An important safety note: Be Cautious using the advice in “No is a complete sentence” in situations of domestic violence or other significantly unsafe situations. Always put your personal safety first.
No Is A Complete Sentence
We are trained not to say no to others. Many of us are also trained not to take no for an answer. This can cause significant problems in our relationships as we leap over consent issues in our efforts to get to a yes. No is a complete sentence when you say it to someone else. It is also a complete sentence when someone else says it to you. This article will break down the how and why of setting and respecting boundaries. Think of it as Boundaries 101. It will provide a basis of understanding for later articles on boundaries.
Let’s Start Saying No
Why do we set boundaries? We do it to improve relationships with others or sometimes to end them. We say no to preserve our time for our own needs, or to balance our needs with the others in our lives. Saying no to those in our lives is a powerful way to build healthy relationships with them. It also builds self-esteem and self-confidence in ourselves.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding whether to set a boundary with someone:
- Is the thing they’re asking me to do something I can and want to do?
- Will I resent the person asking for the thing if I do the thing?
- Does the thing they’re asking me to do promote my goals in any way?
- Will I like myself better if I say yes?
is the thing they’re asking me to do something I can and want to do?
The very first question you should be asking is can I do the thing? If you can’t, that’s the easiest no to get to. “I’m sorry, I don’t have the (time/money/ability) to do the thing.”
What if you can do it, but for some reason don’t want to? You can still say no. I can hear some of the parents among you saying “but my child will whine if they don’t get the latest Thing”. Some of you with partners are thinking “my partner will be cold and angry if I don’t do the Thing.”. Their emotions and actions are theirs to manage. Your thing to manage is to say “no” and hold to it. “No. I could do it, but I had plans on such-and-so day and don’t want to cancel them.” “I won’t buy you that toy. You have already spent your allowance this week.”
Remember that reasons are optional. If you give a reason, you’ll are likely to have to defend it. You may feel better for giving a reason, but it is not necessary.
will I resent the person asking for the thing if I do the thing?
If I say yes, am I going to be angry or resentful or disappointed? Will I trust or respect the person asking less if I give in to them? Will our relationship suffer? If someone asks you to do something that you think is “too much” (whether or not it is), you are likely to resent them if you do it. Practice saying things like “no, it’s your turn to take out the trash” and “no, I’m not staying late again tonight to finish up the project.”
If I can do the thing with good grace and maintain the relationship, of course I’ll help someone I value. If not, we’re both better off if I say no.
will I like myself better if I say yes?
This one is kind of tricky because we’re getting into some early life training here. Most people who were socialized as girl children were taught early on that nurturing is required of them. They often believe that if they take care of their own needs, they are failing the other people around them. This is pretty deep stuff to get through, so when you’re asking if you will like yourself better, also ask if you’re replaying guilt and expectations from childhood.
Many of us like having the reputation of being someone that can be counted on. We often also feel that if we do the thing the person is asking us to do, we’ll be a better partner, parent, boss, child, employee, or whatever.
So the deeper question is: Will I like myself better because that’s what I’m programmed to think about myself if I help others, or will I like myself better because this feels right to me?
“No is a complete sentence” is true even if you’re the one who is being told no. And just like you would want someone else to do if the table were turned, you need to respect other peoples’ “no”.
Here are some things to keep in mind when people tell you “no”:
- When someone tells you no, you need to respect it. You should only return to the same person after a “no” if the situation has changed significantly or you have new information that changes the situation.
- The other person is not obligated to tell you why they said “no”. (No is a complete sentence, remember?)
- Even if you want or need something very badly, the other person is not crossing your boundaries when they refuse you and say “no”.
- Your feelings, wants, needs, and preferences do not create an obligation for any other person. (Unless it’s a need, and you’re a dependent, or there is a contract involved.)
when someone tells you no, you need to respect it
The word “no” creates a boundary. The person saying no is saying “I don’t want the thing” or “I can’t do the thing” or “I don’t feel the feeling.” Your job is to respect that. Even if you think you’re doing something good for the other person. Even if you’re sure they’re wrong. Until or unless you can come back to the person with new information or new circumstances that make the question you asked a different question, don’t ask again after a no.
For instance, let’s say you’ve asked the person you love to marry you and they said no. That’s a final boundary unless you know that the reason they said no is something that you can significantly change, such as getting a better job or an education. And asking again before you make the change is not okay. “I’m going to” is not the same as “I did”. And they might say no again, and that is their right.
they are not obligated to tell you why.
