Upholding Boundaries in Difficult Situations

two women communicating boundaries

Journal Prompts and Suggestions for Creating & Maintaining Boundaries

How often do you find yourself saying yes when instead you should have said no? There are many reasons that we can feel pressured to do something, even when it’s not what’s best for us: obligation to a relationship, fear of underperforming, trying to meet expectations, and just not feeling comfortable saying no.

Sometimes, we don’t know what our boundary for something is until after it’s already been crossed. Defining personal boundaries can be a trial and error process, but we can also be proactive about creating our boundaries. And how do we uphold them once we know what they are?

I often talk about our journey through life and understanding how to define your own personal boundaries feels like a journey as well. It requires a healthy dose of self awareness and periodic intentional reflection. 

When I look back at my years in the corporate world, I know now that I did a lousy job setting and upholding boundaries on my time. I told myself that the ridiculous hours worked regularly were expected of me. Yet the truth is, if I had  voiced that additional resources were needed and timelines were not realistic earlier in my career, it is likely that some changes may have been possible. This would have been a difficult discussion, but in hindsight it would have been a wise one, both for myself and my team.

In later years I got better at doing this and at first I was surprised that rather than these discussions being looked at from a negative perspective from my superiors, it actually was viewed from a higher level of respect. When you respect yourself and your time, others seem to more easily do so as well. I also began to realize that it was impossible to accomplish all the work and it was okay for many of the projects to still be there tomorrow. The same is usually true in your household as well.

Why Boundaries are Important

Most of the time when someone asks something of us, there is a pre-existing relationship like being coworkers, family members, friends, partners, etc., which can make it seem easier to ignore your own boundaries to please them. However, this is not sustainable. When we overexert ourselves with commitments that are born only out of obligation, not only are we more likely to not fully commit to the obligation to the best of our ability, but it can also cause resentment in the relationship and be harmful to our own wellbeing. 

It is okay to say no to something because you don’t want to do it, and it’s okay to say no to something because you shouldn’t. Sometimes, the two are the same—there are times when if you don’t want to do something, you shouldn’t! A friend of mine told her daughter growing up, “If you can’t do it with a happy heart, then don’t help.”

Obviously as adults there are times when we have to do things even when we really don’t want to, but if you have a true choice in whether or not to do something and you know that you can’t do it with a “happy heart”, it would likely be best if you don’t do it…for both you and other people involved. Think about a time when you were voluntarily using your time for something and someone clearly didn’t want to be there. Their energy can be off putting and even impact your own mood.

This is one reason why it is important to recognize and uphold your boundaries. Overtime, if we allow our boundaries to be lines that are easily crossed instead of strong walls, we can lose touch with doing things we value, committing good deeds out of the goodness of our hearts, and getting joy from relationships and activities.

You might be afraid to assert yourself and your boundaries in fear of it impacting your relationships with those asking, but when was the last time you got mad at one of your friends for saying no to getting together because they needed a night in? We often do not give ourselves the grace we afford to others, but people that truly care about you will respect your boundaries and be understanding, just as you are with them.

So how do we decide our boundaries in the first place and find out how much of ourselves we can give without depleting ourselves? There will always be times where we won’t know that something has crossed a boundary we didn’t know we had until it’s too late. It's not until afterwards that we realize we ended up emotionally exhausted and that the experience negatively impacted on our own wellbeing. However, you can be proactive and create your boundaries with guided reflection and introspection.

woman answering journal prompts to identify boundaries

Journal Prompts to Identify Your Boundaries

1. Think of instances when your boundaries were blatantly crossed—whether you already had the boundaries or not. Is there a common theme in these situations that can lend to a general value that you can uphold to prevent it from happening again?

2. When have you agreed to something when you should have said no? What stopped you from saying no, and does it justify ignoring your own boundary or is it valid?

3. Write the five most important things that you need to be emotionally and physically healthy in one week. What events or things would you prioritize over any of those things, if any? How can you balance commitments with still making sure you get those five things?

4. Is it hard for you to say no to other people? Who is it hard to say no to? Why? If you needed to say no to any of these people, how could you say it respectfully while still communicating a boundary?

5. Think of at least one situation where you think it would be almost impossible to say no to someone. What is the situation, and why is saying no so difficult? If this situation would impact your wellbeing and prevent you from being the best person for the situation, create a boundary. Write it down clearly, and come up with ways to communicate it should the need ever arise. 

What to Do When Upholding Boundaries is Hard

Examine why it is so hard to say no. Sometimes, our pasts can groom us to be people-pleasers rather than someone who genuinely enjoys serving others. If you feel nothing but stress and pressure when you are fulfilling the needs of others, you may be a compulsive people-pleaser. While the intention of making other people happy is good, it’s not worth it if it jeopardizes your own health. It’s okay to not be a people-pleaser!

Not everyone has the emotional bandwidth to extend to other situations without being overexerted. Life can be hard and certain hardships can drain us of how much emotion and attention we can invest into things outside of sustaining our own health and happiness. Maintaining your peace does not automatically make you selfish.

If you feel guilty about upholding your boundaries, think of areas where you donate your time and attention to other asks that aren’t YOUR boundaries. Realize that you’re not saying no to everything, and the things you agree to could be a boundary for someone else.

Perspective and communication are key aspects to remember when upholding your boundaries so that you don’t get overwhelmed with obligation and negative self-talk. Try looking at the situation from multiple perspectives and if you need to, try saying an affirmation about your own needs and worth before communication "no" to someone.

Things to say when saying no is hard:

 “I don’t have the time or emotional availability to be the best person for that. Is there someone else you can ask? I can recommend [solution]”
“I’m not comfortable doing that, but I can support you by _____”
“I am not available to do that.”
“I’m thankful you thought of me, but someone else would be better suited.”
“I am too busy right now to be able to do that.”

Even though you might feel inclined to attach an apology when saying no, it is not always necessary. Avoid apologizing if you don’t have a reason to and you don’t need to explain your reasoning if it is too personal.

Sometimes we have people we truly care about ask us to do something that we genuinely want to do, but can’t for many reasons and even just saying no can be upsetting for everyone involved. More complicated situations like this might require a deeper conversation to communicate your needs and your boundaries.

Just remember, if you agree to do something when you actually can’t or shouldn’t, it is not the best option for anyone involved and there are always alternative solutions. Sometimes, all you can do is your best, and that’s okay.

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