September 19

The Power of Saying “No”: Setting Healthy Boundaries in Our Personal and Professional Life

Why is it so hard to say “no” – to draw a line in the sand and give ourselves permission to say no to things we really don’t want to do? We make ourselves go to dinner with people we don’t like, we take on projects at work that don’t interest us, or maybe we stay for hours at family holiday dinner where Uncle Joe always drinks a little too much and starts lecturing about politics.

Setting healthy boundaries is not something we talk about very often and is something many of us know very little about.

Boundaries are the invisible lines we draw to protect our mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and they play an essential role in shaping our lives. Just as fences protect our homes, personal boundaries safeguard our inner peace, self-respect, and energy.

And just like it can be more than challenging to invest the time and energy to build the fence, the same rings true for boundaries. They take work.

Boundaries are powerful, and they’re promises that we make to ourselves for how we want to live our lives and engage with the world. At their core, boundaries reflect our values, priorities, and self-worth. They signal to others how we expect to be treated and what we are—and are not—willing to tolerate. By setting clear boundaries, you can take control of your life, ensuring that your needs and feelings are acknowledged and respected.

So if boundaries are so good for us, why do we struggle to set them, and struggle even more to keep them?

Because in today's fast-paced, interconnected world, there's an unspoken expectation to be ever-present, always agreeable, and perpetually available. This societal pressure often manifests in the form of an overwhelming urge to say "yes" to every request, invitation, or opportunity that comes our way. Our FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) seems to have gone on steroids.

From a young age, we are conditioned to prioritize harmony and avoid conflict. We're taught that saying "yes" is polite, accommodating, and the mark of a team player. Note that I said conditioned, not born, to ignore our boundaries. I believe that the need to say “yes” is actually a learned skill, and we actually have a natural ability to set boundaries, and societal expectations breed it out of us.

I don’t know about you, but I knew as a child when I did not want to play with another kid, or share my toys. My mother just insisted I do it. Think about it. Just watch a child and see that they naturally understand their boundaries and have no problems expressing them.

Now, I am not sure society would work if we all just walked around behaving like children, but, there is something powerful in watching someone else be clear and unapologetic about their boundaries. We can learn from a child’s innate ability to go after what they want.

Because, once society (and our mothers) breeds that out of us, boundaries can be tough to set both in our professional and our personal lives. Think about professionally, the fear you have that if you don’t raise your hand, stay late at the office or volunteer for certain projects that you won’t be liked or you’ll be passed over for promotion. The fear of missing out on opportunities, the desire to climb the corporate ladder, or the simple need to be seen as valuable can make us stretch ourselves too thin.

We take on extra projects, attend meetings that don't pertain to us, and work beyond our capacity, all in the name of being indispensable.

However, this constant affirmation comes at a cost. It blurs our personal boundaries, making it challenging to distinguish between what we genuinely want to do and what we feel obligated to do.

While saying "no" is often associated with being difficult, selfish, or uncooperative – the truth is, there is real power in saying no and setting healthy boundaries in both your personal and professional lives. Real power for both you and the person you are setting the boundary with. Setting boundaries is not only showing respect for you, but it is also showing respect for others.

Isn’t it more respectful to say “no thank you, I would not like to have coffee,” then to go to coffee with someone and then talk to others about how much it was a waste of your time?

So why do we struggle to set healthy boundaries? 

Setting Healthy Boundaries and the "Yes Vomit" Phenomenon: When Affirmation Becomes Overwhelming

You've probably experienced it, even if you haven't named it: that moment when you find yourself automatically agreeing to tasks, favors, or commitments without giving them proper thought. This reflexive and often uncontrollable urge to say "yes" to everything is what mental health expert Cheryl Green, MD, likes to call the "Yes Vomit" phenomenon.

At its core, "Yes Vomit" is the result of a combination of factors: societal pressures, a desire to please, fear of missing out, and, sometimes, a lack of self-awareness. It's when our instinct to affirm takes over, bypassing our rational mind and our true feelings.