I say again, “no is a complete sentence”. It doesn’t matter if you need more information to change their no to a yes. It doesn’t matter if your anxiety spikes because you were told “no”. It’s not abusive to say “no”, and then “no, I won’t tell you why”. Not in and of itself. Your feelings about being told no are yours to deal with, not theirs. Your anxiety over not knowing why is yours to deal with. The frustration and anger you feel are yours to deal with. Part of being a functioning adult is learning how to accept the word no.
Your feelings, wants, needs, and preferences do not create an obligation for any other person.
With the notable exceptions of a dependent’s needs and legal contracts, including things included in the social contract of citizenship, no other individual person is obligated to do anything for you. You might want something really badly. Possibly even need something badly. You could have strong negative feelings, and when it comes to respecting other peoples’ boundaries, none of that matters.
It is here that I’m going to bring in the “friend zone”. You may have formed a relationship hoping, or even believing, the other person will eventually feel romantic towards you. It’s possible you did many nice things in the hope that person will begin to see you romantically. And when you make the move, and that person tells you they value your friendship and they don’t feel “that way” toward you, you haven’t been “friend zoned”. You started that relationship under false pretenses. The other person took you at your word, that you enjoyed their company and shared interests and were there for each other, even as far as to be intimate friends. If you then are angry and resentful when you ask to change the nature of that friendship and the other person declines, that’s on you. The other person did nothing wrong. They were your friend, and if you’re able to get over your resentment and disappointment, they will still be your friend.
Uncovering Deliberate Boundary Crossings
Some people don’t play fair when it comes to the word no and to boundary crossings. Some people (especially potential domestic abusers, aka sharks) deliberately cross boundaries as a way to test the waters for even worse boundary crossings. Others, especially those with high anxiety, cross boundaries again and again in an effort to feel safe that is bound to fail. Here are some ways to spot deliberate boundary crossings in yourself and others.
- Repeated requests after being told no.
- Walking up to the boundary line and standing on it.
- Demands for explanations when you say no.
- Attempts to “guilt” or “trick” you into saying yes.
- Saying or implying that you “owe” them your time, feelings, or other resources. (Again, contracts are an exception).
NOTE: These examples can be, but aren’t necessarily, signs that you are dealing with an abuser or potential abuser. If the primary motive of the person appears to be to gain power and control over another person’s feelings, thoughts, and actions, you are almost certainly dealing with an abuser. This is true even if the person is anxious, depressed, or mentally ill. It is entirely possible for a person to be both dealing with mental health issues and an abuser.
repeated requests after being told no
Yet again. No is a complete sentence. It means “no”. It means “I’m not going to do the thing”. No doesn’t mean “ask again in a different way” or “try harder and I’ll change my mind”. When someone regularly asks again after receiving a no, it is likely that they either don’t understand or don’t respect boundaries. Occasionally it might mean that they don’t understand that “no” is a boundary, but that is easy to fix. You simply tell them that when you say no, you mean it, and then follow through. As for those who don’t respect boundaries, it’s not your job to teach them. If you want to take the time and they’re otherwise worth it, fine. Otherwise, exit them from the role they have in your life as much as possible.
walking up to the boundary line and standing on it
This one is a bit hard to describe and falls in the “you’ll know it when you see it” category. Suppose you have set a boundary like “don’t touch me below the waist” because you’re new in a relationship and not ready for more physical intimacy. The person might get in the habit of as often as possible putting their hands on your waist, sometimes with a pinky or thumb falling just below the waistline. That person knows exactly what they’re doing. They’re telling you they know your boundary, that they don’t respect your boundary, and that they will keep tiptoeing over the line until you give up and let them past. It is a good idea, in these cases, to reset the boundary harder. For instance, if the boundary was your waist, back it up to “don’t touch me at all until I initiate it”. If they cross again, move to “don’t touch me at all”. If they cross again, boundary them right out of your life.
Demands for explanations when you say no
You don’t owe anyone an explanation when you say no. No is a complete sentence. And when someone is demanding an explanation, nearly always doing it for their benefit, not yours. They want information that they can use to turn your no into a yes. We are socialized to believe that it is rude to simply say “no”, but in reality, it’s often the kindest way to end a bad situation. Incidentally, this is a common tactic of potential abusers. They will sidle up to you in a bar, ask you to dance or drink or go home with them, and when you say no, especially if you had socialized at all before you said no, they will practically throw a fit about your obligation to tell them why you said no. They are counting on it being socially uncomfortable to continue to turn them down. So turn them down anyhow.
Attempts to guilt or trick you into saying yes
As I said, explanations are for information to turn a no into a yes. Two of the most common ways of doing that are to attempt to guilt you into saying yes, or trick you into saying yes. Guilt tactics include being dramatically hurt and sad, especially in public or claiming that they are missing out on a one time opportunity because of your no. They will try to make you responsible for their feelings (“I’m sad/angry/lonely”). Often their thoughts (“I want to give up/I feel worthless, etc” because of your no). They’ll even try to make you responsible for their actions, sometimes really horrific ones. “I’ll kill myself” or “I’m going to drive drunk” or “I’m going to beat someone up” somehow becomes your fault.
