Boundary-setting is not a skill we’re born with.
It’s not even an instinct most of us are born with. In fact, most of us are born with kind of the opposite instinct: we want to accommodate and please others, whenever possible. Even at the expense of our priorities, health, or peace of mind.
When we’re young, we learn, either implicitly or explicitly, that many other people in our worlds will treat us well mostly or only to the extent that we can meet their needs. Ideally, as we mature, we learn that relationships are a little more nuanced than that— that while there are some relationships that continue to function on simple reciprocity, there are other relationships that endure beyond you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours transactions.
However, our lizard brains largely retain the belief that, if we want our relationships to endure, if we want to be treated well and thought of fondly, we’d better be in the business of accommodating and pleasing others. Which makes saying “no” incredibly difficult for a lot of us.
Setting boundaries is really just a formalized way of saying “no.”
People don’t like to hear “no.” Especially when they want something from us.
And most of us don’t like to say “no,” either, precisely because we’ve internalized this belief that we’re basically valuable to others based on what we can do for them. Setting boundaries— saying “no”— can feel scary if we truly believe that our relationships are fragile, always on the verge of imploding if we fail to accommodate and please.
Over time, the belief that we will only be treated well if we accommodate and please has a way of calcifying into another insidious belief: that we only have worth to the extent that we are considered worthy or desirable by other people. Our self-esteem gets all wrapped up in the extent to which we’re valued by other people— and the extent to which we’re valued by other people is wrapped up, we think, in the extent to which we please and accommodate them.
That is, we come to believe our self-esteem depends on not saying “no” to very many people, very often.
All of which is nonsense, of course. Our worth as people has nothing to do with the extent to which other people consider us desirable or worthy.
Other peoples’ approval feels nice, and social acceptance makes it easier to connect with people (which itself is an important human need). But our basic worthiness cannot be raised or lowered based on whether we can meet other peoples’ needs in the way they prefer.
We have worth independent of whether other people approve of us, like us, or have use for us.
That said: most people in our lives are not going to be particularly helpful in helping us feel worthy regardless of what we can do for them.
And why would they, really? The fact is, many people have a vested interest in us fervently believing that we absolutely have to avoid setting boundaries with them, avoid saying “no” to them, at all costs. People don’t want us developing the belief system that we have worth independent of their approval.
They’d prefer we be at their emotional beck and call.
They’d prefer we feel guilty if we even THINK about saying “no” to them.
They’d prefer our self-esteem remain fragile, and dependent upon their approval. And of course their approval will be based on— what else?— the extent to which we are disinclined to say “no” to them.
So how, then, do we develop the skill of boundary setting, when both our early conditioning and the people around us are so effortfully working against us, making it inherently uncomfortable to say such a simple word— “no?”
You’re not going to like the answer.
The only way to get good at setting boundaries is to get practice at it.
And practicing setting boundaries is going to entail feeling mighty uncomfortable for a bit.
The good news? You can start small. You don’t have to get all your practice in high-stakes situations, such as your close personal or work relationships. Nobody’s expecting your education in setting boundaries to be perfect or easy.
Start with the little stuff.
Call the restaurant when they screw up your order.
Ask for a refund.
Unfollow somebody on Facebook whose posts make you mad or sad.
Tell a telemarketer to put your number on their do not contact list.
Remember this: it took you years to develop your aversion to say “no.” Nobody is expecting you to become a champion at setting boundaries overnight.
Remember this as well: the biggest hurdle you’re going to encounter is not, actually, going to be in other peoples’ reactions, especially in these low-stakes situations. It’s going to be dealing with the anxiety and guilt that saying “no” stirs up inside you— that anxiety and guilt that we work so hard to avoid by trying to please everyone, all the time.
Setting boundaries is not a skill we’re born with. But like many skills that are of essential importance to our emotional health, it can be nurtured.
You’re not alone in this.
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