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Been asked to every social event over Christmas? Why is it so difficult to just say no?

Do you feel obliged to say yes to everything? You might need to learn to set boundaries, writes Karl Melvin.

HAVE YOU EVER had a moment when someone asks you to do something and you wanted to say ‘No’, but felt obliged and said ‘Yes’? It then bothers you for the rest of the day and you begrudgingly do the task.

Have you ever had someone make an underhanded remark and it plays on your mind for the rest of the day, week, month or even year?

Have you ever had a family member just show up at your door unannounced and start to burden you with all their problems?

Have you ever had a friend who was disrespectful, but you never told them to stop?

Have you ever felt depressed after being in the presence of a strongly negative person who tries to drag you into their unhappiness?

Have you ever had a friend treat you badly and then you feel compelled to check if they are ok?

If you have answered yes to any of the above questions, then the chances are you struggle with setting boundaries.

How to know your boundaries

A boundary is the point where you end and someone else begins; it represents the separation between you and other people. Strong boundaries constitute independence; a strong sense of self with the freedom to do and say as you please without fear of repercussion or of what people might think; and the freedom to not let the anger of others bother you.

At the most basic level boundaries are all about the word ‘NO’. NO to negative thoughts, NO to invasions of personal space, NO to selfish demands. Just NO.

Setting boundaries, like so many other skills, are first learnt at home, i.e. how your parents or caregivers reacted to a boundary being established. In a healthy family system where everyone can look after their own needs it’s ok to say no, in fact it is often encouraged. Relying on their own resources, the family could respect the response and move on to a different solution. The self esteem of both parties is not threatened and mutual respect can grow.

On the other hand, in an unhealthy family system, no is either non-existent or heavily discouraged. For a needy family member who doesn’t trust themselves or their abilities, no is just not acceptable.

The very notion that someone rejected their demands may infuriate them. Often they could see the rejection as an attack on their self. They might react with passive aggressive communication such as guilt trips, e.g. reminding you of all the things they did for you or ignoring you. These examples cross cognitive boundaries as you may ruminate over their words and behaviour and give it mental energy that would be better served doing something more practical.

It is particularly tough when toxic family members revert to tears in an attempt to pull at your heart strings and get you to change your decision. Only a narcissist would be able to walk away from this predicament as it crosses the emotional boundaries of even the mostly insensitive person.

The worst reaction of all is physical abuse, stepping over a line which leaves a scar so deep that the victim lowers their boundaries to the point where they don’t know who they are. At the mercy of the abuser and living in fear, they might start to identify with them and lose touch with their own human existence.

Boundaries extend beyond human interaction. Alcoholism, drug addiction and food addiction are all examples of poor boundaries. The wounds of childhood can be carried forward into adulthood and manifest themselves in behaviours which many will struggle to change and can have life damaging affects.

What are the types of boundaries

Physical boundaries

A physical boundary is anything which protects your personal space i.e. wherever you are whether at home, in work or in the car, etc.

Mental boundaries

A mental boundaries is the ability to block out specific thoughts. This could be cognitively focusing on something different; changing the stream of thoughts away from a bad memory; to not reflect on an experience or to rationalise a fear or worry.

Emotional boundaries

An emotional boundary is when we protect our emotive state. This could, for example involve withdrawing from someone who is crying as it might trigger your own tears or keeping your distance from an angry person as it evokes feelings of anger within yourself. People who pull back like this can appear uncaring or dispassionate but the truth is emotional boundaries are the hardest to enforce and we all have our own triggers.

Why it is so hard to say no?

Fear is the true enemy. Irrational thoughts and the fear of what others might think of us if we say no is a key part of why boundary issues exist. Fear that something will happen to the person if we don’t succumb to their needs.

Fear of what others would say if we told them of the abuse. Fear we will not be loved if we don’t put others first. Fear that the emotional blackmail will continue if we don’t succumb to their demands.

Fear can then turn to guilt as we believe the fearful inner critic and start to beat ourselves up. Unable to deal with the attack on our conscience, we “give in” and allow the needy person back into the circle.

How to set boundaries

Learn how to control your emotions

Have you noticed you carry a great deal of anger, guilt or fear inside you? These emotions could be an inheritance of your childhood, the baggage of negative experiences growing up. These are a key part of your psychological make up and could be triggered by any event. By not facing these emotions, they in turn might come to control you – forcing you avoid certain situations e.g. saying no.

Its time to reflect on the feelings. How deep do they run? How quickly do they pass? Can you remember the first time you felt this way?

Rationalising the feelings helps to separate them from the external stimuli, giving you space to process them and ultimately empowering you to decide how to react when they reoccur.

Control your palate

“The control of the palate is a valuable aid for the control of the mind.” Mahatma Gandhi.

Developing will power is a key part of controlling how you think. Depriving yourself of treats, i.e. sugary or fried food helps to control your automatic impulses as well as lose weight.

Learn how to stop worrying about everything

Worrying is human nature and is an extremely difficult behaviour to change. To overcome this I start with setting aside a period to allow yourself to worry on a daily basis.

This can help you prioritise what’s going on in your mind without it interfering with your entire day/week/month/year. I also suggest writing down each worry and applying the ABC model referenced in my article on Overcoming Claustrophobia. When doing this exercise also try including worst case scenario’s; let your mind run free and then review the actuality of each fear and decide the likelihood of it actually occurring.

Limiting worry helps to control our cognitive processes and strengthen our mental boundaries.

Control the “Yes” impulse

It’s time to use the word no. Start small and practise by not answering any requests immediately. It’s ok to say “Let me think about it”. Give yourself time to feel how you feel, be completely honest yourself about what you want to do but more importantly be brave.

Understand the value of self reflection

After each time you say no, cross reference the outcome against the potential fear. Was there any need to be afraid? Was the boundary respected? Learning from the experience and separating fear from reality helps us to develop into our best possible version.

Patience is a virtue

This is the most important step in any recovery plan. We all have pitfalls; bad days when we struggle to say no. This is what it means to be human. Being patient with yourself will help you to let go of mistakes and get back on track to strengthening your will with the view to becoming you true self.

Unstoppable force vs Immovable object

Imagine being a rock made up of the hardest stone, untouchable by the strongest wind, immovable by the hardest gale or roughest storm.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Nothing.

The boundary of stone cannot be shaken. It stays exactly as it is, was and always will be. Life will never stop coming at you but that doesn’t mean it has to knock you off course.

Boundaries ensure you can stay focused and achieve great things; they will allow you to relax with the sense that everything is ok and most importantly will drive you help others; not because you fear the consequences but because if feels right and it is what YOU want to do.

Karl Melvin is a psychotherapist with Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Dublin. He regularly publishes mental health articles on the website Toxic Escape. You can follow his Facebook updates here.  

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