When someone threatens suicide, specifically, as a guilt tactic, there is only one way to handle it that covers all the bases (and it’s not a perfect solution). You tell them that they have two choices. They can either go to an emergency room to be evaluated for suicidal ideation, or you will call a family member, close friend, or the police and ask for a “well-check” on them. This serves to both ensure their safety and not make their actions your responsibility.
Saying or implying that you “owe” them your time, feelings, or other resources
With, again, an exception for contracts and the needs of legal dependents, you don’t owe anyone anything. Not after a drink, not after an evening out, not after five years on the job, not after a decade of friendship, not after a lifetime of marriage. Each of those situations should have had at least several, and likely hundreds, of opportunities to practice good boundaries, and each of you should have gotten lots of practice in enforcing and respecting boundaries. Even if you’ve never, for some reason or another, enforced a boundary, you don’t owe them. You may decide to work on the relationship and potentially improve it, but that will be your choice.
The Dance of Enforcing and Respecting Boundaries
In long term relationships, especially, it’s always a bit of a dance to learn each other’s boundaries and stay “in bounds” with each other. This is true of friendships, business relationships, and romances. It’s even true of parents and children, especially as the children grow to adulthood and as parents become dependent seniors.
Here are some things that will help make those relationships better:
negotiate when two peoples’ boundaries collide:
I have a family that is split pretty evenly between introverts and extroverts. My husband and youngest son are extroverts and gain energy from social gatherings. My oldest, myself, and now my daughter-in-law are introverts, sometimes enjoying company, but needing to “recharge” with alone time. This results in a lot of negotiation over how many gatherings we have, how many people, how often, and what the rules are for primary partners. The introverts usually build in chances to retreat from the crowd and “touch base” with their extrovert others to reassure themselves. The extroverts build in social events with their favorite people and food and hobbies, and plenty of interaction. It can be challenging.
re-evaluate relationships with frequent boundary crossings:
Whether you are the cross-er or cross-ee, if something is causing a relationship you’re involved in to have regular issues with one, the other, or both crossing boundaries, it’s time to re-evaluate. Does this relationship need to end? Will you need to build more space or more communication into the relationship? Do you need professional help to heal the relationship? Is it time to look for a new job, relationship, friendship? If the relationship is important to you, it might be worth it to seek outside help, whether it is a business relationship, a friendship, or a romance. If the relationship has become exhausting, “more trouble than it is worth”, it might be time to end it.
do not retreat WHEN FACED WITH CONSISTENT BOUNDARY CROSSERS
In fact, it’s probably a good idea to advance your boundary as I described above. Suppose you’re trying to teach your child responsibility and have asked them to clean their room and then let them play just one more round of Call of Duty before starting. Now let’s suppose your child ignored you and is on their second round. You would be perfectly justified to walk in front of them, turn off the game system or computer, unplug it and walk off with it, letting them know they can have it back when they finish cleaning. The first boundary was that the child could end between rounds, without affecting other gamers. The second boundary, when the child ignored the first, was that the child needed to start right now.
The reason why you advance rather than retreat when your boundaries are crossed is that boundary crossing is a tactic. The purpose is to get you to retreat so that the other person can successfully get the thing you were saying no to. When you advance, you completely spoil their tactic. It doesn’t take long for anyone to learn that boundary crossing doesn’t work with people who advance rather than retreat.
Acknowledge when you have crossed other peoples’ boundaries
And do better. You’ll want to Own, Apologize, and Repair. Admit that you have crossed the boundary, apologize for it and any harm that came from it, and fix the problem that was causing you to cross boundaries. It’s very common for people with anxiety disorders, for example, to cross boundaries in search of the information they need to feel safer. It’s important to treat the anxiety —for you and for them.
Bonus: Setting a Compassionate Boundary
There’s an actual formula for this, folks:
- Acknowledge the person’s feelings and concerns
- “and” (not but —you want to make both halves of the sentence equal)
- Re-state the boundary
“I know you’d rather be on your phone than cleaning your room AND you can have your phone back when your room is done.”
“You were really hoping this relationship was going somewhere AND I am not going to be going on another date with you”
“I know you were hoping that I’d lead the project you’re working on AND I’m already at full capacity and can’t do it with my current workload”.
Hope that this helps in your quest for better relationships at home and elsewhere.
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A final reminder: You are each important and have much to teach, and much to learn.
I look forward to learning from and teaching you all. Comment below or at any of the links to start the conversation.