Emotional literacy and emotional intelligence both start by being able to say no. “No” is one of the shortest and simplest of words in almost any language, yet many people, especially people pleasers, have difficulty saying it.
Often, parents come to me because their child has been using that little, powerful word too much. Why do we train it out of them? By the time we’re adults, many of us have learned that it’s easier to go along with others. We seek to please, to be liked, to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or to prevent conflict. So we say yes when we mean no. Or we say yes but drag our feet, taking our time doing what we agreed—or not doing it at all!
The word “no” is one of the most misunderstood terms in the human language. It doesn’t matter if it comes from a toddler, teen, sibling, friend, co-worker, boss, or spouse. “No” is the most elementary boundary of all time. It merely means, “I am a separate person with unique experiences, perceptions, ideas, feelings, preferences, and priorities.” However, when we say no, our boundary requires children and adults alike to delay gratification, navigate conflict, and deal with frustration. And therein lies the rub. Whether there’s a need to limit technology and be present to one another or to say no for overeating, effective boundaries create healthier lives and relationships.
When “no” is overused, the child or person is often trying to say, “You are not listening. Please take me seriously and listen to me.” The simple boundary of saying no deserves respect, whether it is inside you or outside. Befriend the right to say no.
Setting Boundaries Give You the Freedom to Be You
Setting boundaries is an essential skill that anyone can learn. Without being able to set a limit or let someone know what’s not okay with us, we will continue to compromise our quality of life. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. However, if we were overpowered as children or raised by an authoritarian parent, we didn’t get an opportunity to practice disagreeing or saying what was on our minds. Without a chance to attune with our own needs and have parents advocate for our individuality, it can seem easier to just go along.
Related reading: “Speaking Your Truth Even When It’s Uncomfortable”
How do you say no inside yourself? Those are called internal boundaries. We say no to negative self-talk and set a boundary for our inner critic. We pull in and say no when we want to vent our anger onto someone inappropriately. We say no to ourselves when we want that second piece of chocolate cake or spend money when we have committed to saving instead. We say no internally many times a day without even realizing it.
External boundaries are usually relationship-driven. When a friend wants to borrow our car, or our child wants a cookie right before dinner. Or perhaps we have a hectic day, and our spouse asks for a favor. The trouble lies when we say yes, and it’s best for us to say no.
Wouldn’t it be better if we said what we mean and mean what we say!? And allow others to as well.
Related reading: “Create a Healthy and Happy Life with Effective Boundaries”
For kind-hearted people, it can be even harder to say no. Somewhere along the line, we've got the wrong message and bought into the misconception that it's unkind to say no or to set a boundary. And often, setting a boundary to care for yourself is one of the kindest things you can do! When we set healthy boundaries, we have more time for the things we enjoy and we give and love freely.
Related reading: "Why You Should Stop Being a People Pleaser"
Setting Healthy Boundaries When You're Kind-Hearted
If you're one of those kind-hearted people, here are some phrases and different versions of saying no gracefully. They may feel more authentic and kinder to you.
“I’d love to help, and that won’t work for me.”
“I bet that would really help. I wish I could, but I’m going to need to say no.”
“Although I’d love to , not today.”
“It’s so hard for me to say no, but it’s the right thing for me.”
If you're still tempted to saying yes when you want to say no, try this quick little exercise.
Bring to mind someone you care about, then ask yourself, "Would I want this person to give up themselves for me? If something really wasn't right for them, would I want them to say yes?"
Your answer will reveal your truth.
When we care about people, we want them to do what's right for them. It's okay to say no. Pay attention and honor what you want and don’t want by setting a boundary. And reciprocate being cheerful and agreeable when someone says no to you. In the long run, there will be fewer power struggles, greater closeness, and increased happiness. And the more you exercise your right to set a boundary respectfully, you'll grow in emotional intelligence, too!
No, it’s not always easy saying no, but setting boundaries—especially when done lovingly—brings freedom and inner peace to those who do.
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