The Need for Boundaries: A Graceful No?

Initially I apologized for my ineptitude every time I turned someone down, confident that a person more put-together than myself could wrestle as many tasks and come out on top.  But after a while I made a habit out of apologizing all over myself and that kind of language made me feel broken and incapable.

Next I tried “wishing” that I could help people and then fumbling around with different excuses as to why I couldn’t.  Eventually I realized this was worse than just saying no because all of the sudden I was publicly elevating cleaning toilets for my upcoming guests over helping someone with a sick child.  As I mentioned the other day, I believe no one else has the insight, information and inspiration to set my limits for me so I can’t expect other people to respond with complete understanding when I lay out the bits and pieces of my reasoning in front of them.  So oftentimes it’s pointless to even try.  However, I still needed something to help me feel comfortable in awkward exchanges and to preserve the relationships I held dear.  After making ample mistakes, I came up with these ideas that I use routinely:

Let me think about it/check my calendar and get back to you.  Perhaps if you aren’t forgetful, this isn’t a necessary step.  However, oftentimes, if I make split-second decisions, I don’t take the time to consider the the priorities, limits and commitments that I’m already working with and I make decisions based on pressure.  I usually do well with some time to think.

If I do say yes, I can offer consent with boundaries, if necessary.  Yes I can help but only from this time to this time, or I would love to be a part of that project but I’m going to need some help during these busy days, etc.

Regardless of my response, I try to:

Kindly confirm regard for the individual/relationship.  This is the most recent addition to my boundary repertoire and for me it makes all the difference in the world.  I know that sometimes it can be SO hard to reach out and ask for help and I feel like it’s especially important to respect that kind of vulnerability and treat it with sensitivity.  I can make a connection and validate the endeavor, the idea, the need, the situation, the request, the person, the relationship, etc. regardless of what my response is.   If I am saying no, I work really hard to avoid using the word “but….” at the end of this part of the exchange.  I just let it be, love floating freely, unencumbered by any subjective interpretation.  My choice or inability to participate does not change my feelings about the person or the task at hand and my communication can reflect that.

If I am saying no, I try to:

Unapologetically state that I will not be able to help or that the request won’t work for me.  This is really really hard for me.  I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a pleasing praise junkie and that addiction is a slow one to overcome.  I wonder if I’m being judged as not compassionate or empathetic or sensitive and that thought is almost more than I can bear and the apology almost spills out of it’s own accord.  But I can’t control what other people think,  I have limits and I can’t be anyone other than me so there’s no reason to apologize.   Incidentally, this step has alerted me to the numerous times when an apology is in order for an oversight, etc.  Sometimes I’ve made a mistake or not followed through.  Sometimes I’m just a human being with limits.  There’s a difference.

Wait for the inevitable silence and let it be.  My inclination is to fill with something to validate my worth (because I’m not currently being praised for helping) or with random ramblings so I don’t have to sit in the silence of someone else’s disappointment or surprise or need.  Oftentimes if I open my mouth at this point, I’m re-negotiating the boundary I just set and that doesn’t do me any credibility favors.  Sometimes during that silence, I’m weighing any new information I received in the exchange and sometimes I do end up changing my mind.  But I’m learning to hold my tongue and fight the urge to dive in and change my mind right then.  It helps if I can give myself some space to think things through (again).  Depending on the magnitude of the task, I may need minutes or days to reassess, I may need some time on my knees or just a quick glance at the clock but I try to own the decision and sometimes that means not rushing it for the convenience of someone else.

If you try any of these ideas, I would really love to hear how they go for you.  I’m thinking of some examples to share in a bit.

With love,



15 thoughts on “The Need for Boundaries: A Graceful No?

  1. I’ve found that oftentimes I am angry with someone when they just give me a simple “no” or “I’m sorry but I’m not able to help” with no explanation. In my head I’m thinking things like, “Oh yeah, what’s so important that you can’t do this?” or “Everyone needs to sacrifice and do their part.” With your insight I’m starting to realize that my anger is probably more a reflection of my jealousy than anything else. I think I’m actually envious that they know themselves and their boundaries well enough that they can respond in such an honest and unapologetic way. I’m working on becoming more like this myself and I can absolutely vouch for the awkwardness of silence. It KILLS me not to offer excuses, mitigate or minimize my initial “no”. Thanks for the great post. Lots to think about!

