I have always had a hard time setting boundaries and telling people “No.”
I’ve gone on dates I really didn’t want to go on just because I felt obligated to and didn’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings — eventually needing a coworker to type out an “I’m not interested” message because I was too nervous to do it myself.
I have taken on too much in work, school and church because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone or deal with confrontation. I’ve struggled with telling people how I really feel because I fear a negative response from them. My people-pleasing tendencies were so extreme I’d consider setting boundaries as being rude.
Setting boundaries in relationships, work and church settings is crucial in maintaining your sense of autonomy and self-worth. It’s frustrating to say “Yes” to a commitment and then follow through while being upset you couldn’t just say no in the first place. Some of us are so consumed with how others feel, we sacrifice our own happiness trying to please them.
When you say yes to something you didn’t want to do or weren’t emotionally capable of, you may feel a sense of self-betrayal. You let your own needs down in your unrelenting quest to take care of others. But why is it so hard to just say no?
External validation is a big motivator in people-pleasing and not setting boundaries. We want to be well-liked, appreciated and praised for what we do. We worry others will have negative opinions about our decisions because we put our worth in their perceptions. If you’ve spent your life doing well at school and work like many of us at BYU, external validation is a natural feeling to chase. But in reality, the only validation we should focus on comes from within ourselves and our accomplishments.
According to a Psychology Today article from Kristen Lee, a behavioral science professor at Northeastern University, difficulty setting boundaries often signifies an effort to align our behavior with our values. For example, you may always want to be there for people because you value relationships. But we can miss out on investing our time and energy into ourselves when we only say “Yes” to others.
Because of social conditioning, our identities are often tied up in how much we do for other people. Lee says this is especially true for women, who have long been in positions where “emotional labor” or nurturing and tending to others’ emotions is expected and demanded of them.
“But when we only say yes, we might be missing chances to invest our time and energy in ways that help us take our values and goals to new levels,” Lee writes.
It’s not unkind to set a boundary with someone, even though it may feel that way for chronic people-pleasers (like myself.) Be honest from the beginning and don’t apologize for your decision or dwell on how the other person feels.
It’s worse for everyone in the long run if you continue to do something you don’t want to do. You’re sacrificing your own needs while not giving the other person or task your full attention and effort.
If you’ve treated someone with honesty and respect, you don’t need to worry about how they react to your boundaries (Note: Of course the exception is you don’t need to be respectful when you’re in a dangerous or abusive situation). Setting boundaries is easier said than done, especially if you have anxiety surrounding relationships. I’ve developed more respect for myself by telling people “No” even though it’s difficult for me.
Setting boundaries could look like saying you aren’t interested in seeing someone romantically anymore, declining a work project when you don’t have the time for it or not responding to work-related texts past a certain hour at night.
In dating relationships, I’ve been disrespected over and over again because I did not set or maintain any boundaries. Eventually, I could cut toxic people out of my life because I stopped worrying so much about their thoughts and feelings. Your peace of mind and emotional stability is worth so much more than any relationship fall-out.
I wish I could go back in time and set boundaries earlier. I would’ve saved myself a lot of unnecessary stress and often fruitless emotional and mental labor.
So next time you don’t want to go on that date or cannot take on a responsibility at the time, be honest right away. It’s really difficult at first when you’re used to worrying about putting other people’s happiness above your own. But the sense of relief and pride that comes from just saying “No” is so worth it.
— Emma Gadeski