It seems obvious to most people that boundaries are a necessary part of life. We say “yes” to some things and “no” to others. Yet many of us struggle to say no, especially when it feels like that “no” threatens to hurt an important relationship.
Often when I first start working with someone around having stronger boundaries, the first attempts at boundary-setting are like killing an ant with a ton of bricks. The idea of setting boundaries conjures an image of an almost military firmness, an inflexible, immovable stance. The refrain is “I’m setting boundaries, and no one is going to cross them!”
Developmentally, this is right. For many of us, these first efforts at conscious boundary setting are also our first significant moves, in a long time, towards a more differentiated stance in relationship to our significant others. We have to mobilize a lot of energy and courage in order to take a stance that is different than what is expected.
Of course, some of us live on the opposite extreme. We have a very easy time drawing the hard boundaries. It’s like we came into the world with reinforced steel plates around us. For those of us on this end of the spectrum, boundaries are easy; permeability is not.
What I like to remind people is that this initial ability to draw hard lines is just a beginning. Boundaries are not just about firm, hard “no’s” and rigid stances. There are boundaries in all of our interactions. Making boundaries can be about self-protection and self-care, and it can also be a way to nurture our relationships. Boundaries are the places where we make contact with one another—where you end and I begin.
Think about the last time you asked someone to do something, and when they agreed, something in their way of agreeing let you know that they didn’t really want to do it. How did that feel? Did they still do what they said what they were going to do? How did that interaction impact your relationship with them?
Then think about the last time you invited someone to do something, and you absolutely trusted their “yes”. I mean you knew that they were really “in”, and you didn’t have to feel bad about whether you were asking too much, or worry about whether they were really going to show up. How did that feel? How did that interaction impact your relationship with them?
Of course we all have moments when we choose to do things that we don’t want to do. And we also have people in our lives who are going to resist our boundaries with everything they have. We’re not all experienced in graciously accepting a “no”.
But how do we navigate those situations? How honest are we about our wants and needs in those moments? Making a conscious choice to compromise or accommodate is different than collapsing into acquiescence. What’s the impact if we don’t bring our truth forward?
One of my teachers, Evalena Rose, says, “If I can trust your ability to say no, then I can really relax into receiving your yes”. It is such a gift to offer someone our truth, even when it’s a “no”. When we bring our authentic voice to the table with skill and grace, our relationships can deepen because we’re bringing more of ourselves to the interaction.
So the next time you have the impulse to say “yes”, when you really want to say “no”, pause. Let yourself make a conscious choice about what you want to offer that relationship in that moment. It may be that it’s still “right” to say “yes”. But let yourself really choose. Don’t slip into the automatic “yes” before you’ve really let yourself think about what you want. In those relationships where it feels safe to experiment, try on just telling the truth. See how it feels, and let me know how it goes.