  2. I really love this, and have employed it twice already! It really does feel good. Now I’m just trying to work through the feelings of guilt after the conversation is over. “Maybe I really COULD do that if I shuffle this, this, and this.” or “Maybe they need the help more than I need to do this.” But I guess it boils down to the fact that I KNOW that I’m crammed, and I can’t cram my life even more based on a “maybe”.

    You’ve turned me down before. It feels so honest and authentic. It was one of the things that initially drew me to you and how I knew I could trust you.

  3. Em, you’re speaking my language!! Thanks for your honesty. It seems like boundaried people maybe have a different language and when we learn it and make it our own, the words aren’t as abrasive as they once seemed. I can REALLY relate to your perspective.

  4. Crystal, I appreciate your experiences! I was also really grateful to hear that trust can come from boundaries. When you told me that the other day, it really got me thinking. I am interested in how you wade through the guilt. I still struggle with that too. Sometimes in those situations I’ve called people back and offered to be a last resort but most of the time they’ve already found someone. Keep me posted, there is still lots for me to learn about this topic.

  5. This makes me wonder why nobody is asking me to do stuff for them. Do I appear so busy that they don’t even consider asking? Am I not projecting myself as someone who desires to serve? Or have I said “no” so often that they don’t want to get shot down again? Or maybe it’s because of my husband’s calling as a bishop….

  6. Haha, yeah, Julie, that could be it :). It could also be that you have a healthy set of boundaries that you clearly communicate. If that’s the case, maybe you should write my next post :). It could also be that all of us want you to spend any spare minutes you can scrounge up writing because we’re excited for your next book. That’s probably it. Either way, thanks for presenting another perspective :).

  7. This post is positively brilliant. There needs to be such wisdom paired with a compassionate, generous heart. You really do have a gift for gracious communication that allows honesty and love to co-exist naturally. Thank you for putting into words what I have recently been thinking about….how to kindly set limits with people.

    As always, time with you today was a gift. Thank you so much.

    Julie Donaldson?! As in the author of Edenbrooke? If so, Julie, I ADORED your book. It was funny, engaging, and just perfect. The dialogue was witty and sharp. Thank you, thank you. (If not the author of Edenbrooke, just consider this a plug for the book.)

  8. Anne Marie, I appreciate your kind soul more than you will ever know. And yes, that’s Julie, piano-teacher, writing mentor, author and friend extraordinaire :). I am fortunate to have her in my life as well.

  9. Anne Marie, I appreciate your kind soul more than you will ever know. And yes, that’s Julie, piano-teacher, writing mentor, author and friend extraordinaire :). I am fortunate to have her in my life as well.

  10. i love reading your blog. i feel like a little fly on the wall! this has been such a thorn in my side for so long. i have so many things that have kept me saying no for so long that when i do accept the request to help someone, i find myself unknowingly (or, knowingly now!) sabotaging myself so that my part either doesn’t get done or is done poorly. i HATE that. i’ve never been like that until the problems i’ve had since moving here. i want you to know that i for one have never judged you for saying no or for sticking to your boundaries. i am jealous that you are able to do that. i’ve always been a pleaser and been afraid someone wouldn’t like me if i said no or maybe. i look forward to more insight and inspiration from you!!

  11. Thanks Deb, that is so kind of you. I can really relate to your experiences, they sound so familiar :). I appreciate your willingness to share them. It can be SO hard to just be ok with and assertive about myself. I’m fighting the good fight with you.

  12. I am still learning these things. Especially as a woman with no children, I am still learning that it is OK to be overwhelmed still. I am actually getting less requests now that I am in graduate school and just started a business – so maybe that is the other key – LOOK really busy and no one will ask, haha! But really, I still feel so much guilt for not helping more. On the flip side, I’m really bad at asking for help. Thanks for everything that you write, as always. Lucky to call you sister.

  13. It IS hard to see so many people who have their hands full of babies and diapers and homework and not compare. I am excited to watch you on this journey you’re on…to figure out new kinds of boundaries. I would say the same about you sis, I’m lucky.

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