No is a Complete and Beautiful Sentence


Picture it, New York, 2018.

You have always been a "nice girl." As a young girl, you were taught that kindness was a virtue and grew up especially attuned to the attention you received from being nice and pleasing others. In school, you were the teacher's pet and at home, your tias and tios always referred to you as a "muchacha buena." Eventually, your self-worth became tied to putting the feelings and needs of others before your own.

As an adult, you end up with extra assignments at work, your friends and family intrude on your personal space and exes constantly pop up wanting to "just say hi." You feel frustrated: you're not doing what you truly want to do because you're pleasing everyone else first.

It's time to set some boundaries. 

Mariana Bockarova, PhD defines boundaries as the limits we set with other people, which indicate what we find acceptable and unacceptable in their behavior towards us. The ability to know our boundaries generally comes from having a healthy sense of self-worth or valuing yourself in a way that is not contingent on other people or the feelings they have toward you. Unlike self-esteem, self-worth is finding intrinsic value in who you are, so that you can be aware of your:

  • intellectual worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own thoughts and opinions

  • emotional worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own feelings to a given situation

  • physical worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your space, however wide it may be

  • social worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own friends and to pursuing your own social activities

  • spiritual worth and boundaries (you are entitled to your own spiritual beliefs

Knowing our boundaries and setting them are two very different hurdles to overcome. Setting boundaries is a skill that needs to be learned. As the renowned psychologist, Albert Bandura noted, "much of human social learning comes from modeling behavior, so if we do not have adequate role models whose behavior we can encode through observation and later imitate, we are at a loss, often left fumbling and frustrated."

Learn Your Boundaries

I know you're probably expecting an elaborate formula for learning what your boundaries are. Sorry. You've gotta do the work.

Learning your boundaries comes from awareness and listening to your inner voice. We all intuitively know what we want and don't want, what makes us feel good and not good, but have been programmed from a really early age to disregard that. Take an area of your life, say friendships, and think about behaviors that you would/would not allow from your support system. For example, would it be OK or not OK for your friend to:

  • Badmouth your partner, even when you're in the middle of an argument with him/her?

  • Ask you for a financial loan?

  • Judge you and your decisions in the name of wanting what's best for you?

At times, you won't know your boundaries until you are in a situation that necessitates implementing them. The best you can do is commit to look within and ask yourself, am I really OK with this behavior?

In her TEDx talk, Sarri Gilman, MA, MFT, a psychotherapist and author of Transform Your Boundaries, explains that we can think of our boundaries through the metaphor of an inner compass with two words written on it: Yes and No. The next time you find yourself in a precarious situation, think about which way that inner compass would point to. 

Set and Enforce Your Boundaries

Setting boundaries can be as simple as action or inaction, depending on the situation. Choosing whether to engage with certain people and situations can clearly communicate what you will and will not allow in your space. You can also have a conversation about your boundaries in situations that warrant more explicit communication. Sometimes, however, this is easier said than done.

"Boundary setting will unleash emotions," Gilman says, “When you listen to your own yes and no," other people may get angry or disappointed. The reality is that whenever you set boundaries with people, they may not have a pleasant reaction. However, you still can work to firmly maintain the boundaries that you have set."

According to Jennifer Rollin, setting boundaries with people can actually help to improve your relationships in the long run. If you do not respect your personal boundaries (perhaps in fear of someone else’s reaction), it is likely to lead to bitterness and resentment over time. The people you want to surround yourself with are those who will respect your boundaries, even if they initially feel upset or disappointed.

Boundaries as Self-Care

There is no doubt that setting boundaries can be difficult. It is also an important part of having healthy relationships with others and yourself. When you set limits on the things you don't want to do, it frees up time and space to focus on the things that excite you. In this way, it is a form of self-care, and one that we can actively employ every day.  

What boundaries have you set for yourself? What was that process like? Any advice for folks who are new to this practice?