Saying No Without Upsetting Anyone, Including Yourself
Happy Sunday, friend, how are you feeling? ❤️🔥
This week, we celebrated Nicolas's 6th birthday with tons of kindergarteners running around our backyard, fueled by pizza and chocolate cake.
You'd think hosting this many kids is hectic, but it's actually awesome. Their joy is contagious.
Who knows if this will still be The Cool House when the boys are teenagers, but you better believe I'm going to try my bestest.
I spent the rest of the week on coaching calls, working toward the 100 hours I need for my accreditation.
One challenge kept coming up with different people, so I decided to write about it in case any of you are struggling with it, too:
How can I set boundaries without upsetting anyone, including myself?
First, a massive shoutout to Beehiiv for powering this newsletter the past two months. The sheer number of people hearing about doing self-work is astounding, and it means the world to me.
A big high-five to the 52 of you who joined this week. I'm so grateful you're here. 👋
Okay, onto the good stuff.
You know that feeling when you agree to something you don't really wanna do, and then you're stuck feeling all mad and resentful?
Setting boundaries is the key to avoiding that drama.
But "boundaries" can be a tricky concept to wrap your head around. It's not like we're drawing a literal line in the sand, so what even are boundaries, and how will you know when you need one?
There are two definitions that I swear by.
The first one is:
Boundaries are the choice between disappointing me or someone else.
What I love about this definition is it's practicality.
Having to choose between one or the other makes decision-making much easier. It also makes the costs of not setting a boundary more obvious.
Viewing it this way makes it more difficult to choose to disappoint myself. And that's generally a good thing. Use your common sense, of course, but you're likely better off choosing to honor yourself over other people.
Which leads me to the second definition I love, which is:
Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.
This definition helped me realize that setting boundaries doesn't have to mean ruining relationships. We can still love others and be loving while setting boundaries. There are ways to do it that are sensitive to others' feelings, without compromising our own values and needs.
It's not always a choice between me or the other person: we can choose to honor both if we do it in the right way.
There's one other way I like to wrap my brain around boundaries:
Whenever I hear the word "boundaries," someone mentions the airplane metaphor: put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. But there's another metaphor I like even more: the sieve.
You filter out what doesn't align with your values and what you don't want in your life.
Similar to how a filter removes unwanted particles from a liquid, setting personal boundaries can help you sift through the negative influences and interactions in your life. It can help you figure out who and what is worth your time, energy, and resources.
It's like a sieve that lets only the positive and beneficial people and situations pass through. By setting clear boundaries, you can make sure that your time and energy are focused on things that align with your values and goals, and that bring you joy and fulfillment.
Why boundaries matter
Nobody's perfect and nobody has perfect boundaries, but let me tell you: life is so much better once you start setting them.
Boundaries give you a safe space for yourself where you can thrive and grow.
They define us as individuals, and they help us to protect our emotional and physical well-being. When we have clear boundaries, we know our limits and can communicate them to the people in our life.
By being open and honest with people, we aren't being selfish or uncaring—we're creating healthy relationships that respect your needs and the needs of others.
Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.
Yes, boundaries can actually improve relationships.
Research shows that setting clear boundaries can lead to more satisfying and fulfilling relationships, as people are able to communicate their needs and expectations more effectively.
By setting boundaries in a kind and respectful way (which we'll explore more below), you're actually building stronger relationships and cultivating greater self-respect.
Boundaries can increase productivity, too. Studies show when people set boundaries around their time and energy, they are better able to focus on their goals and priorities, leading to increased productivity and achievement.
On the other hand, a lack of boundaries can lead to burnout. Research has found that people who struggle to set and maintain boundaries are more likely to experience exhaustion and feelings of overwhelm.
So, what do boundaries look like?
Everyone is different, but I can share what boundaries look like in my life and how they help me take care of myself in various ways.
