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Why you need to set boundaries and learn to say no

In Features, Health & Wellness, Motherhood, Stories, Wellness by Nicole Fuge

If you are being pulled in a million directions and never have anything left for you, it is time for you to discover the power of the word no.

By Domonique Bertolucci

I want to show you how to create a new mindset that not only makes it much easier to say ‘no’ when you want to but eliminates the guilt and recriminations that so often go with doing it.

This is something so many mamas can relate to.

So if you feel like you’re constantly being pulled in a million and one different directions and never have anything left for you – it’s time for you to discover the power of ‘No’, ‘No, thank you’, ‘Not now’ and ‘Not ever’.

One of the first words most children learn, not long after mama or dada … is ‘NO’. By the age of two, not only do most children know exactly what ‘no’ means, they have already become rather proficient at using it.

But somewhere along the way, between learning our first words and entering our adult lives, this skill – the ability to clearly and firmly say ‘no’ to the things we don’t want to do – gets lost. As adults, most people find it harder and harder to say ‘no’. And a whole lot easier to say ‘yes’. Regardless of how they really feel.

“Recognising that you have wants and needs and that they are not always compatible with what other people want from you is illuminating. Learning how to put clear boundaries in place and to say ‘no’ whenever you want to or need to is liberating.”

Does this scenario feel familiar? You find yourself running around, feeling pulled from pillar to post. Trying to keep everyone else happy, to meet their needs, fulfil their requirements and comply with their requests. At the end of the day, you realise that you’ve been so busy taking care of what everyone else wants and needs that you’ve run out of time or energy for the things that you need.

You feel exhausted, frustrated and resentful.

And the worst part – whether these requests happen at home or at work – is that you know this isn’t the first time it has happened and it’s highly unlikely to be the last.

Spending all your time and energy trying to keep everyone else happy is a sure-fire way to make sure you never have the time or energy to do the things that are going to make you happy.

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If you want to get better at saying ‘no’ you first need to change the way you have been thinking about your needs in relation to everyone else’s.

We are taught that it’s bad to be selfish. So in our desire to be good. A good parent. A good employee. Good boss. Good partner, child or sibling. It’s easy to fall into the habit of putting everyone else’s needs first and allowing them to take precedence over your own.

But prioritising your own needs isn’t selfish, it’s SELF-IST.

When you are being selfish, you are putting your own needs first, to the detriment of someone else’s. When you are self-ist, you are simply saying, ‘My needs are important too’.

Being self-ist is about recognising that while you might not always be able to put your needs at the top of your list, they definitely don’t deserve to be at the bottom of it.

Deciding to be self-ist is one of the most empowering decisions you can make.

Prioritising your own needs isn’t selfish it’s SELF-IST.

When you are self-ist, you recognise that your needs are valid. And that they deserve to be recognised, considered, accommodated. Being self-ist is about protecting your needs with clear boundaries and maintaining those boundaries, even when you’re being pressured to move them.

Recognising that you have wants and needs and that they are not always compatible with what other people want from you is illuminating. Learning how to put clear boundaries in place and to say ‘no’ whenever you want to or need to is liberating.

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Just because someone is asking something of you right now, it doesn’t mean you have to say ‘yes’ immediately.

It’s easy to feel pressured into saying ‘yes’ to something you don’t really want to do or that doesn’t fit in with your plans. It can feel like you’ve been put on the spot. Or something about the request makes you feel guilty about refusing.

If you want to release yourself from this pressure, learn to re-evaluate how you respond to a request or demand for your time, energy or attention.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you become rude or evasive in your response. All I am suggesting is that rather than reply instantly, you take a few minutes, hours. Or depending on the request, even days. To give yourself a chance to think about the request and consciously choose the right response for you.

This approach works for all forms of requests, not just face-to-face.

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Next time you receive a request by email, text, iMessage, WhatsApp, Messenger or any other form of digital communication, remind yourself that just because it was an instant message, it doesn’t mean it needs to have an instant answer.

Don’t say ‘yes’ and regret it; take the time to consider your response.

If you find yourself instinctively saying ‘yes’ and then immediately regretting it, you need to learn to buy yourself some time. You can do this with simple phrases like:

I’m not sure, can I come back to you?
Can I think about it?
I need to check my calendar.
When do you need to know by?

It’s a good idea to build a list of phrases like these, so you can call on them any time you need them.

While you’re pressing pause on your response, it’s important to remember that not all of the requests for your time, energy or attention will be negative. In fact, some of them will be positively lovely. But that doesn’t mean you have to say ‘yes’ to it right away.

Even things that you might ordinarily enjoy can feel like a chore if the timing isn’t right. Or if they are being demanded or expected rather than suggested.

When someone says ‘Jump’, stop asking ‘How high?’

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If someone is asking you to do something for them, it doesn’t mean you need to drop everything and do it for them right away. While it might be ideal for them to have your attention or energy immediately, you do not have to make yourself available immediately.


I think there is a hugely important lesson for everyone here.

Whenever someone says ‘Jump’, whatever their version of ‘jump’ might be on that particular occasion, you have a choice.

You can say ‘How high?’. Put your wants and needs to the side. Drop whatever you are doing and meet their needs.

Or, if it is something you do want to take on, you can say, ‘Sure, I’d love to help, how about [insert whatever day and time works best for you]?’

