate whether or not you have positive or negative emotions related to them. If the emotions are negative, think about why that is. Do you feel like you are taken advantage of? Do you feel like your friend/family member/partner’s needs are prioritized over your own? Do you think that you command an equal amount of respect in the relationship as the other person? Who tends to compromise more? Do you often find yourself doing things you knew would be emotionally taxing out of obligation to the other person? Not every relationship under the sun is going to be totally equal, but you should aim to have equal amounts of emotional investment, compromise and respect in your important relationship. If you find that this is not the case, then you probably need to establish some better boundaries. Sometimes we know that something just isn’t right in our relationships, but it’s hard to put our fingers on what the problem is exactly. If you have a nagging feeling that something’s amiss in your relationship, then there is a good chance that you have a boundary problem. We often know that something isn’t right, but because boundaries often feel abstract it’s hard to know the root of the problem. Taking time to consider how your relationships make you feel will help you recognize when you need to establish better boundaries.
Sometimes this step is not always necessary, because the boundary issue is very obvious, or because you have experience dealing with boundary issues in the past. Regardless of your prior experiences, it’s always a good idea to reflect on your relationship and consider whether they are positively serving you. Health relationships should not be taxing, so if they are it’s important to identify the root of the problem.
Have a discussion
After discovering that you have a boundary problem, it’s time to talk about it. Sometimes setting boundaries in a relationship can be as easy as having a discussion about boundaries and your comfort level relating to different things. You may assume that you and your partner are on the same page about certain things, when you are actually in totally different spots and are crossing a line that you didn’t know existed. It’s important to have discussions about things like sharing/borrowing material possessions, boundaries related to the time you spend together and boundaries about physical and sexual touch to name just a few. If you and your partner are good at communicating (big caveat here), you should have a conversation about different boundaries that are important to you and your relationship. It’s important to have these conversations periodically, because sometimes boundaries change as you become closer and more comfortable with one another. In these types of conversations it’s very important to be direct and honest, so that you are honoring your own boundaries and not just telling your partner what they want to hear.
If you have never had a discussion about boundaries before, it might feel overwhelming to broach this topic with a partner. Especially if you do have a problem with the current boundaries in the relationship. But just remember that boundaries are not something that are set in stone. Just because you have not established boundaries before does not mean that you can’t change the status quo and stand up for yourself. While it may feel daunting at first, it’s important to develop this skill so that you can periodically check-in on your boundaries in the relationship. The only way you are going to get comfortable with these situations is to practice! We mentioned above that having good communication is an important aspect of boundary setting. Some couples schedule time to check-in with one another about boundaries and other things so that they have a dedicated time and space to be vulnerable. Having boundary discussions on the calendar can help you address boundary issues before they turn into big problems. Dealing with this kind of thing in a proactive way will help both you and your partner feel respected and heard in the relationship and it will make it more natural for you to continue to have these conversations.
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If you have already established boundaries in your relationship, or are working on creating boundaries, it’s important that you follow through on what these boundaries are. If you hypothetically discuss boundaries, but don’t actively work to uphold them in your relationships, then those awkward/difficult conversations were all for nothing. Communicating and creating boundaries is only half the battle: it’s important to continually stick up for yourself and your boundaries if they are being challenged. If you allow your partner to overstep your boundaries, or let certain things slide, you are compromising the amount of respect you command in the relationship. While it is your partner’s job to respect your boundaries, it’s also your job to stick to them and be vocal if they are being overstepped. If you feel like your boundaries have changed since the last discussion with your partner, you should have a new discussion so that the boundaries are clear to everyone. Be accountable to yourself and the boundaries that you have created for your relationship. If you don’t respect your own boundaries, your partner might feel like they can follow suit. As backwards as it may seem, you often have to set the example here! Show your partner that you are being serious about your boundaries and continue to reiterate them if they are not being honored.
Focus on self care
It’s important to maintain self care even when you are in a relationship with another person. You may think that you don’t have to focus on self care when you have another person that deeply cares about you, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It is so important to check in with yourself and focus on your well being no matter if you are single or in a happy relationship. A huge part of self care is taking the space that you need for yourself to check in and process your emotions. Self care looks different for different people and there really is no right or wrong way to practice self care, as long as you are engaging in healthy activities. For some people, self care looks like exercising and eating well. For others, self care looks like journaling and yoga. And for others it’s about positive affirmations or other modes of reflection and self improvement. While it may seem counterintuitive to focus on yourself to improve your relationship, focusing on self care is just that! You cannot be the best version of yourself or the best partner unless you are taking the necessary time and space to make sure that you are doing okay.
Doing this will require you to set up boundaries for yourself in an organic way. And doing this will often require you to say “no” to hanging out, doing activities together, helping them with a project, or whatever it may be. Framing boundaries as a way to practice self care often makes it easier to take the space we need in a relationship. Needing space and time to focus on yourself has nothing to do with your partner, and everything to do with your mental health and relationship to yourself. Taking time to focus on your self care may also encourage your partner to do the same, which can have a positive effect on your relationship.
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Free yourself from guilt
For people pleasers, it can be very hard to stand up for yourself without an overwhelming sense of guilt. Guilt that you are letting someone down, or that you are not being present enough in your relationships. If you do not have practice setting boundaries, then doing so for the first time will likely be accompanied by some negative feelings. This is where self care comes into play again. It’s important to give yourself permission to put yourself first. That is at the core of what setting boundaries does. It gives you permission to exist in a relationship that you are respected in. Setting boundaries allows you to prioritize your needs and express these needs to your partner. This may not feel great right off the bat, but with time and practice you will grow more comfortable taking up space in your relationships. If you are feeling guilty at first, try to focus on self care, and building your self confidence. Focus less on being concerned with others' perception of you and focus more on how setting boundaries creates positive space for you to grow in the relationship.
