Setting healthy boundaries – learning to say ‘no’ to others can help us say ‘yes’ to ourselves
It may seem odd at this time of year traditionally associated with giving for me to be talking about what seems like withholding! Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much about connection with others and I understand that saying ‘no’ sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me! I hope you will see from this article that learning to set healthy boundaries not only helps us give to ourselves, but in turn strengthens us so that we can truly give from a place of security and love instead of from a place of compulsion to please others. Yes, I’m particularly talking to those of us who may have been guilty of some ‘people pleasing’ tendencies at one time or another and have an inclination towards putting the needs of others before ourselves. You might have been brought up to think that making yourself a priority is somehow selfish, but it’s vital for healthy relationships and indeed life in general.
Why do we 'people please'?
So many of us are taught that we need to be caring and put others first to the point where we feel selfish and guilty if we think about our own needs. It gets to be habitual to prioritise others, perhaps to be loved or accepted, and this conditioning builds up throughout our lives so that we forget about ourselves. Also, we want to be ‘nice’ people and not to let anyone down. Let’s be honest, we like being seen as caring. We identify with this behaviour and see it as part of our identity.
What happens if we continue to put others first at the expense of our own needs?
Quite frankly, it’s draining to try to please all the people all the time. In fact, as the saying goes, it’s an impossible task and will leave us with no energy left for ourselves. What’s more, we will be depleted of energy to the point where we cannot give to others either, even when appropriate. As they say, “You can’t pour from an empty cup”. Not only will we inevitably end up exhausted, but we can often get sick and injured as a result of neglecting our mental, emotional and physical needs. People pleasing takes its toll on our health.
Our relationships also suffer. We believe ourselves to be caring individuals and will give and give and give until a creeping resentment builds up. We start to question why we have so ‘selflessly’ been running ourselves ragged to attend to the every need of others in our lives when we have not been receiving the same care and attention back. This is the time at which we need to take a long hard look at our behaviour and ask if they really asked us to do all this for them. If not, then how can we blame them for ‘taking advantage’ of us? Mind you, we can indeed end up with others seemingly taking advantage and, in a way, who blames them?! We teach people how to treat us and, if we lay down like a doormat, then this may – unfortunately – be the treatment we receive. We have been sending a message to others, and importantly to ourselves, that we are not important and that we don’t matter. Not being true to ourselves and expressing our own needs can gradually eat away at our self-confidence too.
Why should we put ourselves first?
If I can make one thing clear: self-care is not equal to ‘selfish’, whatever you have been brought up to think. In fact, you can support others more effectively if you strengthen yourself first. On flights, the attendant tells you to put your oxygen mask on first before trying to help others. It’s the same with self-care. If you are depleted, you can’t help anyone, including yourself. This is better for your own health and better for your relationships as you are giving genuinely from a place of abundance as you have taken care of your own needs yourself. (Rather than relying on someone else to take care of you.) You do not build up resentment towards others because you are not giving more than you can afford. You always retain some energy and care for yourself and there is more than enough to go around. Communication with others also improves, as you are not automatically saying ‘yes’ and regretting it later, leading to confusion in relationships as they can’t work out why you are upset!
How do we recognise when we are ‘people pleasing’ or saying 'no' to ourselves?
It can be hard for those of us who spend quite a bit of time in our heads, but instead tuning in to listen to our feelings is key here. Our emotions are not the enemy to be suppressed! Instead, they are valuable indicators of how we feel about something. If you are feeling tired, resentment or frustration, ask yourself what this ‘messenger’ emotion is telling you. Where do you need to adjust what you are doing in order to feel better?
Another clue can be found in our language: If you find yourself using the dreaded “should” word a lot, then this could be a big red flag signalling that you are doing something under pressure (usually from yourself!) and that you don’t really want to do it. The same goes for phrases like “I’d better” or “I have to”. Start focussing on the language you use and you may be surprised at what you find.
How do you say ‘no’ to others to say ‘yes’ to yourself?
You might be convinced now of why you would like to change your behaviour and be thinking that all this is very well, but you’d like some tips on how to do so. Wait no longer! My top three tips on putting this new-found awareness into action are:
- Press the pause button – catch yourself the next time you go to say ‘yes’ on autopilot and take the time to tune into your inner voice/intuition/feelings. Ask yourself “Do I really want to do this?” If the word “should” appears in your mind, you know what to do! At this point, breathe and give yourself a moment.
- Use a ‘holding statement' – in the world of public relations, we might prepare something known as a ‘holding statement’ in advance which was ready to use when we needed to buy time and work out what to do in a crisis situation. If you find it hard to think on the spot or to say ‘no’ immediately when asked to do something, you can simply use the equivalent of a holding statement by telling the person that you will have a think about what they have asked and get back to them shortly.
- Build that ‘muscle’ up gradually – Start by actively practising on small, trivial things that don’t feel like they matter too much to you. The more you work out your ‘no’ muscle, the stronger it becomes and you are ready to handle the larger challenges more capably. Be patient too. Muscles take a while to build – especially when you haven’t used them for a while.
It is important to recognise that, far from making you a selfish or ‘bad’ person, self-care is vital for our own health and for that of those around us. You are still a kind and caring person if you say ‘no’ sometimes. It’s just that now you are applying that kindness and compassion to yourself as well.
So, the next time you find yourself saying ‘yes’ on autopilot, please take a moment to pause and ask yourself if you really want to do that or just feel that you ‘should’. Take small steps, practice repeatedly and – most importantly – don’t beat yourself up if you suffer a setback. It takes time and perseverance to make positive changes in your life, but it is most certainly worth it!