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The 4 Steps to Saying No: How to set boundaries for your peace of mind

How to say No in 4 steps this Holiday season
How to say no in 4 steps this Holiday season

It's the holidays. The season of peace, love, and joy... and for many the season of stress, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed by tasks, duties, family relationships, and commitments. Learning to be comfortable saying no can be a great step toward reducing anxiety, freeing you to focus on what is really meaningful to you this time of year.

When to Say No

Saying no is one way to set a boundary. “Boundaries” is one of those favorite words of therapists, and for good reason. The purpose of boundaries is to protect your time, energy, freedom, values, self-worth, and peace of mind. In a particular situation, decide what you are truly willing to do without holding on to resentment. Ask yourself, is this meaningful to me? If not, consider saying no. The goal is to let your behavior be guided by what is truly meaningful to you instead of guided by guilt.

Remember that a boundary isn’t to control someone else’s behavior. It’s simply to know for yourself what you are willing to do, what you are not willing to do, and when to remove yourself. You don't have control over what someone else asks of you, what their expectations are, or their negative reactions. You can only control your response. If you decide you'd like your response to be, "No thank you," try the steps below.

4 Steps to Saying No

Here are 4 steps to communicating a limit or boundary in the form of a "No."

1) Empathize with the other person

Start with trying to imagine where the other person is coming from. Go ahead and give them the benefit of the doubt that they have a positive intention from their point of view. You can say something like, “I understand that you probably are stressed about/excited about/etc.….” Starting with empathy for the other person's position makes it less likely that they will be on the defensive, and more likely that they will hear what you have to say.

2) State your limit:

State your limit simply, with minimal explanation. You don't need to convince the other person that it's ok for you to say no. You only need to communicate your limit. Try the following wordings:

  • “I’ve decided I’m going to….”

  • “I've decided I am no longer/not going to…..”

  • “This is what I can (or am willing to) do.”

  • “This is not something I can (or am willing to) do.”

  • “I appreciate your input, but I’m happy with what I’m doing/did.”

  • "I appreciate your input, and I’ll consider your ideas as well as mine.”

3) (Optional) Offer an Alternative :

If applicable, offer other options that you are willing to do. You don't have to solve the other person's problem, simply let them know what you are willing to do.

4) Repeat:

If questioned, simply repeat steps 1-3 as many times as necessary, over and over again. Don't get pulled into a debate about whether your reasons are good enough. You don't need the other person to agree. As an adult, you get to be the judge of what is best for you. Be consistent. You want others to be able to predict 100% what you will say when they test the limit.

Putting the 4 Steps into Action

Let's say your sister invites you to her house out-of-town for the holidays. You'd like to go, but you feel like you have too much to deal with between work and your own family. Start with steps 1-3: Empathize, State the Limit, Offer an Alternative. (Again, step 3 is optional.)

"Thank you so much for inviting me. I know you were probably looking forward to having the whole family together, but I've decided I won't be able to make it this time. I'd be happy to make a trip there next summer or get together next time you're in town."

Your sister may respond with something like, "But I don't understand. Why can't you come? It won't be the same without you! Don't you think I'm busy too?? I've spent 3 weeks preparing and now you won't be there. You can be so selfish. Your niece is going to be so sad you didn't come." As tempting as it is to prove to your sister that you're a good person and that you do care about your niece, don't get into a debate on any of those points. Simply repeat the steps (Empathize, State the Limit, Offer an Alternative), "I know it's disappointing because you worked so hard and y'all were looking forward to having everyone together, but I've decided to stay in town this year. I'd love to visit next summer or see you next time you're in the area." And repeat.

Tips for Saying No or Setting Boundaries

  • Avoid justifying, rationalizing, or apologizing. You may offer a brief explanation if you like, but avoid trying to convince the other person your reasons are "good enough."

  • Wait until you feel calm, and state your limit clearly, preferably without anger. There is more power in stating a limit assertively and calmly than in lashing out in anger.

  • You may feel guilty, afraid or ashamed when you say no. Do it anyway. Remember that guilt or anxiety is just a feeling. You can have the feeling and still protect your boundaries. Over time, you may notice the guilt or anxiety decreases with practice. This is because saying no proves to yourself that you are worthy of protecting your boundaries.

  • Boundaries will be tested. Be prepared to follow through and repeat as many times as necessary. If you haven't set boundaries with someone before, it may take a while before they are able to predict your new response 100% of the time.

  • Boundaries aren't to control others, only yourself. You can't control others' reactions, responses, or expectations. Your options are to decide what you're willing to do, decline what you are not willing to do, or remove yourself from a conversation, a situation, or even a relationship.

For more on managing relationships mindfully, read about your 4 options when dealing with difficult people.


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