As midlife women, most of us were conditioned to react to the needs of others first. We learned to be attuned to others’ feelings, safety and health. We still want to make those around us happy, and we feel more comfortable and secure when we do. But if we can’t maintain our boundaries by learning how to say no, we may be putting ourselves at risk.
Saying “no” can be really hard to do. We don’t want to reject others or hurt the feelings of people close to us.
Maybe you don’t want to look like the bad guy. Or you would do anything not to disappoint certain people in your life. The uncertainty about how they might take no for an answer could leave you feeling anxious and even paralyzed. If they’ve done a lot for you, you might even feel obligated, even if what they’re asking goes against your better judgment.
Lessons on Boundaries during COVID
Making good decisions in the time of COVID meant deciding what you needed to do to stay safe. This meant holding your ground about which social invitations you’d accept. You had to determine for yourself what type of contact you felt comfortable having with others. Where was the balance for you between safety and connection at various points throughout the pandemic? Where is it now? You may have had to identify where you felt the benefits of a social interaction outweighed the risks, especially taking into account the health concerns of others, such as an aging parent or an immunocompromised spouse.
And when you found yourself agreeing or going along with something you didn’t actually feel okay with – the neighbor who always stopped to chat much too close or the invitation to the indoor holiday party pre-vaccinations, for example – did you consider why you weren’t being true to yourself?
But health concerns aside, the first question to ask yourself when considering an invitation at any time is: do you really want to do it? We often feel like we need to have a reason to say no, when not wanting to do something is reason enough. For many of us, weighing the risk of illness invited us to be more conscious of what we did and didn’t really want to do during the height of the pandemic.
Tips for Saying “No”
- Don’t make excuses for your choices. Be as clear and neutral as you can: “I just can’t do it right now.” Excuses often give the other party an opening for trying to convince you to go against your gut instincts, so don’t let someone talk you into doing what isn’t right for you.
- Calm down first. When saying “no” in especially difficult circumstances, wait until you’ve gotten to a calm, neutral space before you speak.
- How you communicate matters. If you don’t think that you can hold your ground over the phone, for example, you can write an email or a text instead.
- Be wary of negotiating. If you’re open to negotiating boundaries with those you trust, can you negotiate a compromise that ensures your needs are met? Don’t agree to what you know won’t be okay with you, even if it ruffles feathers.
Being True to Yourself Can Be Painful
Taking care of yourself can be painful when it means turning people down. It can be a huge tug on your emotions that stimulates a fear of uncertainty. Saying “yes” when you want to say “no” is often about avoiding pain. It can also be about fear.
When we prepare ourselves to say “no,” we face the unknown. Our brains are wired to expect the worst when things are uncertain. If we’ve had past experiences that support this, then our fears may be even more pronounced. At a minimum, it’s likely you fear hurting other people’s feelings.
You can’t control the perceptions others have of you, or how they will react when you set boundaries. Staying true to yourself often means dealing with the pain that results when others don’t respond well. When this happens, acknowledge that you are triggered by their negative reaction and spend some time calming down. Allow people to have their own feelings, but with the knowledge that taking care of yourself is your primary responsibility, and in the end, the best thing you can do for everyone involved.
Whatever reaction you fear the other person might have, the fact is you can’t predict the future. This means that whatever energy you spend trying to anticipate and prepare will likely be wasted. All you can really do in the face of uncertainty is make the wisest choice you can.
If you find yourself on the other side of things and someone turns down your invitation, do your best not to take it personally. Remind yourself that your friend’s commitment to their own authenticity is a big part of what makes them a valued friend.
How to Determine Your Authentic Boundaries
Explore your fears. What do you risk by being authentic to yourself and maintaining your boundaries?
Are you afraid of disappointing, hurting or upsetting people?
Are you worried that you will have to defend your decision?
Do you fear being verbally attacked?
Do you want to avoid others judging or talking about you?
Are you afraid you’ll miss out on something?
Your authentic boundaries result from taking responsibility for yourself and your mental and physical health, which is why you need to honor them. To do anything else means ignoring your inner wisdom, the voice you should be listening to above all else. When you choose authenticity, risk is always there. But being true to yourself means honoring the boundaries you have set for yourself, while remembering to likewise respect the boundaries of others.
Take good care : )