How to Set Boundaries

Counseling and life coaching tips for learning to say “no”

Yes. One simple word, but it holds amazing power in our lives.

Yes to picking up the extra project at work…even if it means bailing on family time

Yes to watching the neighbor’s kids…even when you have a migraine

Yes to the one-night stand on a business trip…even though you swore you’d never cheat

Yes to helping a friend out financially…even when you’re on the verge of bankruptcy

Ever struggled with a case of the disease to please? Do you tend to over-commit yourself? If you have a hard time standing up for yourself and saying “no,” you may need to establish a few boundaries in your life.

So what is a boundary?

Are we talking picket fences and guardrails here? Not quite, but you get the idea. Look it up on the web, and you’ll find that a boundary “divides one entity from another.” Without physical, emotional, and time boundaries, you and I will live stressed-out, frazzled, and unhealthy lives.

“Boundaries define what is me and what is not me,” psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townshend write. “A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Known what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.”[i]

Just like a fence protects what’s inside and what’s outside, when you and I set healthy boundaries, we protect our own hearts . . . and the people around us. A life without boundaries can be insane. The “yes” monster is always lurking, and, when we do say “no,” we feel horribly guilty. So we try to just tough it up and push through…and eventually, we burn out.

Worst of all, when we can’t say “no,” we lose joy. Helping other people out becomes a desperate race to feel better about ourselves. To prove something. It’s almost like “no” is a cussword or something. We’re terrified of saying “no” because, to us, saying “no” = being a selfish, good-for-nothing jerk. No matter what.

And this kind of pressure can make us crazy. Unpredictable. Emotional. We struggle to stay afloat, but other people’s expectations are heavy. Life is one chaotic mess. But it doesn’t have to be that way! If you feel overwhelmed by the commitments in your life, try these tips.

  1. Admit that you can’t do it all.
  2. Try as you might, you are not a superhero! So don’t live under that pressure. Saying “no” doesn’t make you a selfish, mean, or horrible person. Actually, the hardest decisions in life are often between the good things and the best things. Counselors and life coaches have found that people who do a few things well find more joy and satisfaction in life than those people who try to do everything. So be realistic in what you commit to.

  3. 2) Communicate.
  4. Too often, we don’t say things we should because of fear of rejection. Be straightforward and honest about what you can and cannot do. It’s far better to say “no” to a commitment up front than to say “yes” and then fail to come through. If you have been living a life without boundaries, your friends and family may be taken aback by this change in your behavior. And that’s okay. Setting boundaries may feel awkward and even heartless at first, but will result in a huge sense of freedom as you come to understand that who you are is not wrapped up in what you do for other people.

  5. 3) Establish healthy personal time.
  6. If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot take care of anyone else. Counselors and life coaches point out that those of us without boundaries have been raised to disregard our own needs, desires, and emotions. Oftentimes, we have no clue who we are apart from what we do. And this is not healthy. At all! Build time into your schedule to take care of you…whether it is reading a book, going for a jog, taking a bubble bath, or playing golf.

  7. 4) Free yourself from the disease to please.
  8. If you ground your identity in what other people think of you, you’ll continually change yourself, and eventually lose all concept of who you really are. As you make decisions, consider what is the best personal course of action. Remember, your goal in life isn’t just to be popular. Face it: There will always be somebody who disagrees with you. But that’s okay.

  9. 5) Don’t commit out of guilt or obligation.
  10. You are not the world’s savior. It’s not your job to make everyone happy or “fix” all of the problems around you. Evaluate your heart and commit your time and energy to what you are passionate about, but don’t succumb to the pressure of other people’s needs. The reality is this: You will always be surrounded by needy people, and if you do not set clear personal boundaries about what you will and will not do, your relationships will be one-sided as you give and give and give of yourself. Learning to say “no” establishes a healthy separateness that prevents co-dependence.

    If your life has been defined by the needs of other people, do not despair. One fencepost at a time, you can set boundaries, learn to say “no,” and actually enjoy the relationships in your life, rather than feeling drained and used. Far from inhibiting you, personal boundaries free you up to experience joy and satisfaction in relationships like never before.

    What are you waiting for? Take a step today to begin setting boundaries. You won’t regret it!

    [i] Henry Cloud and John Townshend, Boundaries (New York: Zondervan, 1992), 13-14.

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