The art of saying no: It's never too late to learn to set boundaries

  • Living
  • Friday, 28 Jan 2022

Saying no to a friend or family member can be hard. But once you’ve mastered the skill of verbalising your own limits, it can quite liberating. Photo: dpa

Think of it this way: Each time you say no to some demand, you are saying yes to all your other commitments and tasks.

Nonetheless, it can be pretty hard to say no, especially if it’s your boss piling on the tasks, say, or your friends pleading for help, in dire straits.

Many people find it hard to say no when asked for help which could be due to their personality type or the culture they come from, says a German psychologist.

When it comes to personal relationships, saying no can be even more challenging, specially if you have a habit of saying yes.

The good news, for everyone, is that you can change that, says psychologist and personal development coach Nathalie Krahé.

Can some people say no better than others?

Nathalie Krahé:
Personality aspects and social role models come into play here. If my environment allows me, and supports me, in saying no, and to stand up for myself that way, then it is easy.

However, if I have experiences that suggest saying no is unwelcome, or even punished, then that affects my behaviour.

Psychologically, setting boundaries and distancing yourself in line with your own needs is a sign of self-care. But you do need to find a balance between your own needs and those of others. If you only focus on your own needs, that can be egocentric, which is not socially acceptable.

What if I never learned to say no – can I still learn that?

Yes, that’s the good news. The key is to delay. So make a start by asking for a bit of time to think instead of reflexively answering yes. That will give you time to ask yourself whether or not you are ready.

Try saying, “I’ll have to think about that first.” Or, “I’ll call you back about that in an hour.” That buys you time and shows the other person you are taking their request seriously.

Even if the answer is then no, you have still done something for the relationship. Do make sure you start out in an easy situation, and leave the tougher ones for later on. Like when you do sports, you don’t want to overtax yourself right at the start. You don’t want to create a situation where you fail, if possible. Otherwise that can launch a cycle of negative feedback in your mind, thinking that learning is impossible.

Here’s another important tip: Maintain eye contact while you say no, don’t smile, and speak firmly. If you don’t, the other person might think there’s room for negotiation. Try practising in the mirror first.

Will I feel bad if I say no?

You don’t have to feel bad if you make space for yourself and have a good reason for saying no. After all, when you say no to something else, you are saying yes to all your other activities. That helps you manage your time better, in these busy and demanding times!

Try telling yourself positive things if you start feeling bad. Say, “I have the right to take care of my limits and needs,” or “I am not there exclusively to fulfill the wishes and needs of others.” They can help battle a guilty conscience.

However, you could also consider getting a professional to support you on this journey, especially if you feel you are only important if other people approve of you or your behaviour. Someone else with experience can help you break out of the pattern as it isn’t a helpful one for you. – dpa/Christoph Jansch

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