Here's how it typically unfolds:

  1. Immediate Affirmation: Someone makes a request or offers an opportunity. Without pausing to consider, we immediately respond with a "yes."
  2. Post-Yes Regret: Moments, hours, or days later, the weight of that commitment sinks in. We begin to feel overwhelmed, anxious, or even resentful.
  3. Rationalization: We try to justify our decision to ourselves. "It won't take that long," or "It's a good opportunity," even if deep down, we know it's not the right fit.
  4. Overextension: As a result of multiple instances of "Yes Vomit," our schedules become overloaded, our stress levels rise, and our personal and professional lives suffer.

The consequences of the "Yes Vomit" phenomenon are multifaceted. Not only does it lead to personal burnout and dissatisfaction, but it can also affect the quality of our work and our relationships. When we're spread too thin, we can't give our best to any single task or person. Moreover, continually operating in this mode can erode our sense of self, as we prioritize external demands over our own needs and desires.

Recognizing the "Yes Vomit" phenomenon in ourselves is crucial. By becoming aware of this pattern, we can start to break the cycle, pause before responding, and make decisions that align with our true values and capacities.

While I am not a fan of the term “Yes Vomit” I can, unfortunately, relate. In my earlier life, I said yes to everything, which not only led to stress and overcommitment, but also led to resentment and some strong passive aggressive behavior on my part. I would say yes, and then when I was over committed, I would get angry at others for simply asking me.

In addition, I began to let people down, because I was so over scheduled and said yes so often, that there was no way I could deliver on everything I had committed to. Not setting boundaries was a no win situation.

Saying no, when you do not have the time, energy, or desire to do something is one of the highest forms of respect you can show yourselves and others.

How did I change my ways? I had a friend who gave me a great line “I would rather turn you down than let you down,” that I used effectively to stop the “Yes Vomit.” 

The Consequences of Not Setting Healthy Boundaries

This "Yes Vomit" phenomenon really impacts us when we fail to define (and stick to) clear boundaries. Boundaries are essential for maintaining a healthy balance in our lives. They act as protective barriers, ensuring that we don't overextend ourselves or compromise our well-being.

When we neglect to set or enforce these boundaries, the repercussions can be severe and far-reaching. Let's delve into the three primary consequences of not setting boundaries:

Physical and Mental Burnout

  • Physical Toll: Continuously pushing ourselves beyond our limits, whether it's by working long hours, neglecting rest, or taking on too many responsibilities, can lead to physical ailments. This might manifest as chronic fatigue, headaches, or even more severe health issues.
  • Mental Exhaustion: Beyond the physical repercussions, there’s a significant mental toll. The constant juggling of tasks and responsibilities can lead to feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and depression. Over time, the persistent stress can erode our mental resilience, making it harder to cope with everyday challenges.

Strained Personal and Professional Relationships

  • Overcommitment: When we say "yes" to everything, we often find ourselves stretched too thin. This can mean missing important family events, neglecting time with friends, or not being present in our relationships.
  • Resentment: Continually putting others' needs before our own can lead to feelings of resentment. This can strain relationships, as we may begin to feel unappreciated or taken advantage of.
  • Quality of Work: In a professional context, overcommitment can lead to subpar work performance. When we're overwhelmed, it's challenging to give our best to any single project or responsibility.

Loss of Self-Identity

  • Neglecting Personal Needs: When we're always catering to others, we often neglect our own needs and desires. This can lead to a loss of hobbies, passions, and activities that once brought us joy.
  • Compromised Values: Continuously bending to the will of others can mean compromising on our values and beliefs. Over time, this can lead to a feeling of disconnect from our true selves.
  • Lack of Self-Worth: Without boundaries, we risk basing our self-worth on external validation. This can lead to a cycle where we seek approval from others, further distancing ourselves from our authentic identity.

