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Getting Comfortable With Boundaries: How (And Why) To Say No

Does saying “no” make you feel guilty? If so, you’re not alone.

Psyched Molly BoundariesMaybe the idea of saying no, especially to close friends and family, makes you feel nervous about what the other person will think of you. Maybe you feel anxious that they’ll be upset with you, or that your boundary will hurt them somehow. You might be thinking about how your mom always pulls the guilt trip about not staying long enough when you visit, or maybe you and your partner are accustomed to dancing around difficult topics that involve your needs. Setting boundaries- saying “no”- is totally anxiety-provoking for many of us, because it puts different needs into direct competition with each other. As hard as it is to say no, it is also a totally necessary thing in order to show up fully in your relationships and in your life.

As I’ve written about previously, pushing your edges in the spirit of self-growth can be hugely transformative and helpful. A part of that process is learning where your edges and limits are. Pushing yourself beyond your limits can be an exploration into growth, but there is a point when the struggle to push can make you feel disconnected from yourself. Knowing, and holding to, your boundaries is an essential element of staying connected to yourself and keeping yourself safe and cared for.

Perhaps the exercise here is learning how to get comfortable with the discomfort of saying No.

No can be a powerful experience, and there are lots of ways to do it. Many ways of saying No actually look like ways of saying Yes. Are these examples what you might think of?

  • staying home on Friday night and doing only what you feel like doing
  • changing your mind at the last minute and going out
  • telling your friend or partner you want more contact
  • talking about your anger with the person you’re angry at
  • saying No to someone’s request of you
  • cycling instead of driving
  • driving instead of cycling
  • taking a bath instead of a shower
  • moving the furniture in your house because you feel like it
  • telling your Mom you don’t agree with her
  • not pretending you’re okay
  • taking the day off
  • stating your opinion
  • unfriending someone whose posts you don’t like on social media
  • laughing even though there is also pain
  • doing something you’ve been dreading
  • learning a new sport

These are all examples of saying yes to a part of you– your anger, your love, your need, your desire.

The example of driving instead of cycling seems counterintuitive, right? What exactly would you be saying “no” to with that one? Well, what if you are cycling everywhere because it feels right on so many levels- environmentally, health-wise, and economically. However, you find yourself so exhausted by the end of the day of riding that you have trouble unwinding. You spend hours on your commute that could take thirty minutes by car. You don’t have time to go grocery shopping and you have to carry so much on your back that your body aches every day. At this point, saying no to cycling becomes saying yes to another need you have. Sometimes, saying Yes to one need means saying No to something else.

You get to make decisions about how you spend your time, who you let into your inner circle, and what parts of yourself you share with the people who are close to you. You also get to decide what needs you are going to prioritize in your life, and what you say “Yes” to and what you say “No” to. If you feel guilt- explore this in therapy. And, know that your needs (and your mind!) will often change. Will you be able to listen and respond?

And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers…. And new ones will find you and cherish you. … And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking. – Audre Lorde

Molly Merson

Molly Merson

Molly is a relational, psychodynamic psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, CA. Molly works with adults and adolescents of all genders in approaching uncomfortable feelings, working through stuck patterns and creating room for joy and desire.

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