Boundary Setting | Relationship Skills | Advice from a Therapist
If you’ve been on social media in the last few years, you might be familiar with the phrase “No is a complete sentence.”
This statement is one that’s often used in conversations about setting boundaries, but boundaries aren’t always as simple as simply saying no to someone. It’s true that no is a complete sentence. But it’s not the only way, the “best” way, or the “right” way to set a boundary.
We need different approaches to setting boundaries in different situations because there is no “one size fits all” solution for relationships.
Generalizations and social media advice
There’s a reason that the advice you see on social media is often simple and direct. It’s meant to appeal to a broad audience. It’s hard to get into nuance and details when you’re trying to speak to everyone at once. “No is a complete sentence,” is a great example of this. There are many situations where simply saying no can be helpful, but that’s not always the case.
Imagine that you were hoping to share something vulnerable with someone you care about, and all they said in response was “No.” That would probably upset you, and for good reason. The relationships in our lives matter, and the way we approach communication matters too.
Saying no with compassion isn’t always as simple as just saying the word no.
It might be easier to write on an Instagram graphic, but boundaries in relationships you care about require nuance. It’s impossible to present topics on social media in a way that honors the complexities of each person reading. Remember that mental health advice that you see on social media is often a starting point, not all of the information you need to know.
When it comes to boundaries, there are a lot different things to consider: the relationship with the other person, the cultural context, your abilities and energy levels, and the power dynamics at play are just a few factors that impact boundary setting. For example, in the US, our culture emphasizes individualism, but that’s not the case for many other cultures, and so this conversation might be different depending on the cultural context.
Boundaries are often misunderstood. While many people think of a boundary as something that you expect someone else to do, boundaries actually define what you will do in a given situation.
When you don’t have strong boundaries, you may experience:
- Taking on too much and burning out
- Chronic stress (and the health problems that go with it)
- Feeling resentful, frustrated, and angry in relationships
- Experiencing being taken advantage of or manipulated
- Not getting your physical, emotional, or mental needs met
- Losing important resources (time, energy, money, attention)
- Being unable to prioritize the things that matter most to you
Boundaries also help us maintain relationships and build a solid foundation in our connections with others, which might be surprising to some. We often think of boundaries as being for people who stress us out or make our lives harder, but all kinds of relationships benefit from healthy boundaries.
In fact, setting boundaries can be a way to heal and nurture our loving relationships by building trust that our loved ones know when we really mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’, preventing resentment from building up, and giving our loved ones permission to take care of themselves and their needs.
Some examples of boundaries
- I’m so excited to catch up! I can only stay until 3pm. What’s new?
- I’m not looking for advice about this right now, but I’d appreciate a listening ear!
- I do not respond to emails outside of work hours. If you email me on a weekend, I’ll get back to you on Monday.
- That nickname really bothers me. I won’t respond when you call me that in the future.
- Weight loss is not a goal of mine. If you continue to pressure me about losing weight, I will end the conversation.
- I’m not able to work later today and I will be leaving at my scheduled time.
- I don’t have the bandwidth for that right now. Thanks for thinking of me!
Many folks who struggle with boundaries have learned that they’re all-or-nothing. You say “no” assertively and accept the consequences, or do nothing. As a result, lots of people struggle to set boundaries until they are totally fed up and ready to burst, which can be damaging to the relationships that are important to them. As with most things in life, though, there’s a middle ground. No isn’t your only option when it comes to setting a boundary.
How a simple, direct no can be helpful:
Learning to set healthy boundaries is important work in relationships with others, and learning how to say no is a good first step for many people. Also, given the way that women are socialized to be accommodating and prioritize other people’s comfort over our own needs, honoring that no is a complete sentence is a really powerful and important message.