In recognizing these consequences, it becomes evident that setting boundaries isn't just a matter of personal preference—it's a crucial aspect of self-preservation and well-being.

Steps to Start Setting Healthy Boundaries

So, now you can see why it's so essential to set clear boundaries – but how do you do it?

It's not about building walls or shutting people out, but rather creating a space where you can thrive, be authentic, and maintain your well-being. Again, setting boundaries for yourself is not only respectful of your time but also of others.

Establishing boundaries is a journey, not a destination. It requires self-awareness, practice, and a commitment to prioritizing one's well-being. Here are three essential steps to begin setting boundaries effectively:

Recognize When You're Overcommitting

  • Self-Reflection: Take a moment each day to assess your energy levels, mood, and overall well-being. Are you feeling drained or overwhelmed? These feelings can be indicators that you're taking on too much.
  • Audit Your Commitments: Periodically review your calendar, to-do lists, and other commitments. Are there tasks or events that you've agreed to out of obligation rather than genuine interest or capacity? Identifying these can help you recalibrate.
  • Listen to Your Body: Our bodies often signal when we're overextended. Whether it's persistent fatigue, sleep disturbances, or other physical symptoms, these can be signs that it's time to reassess and pull back.

Practice Saying "No" Without Feeling Guilty

  • Reframe Your Perspective: Understand that saying "no" isn't a rejection of the person or opportunity, but rather a commitment to your well-being and other priorities.
  • Start Small: If saying "no" feels daunting, begin with smaller commitments. As you become more comfortable, you'll find it easier to decline larger requests or obligations.
  • Remember Your Worth: Your value isn't determined by how much you do for others. Recognize that you have the right to prioritize your needs and that doing so doesn't diminish your worth or contributions.
  • Get a Buddy: Have a friend or family member who understands you and your struggle, and ask for help and support. My sister came up with the idea that I could not commit to anything for 24 hours. It was so helpful to talk things through and have someone help me learn to say no and how best to say it.

Communicate Your Needs Clearly

  • Be Direct: When expressing your boundaries, be clear and concise. Avoid over-explaining or justifying your decisions. A simple "I won't be able to commit to that" or "I need some time for myself" is often sufficient.
  • Stay Consistent: Consistency reinforces your boundaries. If you've communicated a particular boundary, ensure you maintain it. This not only helps others understand and respect your limits but also reinforces your commitment to yourself.
  • Seek Understanding: While it's essential to be firm in your boundaries, it's equally important to approach conversations with empathy. Understand that others may not be aware of your needs or feelings, and a gentle conversation can go a long way in fostering mutual respect.

By integrating these steps into your daily life, you'll find that setting boundaries becomes more natural and intuitive. Over time, you'll experience the profound benefits of a balanced life, where your needs and well-being are prioritized.

In our fast-paced world, where the lines between personal and professional often blur, setting boundaries is not just a luxury—it's a necessity. It's the cornerstone of a balanced life, allowing us to recharge, refocus, and truly be present in the moments that matter most. By setting boundaries, we're not just protecting our time; we're safeguarding our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the idea of setting boundaries, remember: every journey begins with a single step. Start small. Maybe it's dedicating an hour each evening to uninterrupted family time, or perhaps it's setting a firm end to your workday. Whatever it is, be consistent. With time, setting boundaries will become second nature, and you'll wonder how you ever managed without them.

So, take a deep breath, trust in your worth, and embark on this journey towards a more balanced, fulfilling life. You've got this!

Meridith Elliott Powell

Voted one of the Top 15 Business Growth Experts to watch by Currency Fair, highly engaging corporate motivational keynote speaker Meridith Elliott Powell delivers a cutting-edge message, rooted in real-life examples and real-world knowledge. Meridith’s presentations are full of powerful content, highly interactive, and fun. She helps her clients learn the leadership development, sales and business growth strategies to turn uncertainty to competitive advantage.

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