Boundaries are something we each have to learn for ourselves throughout our lifetime.
As we grow, begin to individuate, and form more of our authentic identities, we discover where we end and where other people begin.
Boundaries become an extension of expressing and implementing those edges of ourselves and a key to creating a healthy understanding of who we are and how to meet our own needs.
As a child, boundaries were not gracefully demonstrated to me. My understanding of saying Yes was intimately intertwined with being gifted opportunities and positive experiences, and saying No inevitably meant opportunities closing off and, potentially, bad luck ensuing. I thoroughly felt (and often still feel) that by staying open and having an opportunistic perspective is what brings us more good fortune.
However, it’s become clear to me that this kind of thinking can easily fall into the “too-much-of-a-good-thing” category. Like everything else, the openness, agreeableness, and generosity of spirit that comes with saying Yes must be kept in check, else we find ourselves teetering on the edge of burnout and overwhelm. Even if we’re saying Yes to all good things, people, and opportunities, it can end up feeling like eating too much sugar—at some point we start to feel physically like we need a little fiber or definition.
This is where gut instincts come into play. Just like when our body physically tells us that it’s time for the kale over the cookie, we usually have a physical reaction to either saying Yes or saying No. This physical cue can help us determine; are we up to it or will saying Yes lead into further exhaustion?
As we pay attention to and learn these physical cues that our body is so smartly giving us, we learn how to balance our energetic highs and lows. The more we say Yes to what actually excites and inspires us, the more we generate our motivation, inspiration, and action. Similarly, the more we say No to what doesn’t light us up, the more energy we have to give to what does.
Saying No always means saying Yes to something else—we’re always choosing our priorities.
As a recovering always-Yes person, what I’ve learned is that No is what defines us. It’s what creates the borders, the barriers, and the edges. The boundaries (obviously) that say “this is me, and that isn’t.”
Perhaps this is why we see No as a constrictive and potentially dangerous word. It keeps us closed off and separate when we’re a naturally connecting and communing species. No is limiting, potentially reductive, and can shut people down and out.
No can sometimes look like turning someone down for a date (or even after the first date). It can look like turning down a job opportunity because it doesn’t quite give you everything that you’re searching for, even if it means turning down a big salary. It can mean telling your kids that you need some down time and that what they want isn’t what they’re going to be able to get right now.
But No can also look like turning down a date because you have faith that someone who truly lights you up is out there and you’re going to keep doing the work to find them. It can mean staying connected to your worth and knowing that you deserve the job and career that’s going to give you everything you need. It can mean demonstrating those healthy boundaries to your kids by showing them that sometimes you need to take care of yourself before showing up and being the amazing parent that you are.
Understandably, the feeling of guilt can often come along with saying No. It can be easy to look at the examples above and think of all the reasons it might be easier to say Yes. This is where it’s important for us to recognize the distinction between saying Yes because we’re afraid, or saying Yes because we truly want something.
Let’s apply the guilt factor to the first example of dating. Let’s say you go on a first date and the other person is really nice, genuine, and has clearly expressed interest in you. But you’re not feeling the spark—something just isn’t there. Naturally, the twinge of guilt can arise in this dynamic. You may not be that excited about this person, but perhaps you start to compromise that feeling because the other feeling of guilt comes on more strongly. You don’t want to potentially hurt the other person by turning them down.
The question then becomes: Do you follow the guilt and choose to continue dating the other person because you don’t want to hurt them? Or do you follow the instinct that this person isn’t quite right for you, and choose to say No to the second date?
It’s important to recognize when and where we make ourselves smaller because of our guilt. Our fear of hurting someone else may lead us into making choices that inevitably hurt ourselves.
This is where I like to remind folks of the phrase: If it’s not a hell Yes, then it’s a No.
Saying Yes is an act of affirmation. It affirms what we want, who we are, and what fills us up. It can be an act of expansion as it’s an invitation to something new, potentially frightening, and therefore life affirming. But when we remember that saying No is just saying Yes to something else, No is also one of the most radical acts of self-care. By saying No we choose what truly lights us up, often as an act of rebellion, and with the deep inner knowing that what we will say Yes to is authentically what we, ourselves, need.
So how do we use No in a healthy and positive way? How does No become more like Yes when Yes requires a little bit of balance? Especially in this moment as we step into our New Year’s Resolutions and plans for 2023, how do we apply a little restraint in order to achieve the greatest growth, opportunity, and energetic sustainability?
Let’s use the New Year’s resolutions list as our practice guide:
1. Take a moment to think about the year ahead. What is it that you really want to be doing? Not what you feel you should do or need to do—what sounds exciting for you?
2. Alternatively, what is something you feel like you need to do, or feels required of you this year that you don’t really want to do? This is the stuff that feels naturally a little cringy or heavy. How could saying No to these things actually inspire and empower you to claim more of what you really want to do? How could it give energy back to you to do even more?
A few other ways to gracefully infuse No into your life:
1. Imagine a scenario similar to the dating example listed above. Can you imagine a situation in which you’d want to say No, but might find it challenging? Make a plan for how you would say No in a kind and thoughtful way. Write it all down with easy steps to follow, and even an easy phrase to use in the future.
2. List the benefits of the No side of things. Especially if you usually have FOMO or are people-pleasing kind of person. Before making a decision, ask yourself what saying Yes and saying No would feel like. Could No in fact be more affirming?
3. Practice saying it! Practicing saying No in little ways every day, and try saying it with a sense of openness. For example: “No, I don’t want tacos for dinner; I’d prefer to make this salad I’ve been craving. But what if we still cook together and eat together?”
Perhaps it’s helpful to think of our boundaries as those orange construction cones that serve as guides when driving through a construction zone. They keep us on the route that is safe and gets us to where we’re going, and they can also serve as warning signs of when and where life can get a little chaotic. They keep us aligned and heading in the direction that best suits our needs even if we don’t always know where they’re guiding us. And the good news is, we’re in charge of these cones; we can always readjust them by saying No or Yes, and aligning us to our clearest path.