Reasons you might choose a simple, direct “no” when setting a boundary:
- You need something to stop, immediately
- Someone is being pushy or disrespectful to you
- You are emotionally overwhelmed or triggered and need a simple way to communicate
- You’ve tried polite ways to communicate a boundary, but they aren’t working
- You want to communicate your message in a way that makes a forceful impact
- You’re in a situation where the emotional or relational stakes are low
How a simple, direct no can be unhelpful:
Setting boundaries skillfully may require bluntness, but it can also require tact, compassion, nuance, and thoughtfulness. Sometimes creating room for negotiation when setting a boundary might be in your best interest, and other times you might need to hold firm. Sometimes a harmless lie might even be the most appropriate option.
Think about it: You probably don’t want to say no to your beloved 94-year-old grandmother’s request that you come visit her during the holidays the same way you would say no to a creep who just won’t leave you alone at a bar, or the same way you’d say no to your boss asking you to work late for the fifth time this month. Different situations and relationships require different approaches to setting boundaries.
Reasons you might choose another approach when setting boundaries:
- You want to be gentle with the feelings of someone you care about
- It’s a less strategic option for getting your needs met in a particular situation
- Saying ‘no’ directly is not appropriate in your cultural context (for example, with an elder)
- You trust the person you’re talking to and want to have a deeper discussion of your needs
- You want to try a softer option first, and escalate only if needed
- It would cause negative blowback on you (for example, at work)
Learning how to set boundaries skillfully takes practice. It’s helpful to have a few approaches to boundary-setting in your boundary toolbox so you can feel comfortable asking for what you need.
Here are a few strategies for setting boundaries that you can try:
DEAR MAN is a skill used in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) as a way to communicate effectively and ask for what you need from someone else. The name of the skill, DEAR MAN, is an acronym that stands for:
- Describe what happened factually
- Express how it made you feel
- Assert yourself and ask for what you need (or say no)
- Reinforce the positive aspects of what you’re asking for
- Mindfully focus on your goal for the conversation
- Appear confident during the conversation
- Negotiate or be willing to compromise
Following these steps when setting boundaries can be helpful to get your message across calmly and confidently.
It might be easier to sandwich your boundary between kind statements. It is sometimes easier for people to hear something tricky when it’s combined with something nice. When you structure boundary requests, imagine you’re putting together a sandwich – the bread is something nice or compassionate, and the filling of the sandwich is your boundary request.
Here’s an example: “I really appreciate how much you want to help me through this. I’m looking for a shoulder to cry on instead of advice right now. Being able to talk about this with you means a lot to me.”
Broken record technique
The broken record technique is great to practice if you find yourself overexplaining or getting defensive about why you’re choosing to set a boundary. Repeating yourself using the same or similar language can make your message clear while avoiding the pitfalls of getting defensive or pulled into a debate. Whatever the other person says, just keep repeating your boundary instead of veering off topic or getting defensive.
This technique can work just as easily with a friendly tone as it does with a more assertive or forceful one, depending on what you need in the situation. Be a broken record with a kind smile or a scowl and it’s still effective!
Need help figuring out how to set boundaries or support to figure out what your boundaries even are? Therapy is a perfect place to work on building your boundaries toolkit! Schedule a free consultation to connect with a Stella Nova clinician to get started.
About the Author
Stella Nova is a psychology clinic specializing in mental health support for women and nonbinary professionals. We are located in San Francisco, CA and work with clients all over the state of California. Our team of therapists and psychologists offer counseling for a variety of concerns, from anxiety and depression, to chronic pain, to disordered eating and more.
Stella Nova is a LGBTQ+ and BIPOC affirming practice, and we welcome people of all genders who are seeking a feminist healing space.
Find a California Therapist Near You
Are you looking for support in establishing boundaries in your relationships? Stella Nova offers online therapy for individuals and couples virtually throughout California, and in-person in San Francisco. Our team can provide therapy for relationships, depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, chronic pain, and more. We’re a BIPOC and LGBTQ+ owned and operated clinic that strives to provide an affirming, safe healing space for every one of our clients.
To connect with a therapist near you, schedule a free, 20-minute consultation with our Intake Specialist, Cami.