When we are toddlers we go through a stage where our reply to everything is ‘no’, but asserting control with that two-letter word isn’t quite as easy when we grow up. By the time we are adults it can be especially difficult to say no to family, friends and employers. We’ve all been there before — we’re overcommitted, stressed or just plain old tired, and we find ourselves saying yes to favours, extra work or social events we know we shouldn’t take on.
For women in particular, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries can be harder than we realize. Toronto-based psychotherapist and social worker, Maryam Fazl of Therapy Starts, provides insight into why saying no is such a challenge — but can also be one of the most empowering things a woman can do.
Saying ‘yes’ is a socially learned behaviour from childhood
Saying ‘no’ is uncomfortable and awkward for many women. Fazl explains that, early on, girls are taught to ‘play nice’ and be agreeable. She says, “Girls learn to ignore their own needs and focus on others’ needs first.” As adults, we then worry about being perceived as difficult, inflexible or unhelpful when we say no. Past trauma can also impact a person’s sense of self-worth and agency, making it extremely uncomfortable learning to use boundaries.
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Setting boundaries is a form of self-love
Healthy personal boundaries, while difficult for many women to establish, act like a guide for others. They help others understand ways to behave around us — what is OK and not OK — and they can help shape expectations. Fazl explains, “Setting healthy boundaries is an important part of self-care and, without it, one would feel overstretched, depleted and burnt out.” Maintaining boundaries allows for trust, a sense of safety and feeling heard and seen. For Women of Colour, saying no and establishing strong boundaries can work towards healing intergenerational trauma and building a sense of agency.
Pay attention to your needs and signals from your body
Many women struggle to say no personally and professionally because they aren’t quite sure what their boundaries are. Fazl says that if we give a lot of our time to friends and family, and feel drained, overwhelmed or resentful afterwards, it’s important to notice and name these emotions — and validate the experiences. “These are signals from the body providing feedback on the situation.” She suggests paying close attention to how situations make us feel: was that comfortable or overwhelming?
She says that giving ourselves permission to ask what is and isn’t working for us, and then putting our needs into words, can be a helpful way to establish boundaries. Using mindfulness (knowing how you think and feel about a situation) and prioritizing self-care is an important part of figuring out your boundaries.
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Use assertive communication when discussing your feelings
Saying no assertively, being direct and using ‘I’ statements, validates the other person’s needs and wants while being firm about what we will or will not do. “If one’s style of saying no is too passive one may be ignored; if too aggressive, it can push others away,” Fazl explains. While saying no to your boss can be really uncomfortable, in doing so, you’re showing them that you’re honouring your existing commitments and don’t want to compromise your productivity.
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Delay an answer if you’re feeling uncertain
If you are unsure in the moment, Fazl suggests delaying an answer. “We have no obligation to give an answer right away and can respectfully acknowledge the other person’s request and advise we’ll get back to them,” she says. Sleeping on it can often help us formulate a more comfortable or appropriate way to say no.
Red flags to watch out for when discussing your boundaries
It’s important to notice when we are being manipulated or bullied into saying yes. As Fazl explains, “When one is being over-questioned, made to feel bad about saying no, mocked or insulted when one says no, then one’s boundaries are not being honoured.” While it might provide short-term relief to say yes, reverting to old habits is unhelpful in the long run. Fazl emphasizes that it is critical to maintain a clear sense of your boundaries. She reminds women, “You have a right to change your mind as you learn more about your boundaries.”
Practice saying ‘no’ to help build up confidence
When people are not used to hearing no, they will push back, and test how far they can go and how much they can get. Fazl encourages her clients to rehearse through imagery exercises and by practicing saying no out loud. She stresses, “Your self-worth is not tied to you saying yes.”
Remember, saying no is a form of self-love and empowers us to take control of our lives and the decisions we make. By establishing boundaries, we allow for healthier relationships with others and, ultimately, with ourselves.
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