If that doesn’t work for them, they can let you know. But more often than not, when presented with this reasoned approach, people usually agree.

People will only think you are at their beck and call if you let them.

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One of the most common reasons people feel unable to say ‘no’ to all the things everyone else wants them to do is that they are not clear about their own needs or priorities. They don’t know what they want.

Most people have a much clearer idea about where they would like to go on holiday than what they would like to do with their life. They don’t have a clear vision or intention. They don’t set goals and they go around in circles instead of moving forward.

But a lack of clarity about what you really want and what really matters to you doesn’t just affect your big picture. It impacts your day-to-day life too. If you don’t know what you want out of your days or your weeks, it’s very easy to bend and flow with whatever anybody else wants from you instead.

It is easy to become overwhelmed.

But you don’t have to say ‘yes’, just because you don’t have a reason to say ‘no’. ‘Because I don’t want to’ is a perfectly valid reason to say ‘no’, ‘not now’ or ‘not ever’. You don’t need to justify your decision or defend your position.

You don’t have to say ‘yes’, just because you don’t have a reason to say ‘no’.

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So now that you know how to say ‘no’, I want to point out some of the negative reactions you may encounter when you say ‘no’: criticism, judgement and guilt.

It may come as a surprise to you, but other people’s reactions aren’t your responsibility.

When someone wants your time, energy or attention it is natural for them to feel disappointed if they don’t get it. And it’s understandable that people might not like it if you say ‘no’ to their requests. But saying ‘no’ is your prerogative. It’s your choice.

And their reactions? Well, they are about them, not you.

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Being challenged on your decision to say ‘no’ can feel uncomfortable. But the uncomfortable feeling that comes with being made aware of someone’s disappointment in your decision is completely separate from being comfortable with the decision itself. It’s important that you don’t confuse the two.

Make your decision calmly, deliver it clearly, and then stick to it firmly.

In life, we need to teach people how we want to be treated. If you give in or give up after a little pressure, people will learn that pressuring you is the best way to get what they want.

If you are strong and clear in your ‘no’, they will quickly learn that you know your mind and they are wasting their time trying to change it.

So if you are challenged on your decision, try saying, ‘I understand my decision is disappointing to you, but I am comfortable with it’.

I deliberately use the word ‘comfortable’ here. It’s a very respectful word. You’re not saying, ‘You’re unhappy with me, but I don’t care’; nor are you saying, ‘Too bad, so sad’. Most importantly, you’re not apologising. You are simply acknowledging their disappointment while holding firmly to your position.

When you say ‘no’ and someone is disappointed, that is their reaction, not your responsibility.

No matter how much you care about someone, they’re not going to be happy with you all of the time. But keeping them happy isn’t your responsibility.

When you say ‘no’, the person making the request of you might not like it and they may make their feelings known through their actions or their words. But it’s up to you to decide if you are going to take their feelings on. You get to decide if you are going to allow their feelings to affect the way you feel about yourself.

If you find yourself in this situation, say to yourself, ‘I am comfortable with my choices’. Then consciously decide not to take on anyone else’s feelings as your own.

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People tell me all the time that they feel like they have to say ‘yes’. That they feel like they just can’t say ‘no’, and that if they did, they would feel too guilty.

I want to show you how to shift that mindset and let go of your fear of judgement, your sense of obligation and what I call the ‘disease to please’, forever.

If you find yourself thinking that you need to do something, something you don’t really want to do, before you answer yes ‒ out of guilt or expectation ‒ ask yourself why? Why do you feel you need to do it?

Of course, some of our obligations are non-negotiable. If we have a job, we need to turn up to it if we expect to get paid. If you have children you need to feed them. And you need to pay your electricity bill if you want the power to stay on.

But outside of these absolutes, most of the things we say we ‘have to’ do, or that we’ll feel bad or guilty about if we don’t, are because of an expectation. A social expectation or a self-expectation.

If you can’t find a valid reason to say ‘yes’, then the right answer is usually ‘no’.

And sometimes the person you need to say ‘no’ to is yourself. When that happens, instead of feeling guilty, reframe your social and self-expectations with a clear statement about your own values.

For example, instead of saying ‘I should make lunches every day because that’s what a good mother does’. Say ‘I am a good mother because I am present with my children and spend regular quality time with them’.

Next time you find yourself feeling like you should say ‘yes’ to something, stop and examine why. If you can’t find a valid and values-based reason to say ‘yes’, then the right answer is usually ‘no’.

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  1. Saying ‘no’ isn’t selfish, it’s self-ist ‒ your needs matter too.
  2. It’s okay to press pause on your response while you decide whether you really want your answer to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  3. When someone says ‘jump’. Stop asking ‘How high?’ Instead, if you decide to meet their needs, meet them on your terms.
  4. People will only think you are at their beck and call if you let them. So get clear on your boundaries.
  5. You don’t have to say ‘yes’ just because you don’t have a reason to say ‘no’.
  6. When you say ‘no’ and someone is disappointed, their reaction is not your responsibility.
  7. Don’t let your feelings, or your fear of someone else’s feelings, influence your decision. If you can’t find a valid reason to say ‘yes’, then the right answer is usually ‘no’.

This is an edited extract from 7 Step Mindset Makeover by Domonique Bertolucci published by Hardie Grant Books