Rather than setting ourselves New Year’s resolutions (no-one needs that kind of extra pressure, not least during a pandemic), Hannah and I decided to focus on the things we want to let go of in 2022. One of those things was saying yes when we really want to say no.
As an inherent yes person, saying no when someone asks me to do something doesn’t come remotely naturally. Even the thought of it makes me squirm and I often spend way more time than I should composing an overly-polite text message trying to get out of something I don’t want to do. If you can relate – which I’m sure many of you can as people pleasers tend to be women – it might be time to start setting some boundaries. “Boundaries are how we teach others to treat us. It’s the line between what is and isn’t acceptable,” says life coach and author Michelle Elman. “If you don’t define that line, you allow people to treat you however they want.”
Michelle was drawn to life coaching because of its flexible mindset after doing her psychology degree. “Whenever you work in personal development, I think it’s important that you have personally experienced the techniques you use. I found that I preferred the life coaching method to traditional talking therapy and now when I talk about a technique, I can do so wholeheartedly because it’s something I use myself.” Michelle’s work focuses on helping people to set boundaries in every area of their lives, redefine selfishness as a positive act and say no with confidence. Her book, The Joy of Being Selfish: Why you need boundaries and how to set them, provides readers with the tools and advice they need to put her teaching into action.
So why are we so bad at setting boundaries? “As a society, we often care too much what other people think,” explains Michelle. “This is especially true when it comes to women – we are taught to put others first in order to be a good wife/mother/daughter therefore putting ourselves first can feel counter-intuitive and selfish.” Michelle believes that advancements in technology and the prevalence of “always-on” culture have made saying no even harder: “As technology has advanced, the demands on us have increased because we are constantly accessible. If you are unable to say no, you will burn out.” On the upside, this situation has given rise to the awareness and importance of of boundary setting, with Michelle explaining “There has definitely been an increase in people seeking therapy and therefore psychology language has seeped more into the mainstream which is a wonderful thing.”
If the concept of setting boundaries feels alien and intimidating, Michelle suggests starting with a simple “no”. “The first boundary we learn is the word ‘no’, so start using that word without justifications or explanations. State it firmly, calmly, confidently and in an emotionally neutral way.” I tried it recently when I was asked to do something that I didn’t have the time or headspace for and it felt unbelievably, almost addictively freeing. When I received a voice note from my friend telling me that she really respected me for saying no, it was almost like I’d discovered a whole new way of communicating – one that was delightfully simple and free of all that exhausting apology and explanation. “The most important boundary to set is how you are spoken to and how you are treated” says Michelle. “Additionally, it is important to set boundaries around access to you via your time and the information that people have access to.”
Boundary setting can be applied to all aspects of life, from work to relationships. Anyone who has lost hours down an Instagram rabbit hole unaware of how they came to be looking at a photo of their friend’s sister’s work colleague’s holiday to Dubai will understand the benefits of setting some social media boundaries. “Go through who you are following and actively decide if you want that person to have access to the information on your social media,” advises Michelle, “if not, block, mute and unfollow are important buttons to use.”
If your 9-5 looks more like a 9-9 (and then some), Michelle suggests setting strong boundaries around your rest time “whether that’s telling your boss to not use your personal number or putting a boundary around your evenings and weekends.”
Setting work and social media boundaries is one thing, but how do you put up barriers with friends and family without, heaven forbid, hurting their feelings? “It’s important that we recognise there is no separate set of rules for your family,” says Michelle. “They are held to the same standard of treatment as everyone else in your life.” When it comes to friendship, Michelle believes that implicit trust and a respect for confidentiality is key: “When you share information with friends and vice versa, that is not a free-for-all to pass that information onto your partner. Information needs to be kept in confidence within friendship too.”
In relationships, if you are concerned something will cross your partner’s boundaries, Michelle suggests simply asking. “For example, some people would be OK with you being friends with an ex and some people would find that uncomfortable. A simple ‘Hey! An ex got in touch and wants to go for drinks. What are your thoughts on that?” works.
Whatever the situation, confidence in your delivery is key. “Keep your boundary short and concise,” advises Michelle. “The longer your boundary is, the more potential it gives the other party to unpick it. State it with confidence, which means not providing superfluous information in that would turn your boundary from a decision to a discussion.”
Often, fear of being disliked or appearing selfish is what holds us back from saying no. For Michelle, selfishness can be a positive act, we just need to redefine how we view it. “Focus on how you feel when you say no. Often the words that first come to mind are relief and pride. It’s only when you start thinking more about them will thoughts like “they are going to hate me” or ‘they will never invite me again” begin occurring. Remind yourself of you and how you feel. If you focus on the positive feelings about yourself, this will likely result in increased motivation to set more boundaries.”
If you’re feeling inspired to set some boundaries in your life this year, why not try out one of Michelle’s examples below next time you find yourself in a difficult situation:
“Please do not speak to me like that.”
“If you continue to raise your voice at me, then I am going to leave the room.”
“I will wait for 10 minutes longer, but if you are not here by then then I am going to leave.”
Trust us, the feelings of pride and liberation you’ll feel when you first say no will last far longer than the initial few seconds of discomfort.