A client recently asked for support with setting and communicating time needs and boundaries. She has a lot of fear around telling the people she cares for that she’s unavailable (even for a relatively short period of time), and she wants to learn how to set healthy boundaries without feeling guilty.
The process I shared with her is outlined below. It is designed to help with setting healthy boundaries, something many of us struggle with. Especially if you are a people pleaser, saying no to others in order to honor your own needs can feel very scary.
As you work through the steps, know that it is possible that you will have some residual fear going into this difficult conversation. Doing something that you’ve been trained to believe is wrong or makes you a less-good person can be tough, so make sure you practice self-compassion and know that you can say no with love.
The work of setting healthy boundaries is about accessing the courage to speak your needs despite fear. It’s not about eliminating the fear completely. In twelve-step programs, they talk about “acting as if” we were already capable of that which we long to do, and that’s often what is required in difficult conversations that involve saying no.
If you’ve already noticed that you feel afraid to say no to loved ones, I want you to know that you are actually one major step into the game. Many people go through their lives habitually putting others first, never truly stepping into their purpose or sharing their deeper gifts with the world. It can be uncomfortable to wake up to the fact that we long to give ourselves the same care that we give to everyone else. Acknowledging your discomfort and fear without making yourself wrong for feeling this way is the first step towards learning how to set healthy boundaries.
The next step is to notice the story that you’re telling yourself underneath the guilt. While you may notice your emotion before your thoughts, the truth is that guilt is always preceded by a thought. Go back to the moment before you remember feeling the guilt about saying no, and listen for what your inner Judge is telling you it means about you.
Stories that the Judge is infamous for include: “You don’t deserve to say no to them.” “You’re selfish and self-centered if you put yourself first.” “If you say no to them now, then you can’t count on them to be there for you in the future.” “If you say no to them, they will be mad at you and stop loving you.” Underneath these stories is a common thread of “you’re not worth being put first,” or “you’re only good enough when you put others first.” Guilt is almost always rooted in a story we tell ourselves about our self-worth being based on what we do for others rather than who we are for ourselves.
The next step is to inquire within and listen for a new story that creates a sense of ease and peace. Your new story could sound like the following. “I’m saying no to them right now so that I can say yes to what’s most important to me.” “I believe in a world in which everyone’s needs are met, and I deserve to get my needs met, too.” “I am loveable and worthy no matter what I do.” Or, it might sound different than any of these. Feel for what internal story can help you set healthy boundaries.
We are interdependent creatures whose survival depends on our ability to give and receive. Often, when we feel guilty about saying no, it’s because we have two different needs that seem to be competing. On the one hand, we have a need to focus on developing our work in the world. On the other hand, we have a need for connection and support. Therefore, in addition to being rooted in self-judgment (as we discussed above), the fear we feel around saying no can also be about fearing that these needs won’t be met. Spend some time getting clear on what your needs are—both those that you will meet by saying no and those that you fear you won’t meet by saying no.
After you articulate your needs, envision the solution. How will it sound when you say no without feeling guilty? How can you tell your loved one that you are unavailable while honoring your needs for interdependence and connection? How can you let your loved one know how important they are to you and how important your work is to you in a way that feels good to you?
Be as concrete as possible in your request for time, letting your loved one know exactly how much time alone you are hoping for and what the boundaries around what you can offer them look like. Such requests to your loved ones could sound like, “Tuesdays from 9-5 are my business development days. Please don’t call or text or email me during this time,” or “I’m sorry. This week, I’m not available to help you with your big move. Can you please leave a few boxes for me to unpack next Saturday for you?”
Have the conversation with your loved one. Share your need for connection with your loved one and your need for time to work. Let them know how scary this feels for you and let them know about the self-judgment and guilt making this request brings up. Then, state your request specifically and clearly.
Do you have trouble setting healthy boundaries without feeling guilty? If you’re ready to gain the connection and space for yourself on your journey, and are looking for support as you do so, sign up today for a free Discovery Session and get clear on your next steps to living your life with authenticity and ease.