I’m Saying “No” and I Mean It (Do I?): The Challenge of Boundaries

by Judy Stone-Goldman on August 3, 2010

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My cat doesn't have trouble saying "no"...

Yesterday afternoon I had one stretch of time free for writing my blog post. Wanting to warn my husband that I would be working–not chatting, not taking care of chores, not helping with the crossword puzzle–I started this conversation:

  • Me: Just to let you know, in another half an hour I’m going to be working.
  • Him: So?
  • Me: So you can’t talk to me.
  • Him: What do you mean I can’t talk to you? What if I have something interesting to tell you?
  • Me: You can’t say it.
  • Him: (Teasing tone) But what if I want to say it?
  • Me: You can’t talk to me. I need to write. I’m doing the Blog Challenge.
  • Him: (Teasing tone) But what if I need to say it?
  • Me: Hold onto it.
  • Him: OK, well I’m not going to talk to you. Ever.
  • Me: It’s only for this afternoon.
  • Him: I’m going to the store now, and when I come back, I’m not going to say hello.
  • Me: (laughing) You can say hello.
  • Him: No, I’m never going to say hello.

And so it went. Within a few minutes I was making exceptions to my attempted rule for no talking and my husband was having a good time thinking up all the ways he could make me talk. We had a good laugh, and I admitted defeat at my own hand.

I am, quite honestly, a mixed bag when it comes to boundaries. I have professional training, a past full of teaching the concepts and skills, and enough “learning opportunities” in my own history to fill a textbook. But in real life I often revert to being an emotional jelly fish, losing the firmness and clarity that separate me from others and allow me to set limits.

Limits–the essence of boundaries–are tricky business. They create uncertainty and ambivalence. What limits do we want? How do we set them? When’s the best time? Some of our uncertainty might be about others’ reactions (will he/she be upset? offended?) but as often as not, a good portion of the ambivalence lies within ourselves.

If I am not absolutely sure about what I want, I will waiver at the very moment when I need a boundary. If I am looking for an “out”–some excuse for not carrying through or challenging myself–I will be half-hearted with any boundaries I put in place. If I am afraid or anxious, I will set boundaries that have holes in them so that they collapse and leave me free to run away.

The key, then, is for me to explore my desires and needs, to clarify my goals so I am exquisitely clear about my intentions, to communicate clearly and firmly with myself before I attempt to do so with others. I practice setting boundaries with myself, because I am the one who must lead the way. (While I am practicing, I might do well to have environmental measures in place: a closed door is a great boundary.)

As for the blog post, I wrote it when my husband went out to the store. And when he came back? I won’t tell you who said “hello” first, but I can assure you there was some more laughing.

Questions for Reflection: How do you relate to the topic of “boundaries”? What is your style in setting or responding to limits? What kind of boundaries do you need in your life now?

Writing Prompts: “When I need to tell someone ‘no,’ I ______ ” (then keep writing); “The hardest thing for me in setting a boundary is ______” (then keep writing); “Today I need to set a limit on ______” (then keep writing).

Interested in this topic? More blog posts on boundaries to come–emotional boundaries, boundary failures (and what they tell us), cultural experiences…let me know what boundary ideas you have.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Julia M Lindsey August 3, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Setting boundaries is hard for me primarily when it comes to work. If someone comes up with a great idea I always want to help develop the idea. I find myself getting into projects I really don’t have time to do to the best of my ability.
When I need to tell someone “no” I usually need to wait a day and evaluate my time. ” The hardest thing for me in setting a boundary is realizing my limits. ” Today I need to set a limit on my commitments at work.

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Judy Stone-Goldman
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August 3, 2010 at 5:02 pm

I have a similar issue just working for myself! I find it hard to stop once I’m involved with a project, even when I have competing demands. Right now (today and other days) I am working on setting limits with work and computer so I get enough rest at the right time.

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