When and How to Say No

by Caroline Leaf

All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matthew 5:37

We all know that community is important for mental health, but what happens when people demand too much from us? How do we know when and how to say no before we feel drained and burnout?

Dr. Henry Cloud, bestselling author and psychologist, teaches boundaries are as important as community when it comes to our mental health. It is not selfish to say no or give ourselves a break.

We all need space, or what Dr. Cloud calls “property lines”, in our relationships. These lines set healthy limits in a friendship, and make sure people don’t throw their “trash” into your yard (figuratively speaking) or try control what you do and how you live. These are not walls: they are permeable. Ideally, we open our boundaries to let in good relationships, but we close them to keep out to threats and danger.

But, you may ask, what can you do when you feel obligated to say “yes” all the time and let people in all the time? How do you set boundaries without affecting the quality of your relationships? When and how can you actually say no to protect your mental and physical health?

1. Remember the golden rule: 

Relationship boundaries should have consequences, like everything we do and say in life: what you sow you should reap, and boundaries are only boundaries if they are enforced.

If you are in a relationship with a toxic person who is irresponsible and abusive, for example, that person ought to reap what they sow, and the relationship should come to an end. However, if there are not clear boundaries in this relationship, then you can become an enabler, and the toxic behavior continues to negatively affect both of you—that person is throwing their “trash” across your property line, and now you have become dependent on the hope that maybe one day they will stop causing you pain…maybe one day they will change. If, on the other hand, you decide to leave the toxic relationship, recognizing that you can’t control the other person but you can control your own boundaries, and that you need to do so to protect your mental and physical health, you can take back control of your own property: your life. The other person is now left with the consequences of what they have done, and that just may be the spark that kindles their desire to actually change, because they see that their behavior has definite consequences.

Saying no to people that are self-centered, draining and co-dependent is not only acceptable, but often necessary for our mental wellbeing. You can still be there for someone if they are in dire need, but you do not have to let them affect your day-to-day life. You have limited energy to invest in people, so choose your relationships wisely. I also recommend asking yourself these questions when deciding whether or not the relationship is worth investing in:

  • Do you like who you are or who you have become in the relationship? If you have changed, how so? Are these good changes or bad ones?
  • Do you feel that the other person makes an effort to develop the relationship, or do you feel that you are the only person trying?
  • Do you feel loved and appreciated, or manipulated and used? 
  • Do you actually like this person? Ask yourself if the negatives outweigh their positive attributes.
  • Do they keep saying they will change, but never make an effort to do so?

At the end of the day, only you will know if you should end a relationship or not, because only you know when your boundaries have been crossed one too many times.

2. Be clear about your boundaries: 

Often, we keep our boundaries secret out of fear of affecting a relationship or affecting how someone sees us, and we end up saying yes to things we don’t want to do, or do not let others know when they have invaded our personal space and upset us, which can make us feel trapped, out of control, uncomfortable, resentful and anxious. This, in turn, will impact not only our mental wellbeing but also our physical health, because our feelings will become embodied and change the way our brain and body functions—right down to the level of our genes.

Boundaries, like property lines, need to be clear, so that other people know when they are crossing them, and when they are causing pain. When you understand why you need space, and how important this space is, you can let other people know in a calm and collected way what you want and need. Say, for example, a co-worker keeps wanting to go out for drinks or dinner after work; instead of saying yes and dreading it, or shouting “stop bothering me!”, say something like “It has been a long day and I need some ‘me’ downtime after work, as it helps me function better, so I am not going to go out today.” Let people know when they have crossed your boundary.

At the same time, don’t feel the need to overexplain! You have a right to rest and relaxation—the brain does not function well without it. In fact, when we go into a directed rest state (that is when we are intentional about relaxing and giving our minds a break), we enhance and increase the effectiveness of our thinking, which allows us to be a more helpful and better friend and family member. So, if you find yourself feeling guilty for saying “no” and trying to make someone else happy by giving long explanations and stumbling over why, stop, take a deep breath, and just say calmly “no, I need a break because of…”. If the other person does not understand or reacts negatively, don’t take it personally: you are not responsible for how they choose to react to the situation, but you can choose to control your own life—don’t let them take that control from you.

3. Know your own boundaries:

All relationships are different, and require different types of boundaries. This is particularly case with romantic relationships, when two people are so close that they have essentially redefined their boundaries around each other: they have become “one”, but there is still two people experiencing that “oneness.”

When you enter a romantic partnership, you are essentially opening yourself up to someone on a much deeper level, which means you affect each other more profoundly. This, in turn, requires that you both have greater knowledge and control over your feelings and attitudes, so that you don’t inadvertently cross the boundaries between each other and cause havoc in the relationship.

For instance, if you feel that your boundary has been crossed and your partner has hurt you, you should be able to say in a reasonable way “hey, we need to talk about…, because what you did really hurt me.” You let them know about the boundary that has been crossed, and you deal with it in a loving way. However, if you are not in control of yourself, you can end up screaming and shouting at your partner, and can end up crossing their own boundaries and causing a huge fight, which will impact your relationship and leave you both distressed and in pain.

When you know your own boundaries, you can be more in control of how you react when those boundaries are crossed, and how you communicate your boundaries to the people in your life, whether they are lovers, friends, family or coworkers. You can begin to see that being able to say “no” is not antithetical to a good relationship; it defines a good relationship. Knowing your own boundaries means knowing yourself on a deeper level, which will only enrich your relationships because you are comfortable and happy with being fully you with another person.

But you cannot truly know your boundaries if you do not know how you uniquely think and react to your experiences and relationships, that is how you think, feel and choose as an individual. As Socrates once said, the “unexamined life is not worth living”; when you know yourself and how you think, you not only understand yourself better, but you understand what you need and want in a relationship, and can communicate this clearly to a partner, friend, family member and co-worker.

I have found that keeping a journal of my thoughts and experiences can be incredibly helpful when it comes to organizing my thoughts and understand my unique perceptions and reactions to life.

4. Protect your own mental health when helping someone in need.

When it comes to dealing with people who need help, knowing your own needs and boundaries can help protect your mental health. Of course, we are designed for community; we thrive in environments when we are needed and where we need others, but this need can become challenging if we are not careful. So, if you feel stressed out by someone you are trying to help, set definitive boundaries: be there for them when you can, but be clear you are there to support them in their journey where you can, not to fix them. Make sure you have a designated partner, friend or family member you can talk to to help you process the situation and your emotions.

I personally love to use my time in the sauna as a mental health break if I feel drained by a relationship. I also incorporate “thinker moments” into my day. These moments help me switch off to the external and switch on to the internal, giving my brain a rest and allowing it to reboot by letting my mind wander and daydream. This increases my clarity of mind and ability to problem-solve and be there for the person I am trying to help. So, be intentional about creating mental health boundaries throughout your day, especially when you are dealing with challenging relationships!

www.drleaf.com. Used by permission.

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