Here are a few examples:
- Bedtime. I go to bed hours earlier than when most adults hit the hay. I've always gotten teased for it. I suffer from POTS, and needing 9+ hours of sleep to feel functional is my body's way of forcing recovery. I'm upfront about my need for sleep, and it means skipping out on lots of social activities. I'm okay with that, even if some people call me "boring."
- People. I'm picky about who I work with and who I surround myself with. By being selective about the people and activities I engage with, I ensure my time and energy are being spent in a positive and fulfilling way. This sometimes means saying no to people who want to hang or collaborate. I have a proven way of doing that kindly, which I'll share in a bit.
- Treatment. I don't let people treat me disrespectfully. Being mean just doesn't align with my values, hard stop. By not tolerating disrespectful behavior, I'm standing up for myself and my worth as a person. Even if I have to leave a steady, well-paying job to do that.
- Exercise. My physical health matters to me, and it also matters to my family because the healthier I am, the better I can show up for them. My kids, though, are not big fans of me closing the door when I'm going to work out. I maintain my boundary, though, and tell them I need privacy during my exercise time. Guilt sometimes creeps in, but I remind myself that they're well cared for by another adult, and they can handle giving me space to work out in peace. (Not to mention my fear of a kiddo getting a kettlebell swing in the face.)
These are all examples of how setting boundaries helps me take care of myself and live a happier, healthier life.
If you're reading this, you already know this isn't always easy to do, and you may be on the fence about whether or not it's worth the hassle.
I've never met someone who regretted setting a boundary.
A friendly reminder in case you need it:
You are in control of your own life, and you have the power to create the environment that you want to thrive in.
Strategies to avoid upsetting people
If setting boundaries so essential to our self-care, why is it so challenging a task?
Mostly because we fear hurting someone's feelings or damaging a relationship, so we avoid setting boundaries altogether.
However, setting boundaries doesn't have to be a confrontational or negative experience. It's possible to set boundaries in a way that is kind, respectful, and firm—and I've done it myself for a while now.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to do it:
- "I hear you": When others push back against your established boundaries, it's important to acknowledge their perspective. One effective phrase that I often use is "I hear you." Though it may seem like a small gesture, actively listening and showing empathy towards others can be incredibly impactful. At times, all someone wants is to be understood and validated. (And saying you hear them doesn't mean you agree with them, wink wink.)
- The reason: Explain why the boundary is important to you and communicate that you understand the other person would want the same for themselves. For instance, "Sorry, can't make it to dinner if it ends at 10:30pm 'cause I gotta get up at 5:30 with the kids. You know what it's like taking care of kiddos when you're feeling like a zombie. Thanks for being cool with it." This approach demonstrates that you believe the other person wants the best for you and has your back.
- Alternatives: It's also helpful to offer another option when setting a boundary. For example, if a friend often calls you late at night, you might say, "I can't talk after 9 pm, but I'm happy to chat during the day." When I get messages about work, I say things like, "I'm not available for consulting, but I can connect with you a friend of mine who I highly recommend." By offering an alternative, you're showing that you value the relationship or are willing to compromise.
There's usually an adjustment period, where people are getting used to your new boundaries. They may be confused or resistant, but the adjustment period eventually ends.
On the other hand, no matter how hard you try to do this peacefully, some people will simply not accept your boundary. For example, an old friendship ended when the person refused to engage in conversation without arguing.
I understand this is highly uncomfortable, borderline painful, so let's talk strategies to manage that discomfort.
Handling the uncomfortable emotions
The hardest part about setting boundaries isn't what to say. It's managing the uncomfortable emotions that come with it. And they suck.
It can cause all kinds of discomfort to set boundaries. Just a few days ago, in a coaching call, someone told me: "I get all flustered and crumble when people ask me to do things I don't want to do. Just thinking about upsetting them... I can't."
I get it, it's hard.
These emotions can range from anxiety and guilt to fear and anger. It's natural to feel uneasy when we confront someone with a boundary, especially if we're not used to standing up for ourselves. The thought of upsetting someone we care about can be overwhelming, and the fear of rejection or conflict can be paralyzing. In fact, it's not uncommon for people to avoid setting boundaries altogether because they're afraid of the negative emotions that might come up.
