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July 23, 2021

On Setting Boundaries: How to Say “No” without Losing your Friends.


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Friendship has always been a key part of my life.

I loved meeting new people and growing my circle of friends.

I was usually the one to plan a party, or arrange a gathering on the spur of the moment. I was energized by being with others, and I felt happy and loved when I saw myself as part of a group. I was good at including all types of people and took pride in creating a comfortable atmosphere if someone was new to the gathering.

However, there were times when I didn’t agree with others. I struggled with saying “no” for fear of hurting my friend’s feelings or, even worse, losing a friendship. I thought that the best way to keep my relationships strong was for me to “keep the peace” and please others at all costs. I would smile and agree to do what they asked, even if inside, I was filled with resentment and anger.

This attitude carried over into my other relationships as well. I grew up with the desire to please my parents, to make my teachers proud of me, and to keep everyone happy. I developed a reputation as a friendly, smiling person who was easy to get along with. Part of me felt proud and gratified to hear those comments. And, at the same time, I wondered when I would have a chance to say what was really going on for me.

Even though I knew deep down that it would be helpful for me to say what I wanted, I felt stuck. Where would I even start? I had many years of practice in pleasing others and to change my behaviour seemed impossible. I was afraid to speak up for myself. And, when I did disagree with others, I didn’t know how to do this graciously. I came across as rude and angry, and the worst of my fears was realized: I hurt people’s feelings and lost some friendships.

Many years later, I attended a course related to my professional development. It was about communicating clearly and included some solutions for my dilemma. During the workshops, we practiced with each other and I learned some tools for talking with others in my life, even if we had differing opinions. Clear and direct communication has become a passion of mine, and now I coach others about these tools and continue to deepen into my own learning.

What did I learn that made the difference for me?

The first thing I learned was the importance of self-awareness. I was taught that being aware of my emotions or desires gives me choice. If I didn’t know what I was experiencing, how could I tell others?

For example, when I learned to name what I was feeling, I could tell my friends exactly what was going on for me, and we could take it from there. I remember a time when a friend thought I was mad at her and she got upset with me. When I told her what was really true, that I felt sad about something else in my life, she relaxed and was able to support me, instead of shutting down.

I learned that my experience consists of several components. I became familiar with what I was thinking, feeling, or what I wanted in each moment. This took practice and patience. I had to slow down and pay attention to what my body was telling me, what my mind was thinking and even more importantly, what I wanted. Many times I moved through my day unaware of my experience. The invitation was to stay present to myself, and notice what was going on inside.

Once I became aware of my internal state, I could describe to others what was going on for me. I learned tools to do this in a way that focused on me, and my experience. Rather than blaming others for my anger, for example, I could tell the other person, “I feel upset when you interrupt me.” I spoke from my perspective, rather than using their behaviour as an excuse to be upset. This often prevented them from being triggered and we could then talk about next steps in our communication.

I also learned to be curious about the other person’s experience and asked questions that were open-ended and nonjudgmental. This helped us both to communicate with each other, and I found it was much easier to describe my desires as well. Rather than reacting to others, I could respond to them with clarity and calmness. There were times when I heard the other person’s viewpoint, I changed my mind about what I thought needed to happen. We were in partnership, rather than adversaries.

The challenge of setting boundaries seems to be one that affects many of us. It could show up in your relationship with your parents. Perhaps you are a young adult, living on your own, and you want more independence. How do you tell your mother not to call every day? It could be a conflict with a roommate. How do you talk about the impact on you of missed payments for a heating bill or a messy kitchen?

The workplace has many opportunities for setting boundaries. How are the expectations for overtime clarified? What is expected of you as you train a new staff member? What about days off or vacation time? In these days of working from home, there may be extra challenges to communication among the team members.

The tools of communication are important for setting boundaries. Another significant aspect is the inner values we hold. Unless we are grounded in certain beliefs, it will be a constant struggle to set healthy boundaries.

What are these personal beliefs that will guide us?

1. Self-love is foundational for setting healthy boundaries. This means that I see myself as worthy of asking for what I want. I accept myself fully, even with the flaws and imperfections I have.

2. Self-love is unconditional. I am enough because I am. My worthiness is not based on my accomplishments, my looks, my bank account, or how others view me. I am learning to peel away all the messages I got growing up about being loved for what I did or did not do.

3. Setting boundaries teaches me what a respectful relationship is. When I continually give in to others and don’t speak up for myself, the relationship is superficial. I am not allowing the real me to show up and intimacy can’t happen.

4. Integrity leads to clear boundaries. I keep my word, I say yes with freedom, and I say no when necessary. When I am authentic and congruent in my communication, it is clear what I mean. I no longer worry about just pleasing others. I follow my own values and experience a sense of ease and flow within myself.

5. Saying what I want is not selfish. Just the opposite is true. Being clear with my boundaries is a generous act that results in clarity and peace in my relationships.

6. Not everyone may appreciate the new me that sets boundaries! However, the risk of disappointing others by setting boundaries is less serious than not speaking up for myself, which leads to stress, ill health, and a lack of meaningful relationships.

This is a unique time in our world. As we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic, there are varying opinions about how life should be lived. Do I wear a mask? Do I join large group gatherings? Do I continue working from home or go back to the office? Who can I hug safely? What if I choose not to shake someone’s hand and they get upset? How do I say what’s best for me, even if others may choose differently?

The concept of setting healthy boundaries has never been more relevant. I encourage you to get clear on what your values are and to develop a trust in your own wisdom. Practice the skills of clearly communicating your experience, and see what happens. I know from my own life that setting healthy boundaries leads to a sense of peace and joy.

Take it one step at a time and notice the difference!


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