Learning how to say no and set boundaries is not something that will happen overnight, especially if you are not in the practice of prioritizing yourself and your own needs. Once you set the intention to create more boundaries in your life, start off small! Decline a work call after business hours. Say no to a colleague who wants to grab coffee during lunch if you’re having a stressful day. Don’t let your friend borrow your favorite sweater if you know they’re a slob. Adding “no” to your vocabulary will take time, but standing up for yourself in small ways will help you get into the practice of saying “no.” You will also come to realize that people really don’t take the word no that personally, which will allow you to build on these small successes and take on bigger, more important boundaries with confidence.
When you are in the early stages of setting boundaries, it’s a great idea to offer alternatives when you are saying no to someone. So, in the above example, if someone wants to grab coffee at lunch and you just aren’t feeling up for it, suggest hitting the coffee shop tomorrow or sometime next week when you have more time. Or recommend that they ask a coworker who would be up for a coffee date. Or instead of coffee, recommend something that you want to do whether that’s grabbing lunch or doing something entirely different all together.
Saying no, but offering some kind of solution kind of acts as a compromise. No, you don’t owe it to the other person to think of an alternative, but for people pleasers, it’s often easier to say no if you are offering a solution or an alternative at the same time. It will feel like you are letting the person down less if they can follow through with the alternative that you offered. This doesn’t work for every situation, and people may not always react favorably to your suggestion, but it is a way to lighten the blow (or your perception of the blow) of saying no to someone flat out. While not everyone will appreciate it, most people will respect the fact that you are trying to help them while respecting your own boundaries and needs.
Couples often have a very difficult time establishing boundaries and reevaluating boundaries over the course of a relationship. But, it’s important to recognize that boundaries are an important part of any healthy relationship. If you feel like you and your partner need to discuss the boundaries in your relationship, but you are not sure how to go about it, you should consider using a couple’s worksheet that focuses on setting boundaries. Worksheets like this provide a framework for how to have meaningful conversations about your needs and comfort levels with different things. Boundary worksheets not only help you outline what your comfort levels are about things like the frequency of communication, spending time apart, intimacy, etc., but they also provide examples of language you can use to help you say “no.” Examples include things like “I am not comfortable with that,” “I draw the line here,” and “this is not acceptable,” so that you can clearly articulate your boundaries to your partner. Using a couples worksheet in this way can de-escalate what can be an emotional conversation. If you are having boundary issues in your relationship, it can feel deeply emotional and wanting to set boundaries often comes from a place of hurt. To take these feelings out of the situation, you can use a couple’s worksheet as a tool to help guide you through the process in a grounded way. The worksheet can help take some of the emotions out of the situation and provide you with a game plan for how to move forward in the relationship in a respectful way.
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Know that setting boundaries is difficult for a lot of people, and that boundaries are super important for all types of relationships, both romantic and platonic. If you are having a hard time setting boundaries in your romantic relationship, you should consider turning to close friends and family for support. You can also get input about the current state of your boundaries. When you are in a romantic relationship, it can be difficult to discern unhealthy boundaries because you are in love with the other person and want to make the relationship work. People that are outside of the relationship might be able to recognize disrespectful behavior and offer perspective. With your friends and family, you can practice discussing and setting boundaries in all your relationships then work your way up to setting boundaries in your romantic relationship. Not only will this improve your relationships with these people, but it will also help you establish and assert boundaries in your romantic relationship. If you do not feel comfortable turning to friends or family, you can seek support elsewhere, through relationship help books and online forums that can advise you on how to create boundaries in your relationships. Like we said before, it is difficult for most people to set boundaries in their life. Setting boundaries really isn’t some innate skill that some have and others don’t, it is something that you have to work on. This means that there are a LOT of resources out and about that you can turn to if you are struggling with boundaries in your life.
In some cases, setting boundaries is too difficult to do on your own, and you may need some professional backup. This is especially true if you have tried all of the above steps and are still feeling disrespected or undervalued in your relationships. When this is the case, some couples turn to traditional therapy which can be a great avenue for people with the time and money to invest in couples counseling. But for many modern couples, traditional counseling just isn’t an option due to restraints on budget and time. If that is the case for you, don’t fear! Instead of going down the path of traditional therapy, try out Relish.
Relish is a relationship coaching app that you and your partner can use to help you achieve your relationship goals, including goals related to setting and upholding healthy boundaries. You and your partner can make accounts, take insight quizzes, and message with professional relationship coaches to assess the status of your relationship and make goals to improve your relationship. The relationship coaches have lots of experience helping couples that have difficulties discussing boundaries and couples that are not on the same page about the boundaries in the relationship. The relationship coaching process is very goal oriented, so you and your partner are bound to see tangible improvements in your relationship. Using a relationship coach can help you work through the boundary setting process in a methodical way. It can also help back you up if you feel like a partner is not listening to what you’re saying. The coach can offer an outside opinion on what healthy boundaries should look like in your relationship, and they can hold you accountable for sticking up for your boundaries, in addition to holding your partner accountable for respecting those boundaries.
Relish is a super convenient and low-cost option for those who need help setting boundaries in their relationship. Work through interactive quizzes and expert coaching to gain a deeper understanding of yourself, your relationship, and your partner. Ready to start your free trial?