But avoiding boundaries can have serious consequences. If we don't establish healthy boundaries, we may find ourselves overcommitted, burned out, or resentful of others. We may also struggle with feelings of powerlessness or low self-esteem, as we allow others to dictate our choices and priorities.
But I only know one way to manage those uncomfortable emotions:
To like yourself.
When you like yourself deeply, you won't need someone else to like you or approve of you, because you will feel confident in your decisions and comfortable handling their disapproval.
Easier said than done, I know.
Another helpful strategy is to reframe our perspective on boundaries. Instead of seeing them as obstacles to connection or harmony, we can view them as opportunities for growth and deeper understanding in our relationships. By communicating our needs and limits clearly and respectfully, we can build trust and respect with others, and foster more authentic and fulfilling connections.
Here are some tips to handle this:
- Recognize exactly what your uncomfortable feeling is: What are you afraid of or nervous about? How might you avoid that or deal with it in a productive way?
- Identify the reason behind the boundary: It's important to be clear about why you're setting the boundary. Knowing your reasons can help you communicate your boundary in a calm and confident manner. Ask yourself, "What do I need right now?" and "What am I willing to accept or not accept?"
- Practice assertiveness: Being assertive means expressing your needs and opinions in a clear and respectful manner. Use "I" statements to communicate how you feel and what you need. For example, "I need some alone time right now," or "I'm not comfortable with that behavior."
- Set realistic expectations: Understand that not everyone will respect your boundaries, and that's okay. Setting boundaries is about taking care of yourself, not controlling other people's behavior. Be prepared for pushback and practice responding calmly and respectfully. Walking through how you'll respond can help you feel more at ease.
It may feel uncomfortable at first, but with practice, it will become easier and more natural.
The more you build the boundary muscle, the stronger you'll get—and the more you'll love your life.
Now, it's your turn
Because you made it to the end of the newsletter on saying no, I'm going to assume it's something you consider an important and necessary step in your life.
Setting boundaries is a challenging task, but it's an essential part of cultivating healthy relationships with yourself and others.
It isn't a one-time thing. It's an ongoing process that requires constant attention and effort, but it does get easier.
As you move forward, here are a few questions for you to reflect on:
- Where do you need to set boundaries in your life? Is it in your personal relationships, work life, or daily routines? By identifying these areas, you can start to make small changes that will have a big impact on your overall well-being.
- What would your life look like if you set all the boundaries you want? Imagine for a moment what your life would look like if you set all the boundaries you want. Would you feel more empowered, less stressed, and more in control?
- What will your life look like if you DON'T set your boundaries? Would you feel overwhelmed, resentful, and burnt out? What would your day-to-day look like?
These are all important questions to consider as you navigate the boundaries in your life.
For me, I've learned that the pain of stewing in resentment is much larger and more hurtful than "just" saying no.
And as I've felt the benefits of saying no, it's become easier for me to set boundaries that protect my well-being and happiness.
It's the best virtuous cycle.
It's my favorite form of self-care because it leads me closer to my ideal life.
When you prioritize your needs and set healthy boundaries, you're sending a powerful message to yourself and others that you're worth taking care of.
Because you matter.
You got this.
Thanks so much for being here and reading this. Know that I'm rooting for you and am confident you can take action to build toward your ideal life.
While you do that, hit 'reply' and let me know:
What boundary will you set this week?
I'll go first:
This week, I'm going to stash my phone in another room while I work. Normally, I'd worry about people getting upset if I don't respond to their texts right away. But you know what? They'll be fine. I'm pumped about the work I'll get done and how much closer I'll get to my goals.
Until next week!
Sending you all the best vibes ✨
— Marcella ✌️
PS. Remember to check out Beehiiv if you're thinking of starting a newsletter. Every perspective is different, and I'd love to hear what you have to share with the world.
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