Personal boundaries and how to say ‘no’ gracefully

The art of saying no

18 November 2021

Written by Jennie Bayliss

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when someone did or said something to you? Or were shocked, angry or felt like the wind was taken out of your sails? Or even vulnerable? Does a certain someone do or say things to you like this on a regular basis? Most of us can instantly think of one person who gets under our skin in this way, and chances are it’s because they are crossing one or several of our personal boundaries.

What are personal boundaries?

Our boundaries are the lines we draw around ourselves, like lines in the sand, that we believe should not be crossed by other people. They are there to protect us. They are words, actions and behaviour that we find unacceptable to us. In essence they are what we instinctively want to say ‘no’ to. Our boundaries define who we are, what we stand for, and how we view our place in the world. Some of our boundaries are inviolate, yet others are easily crossed.

Although you may not be able to tell me what your personal boundaries are, whenever you have a negative emotion that has arisen after someone said or did something to you (note: to you – not to someone else) know one of your boundaries has been crossed. In the first instance, you need to recognize this with your conscious mind – for we often squash such thoughts. Which, by the way, may be the right thing to do, but if someone frequently crosses your boundaries, it is disempowering, draining, stressful and it could even lead to health problems.

Identifying what’s really going on?

Next time you notice you are reacting to someone’s behaviour or words, consider what they really said or did that caused you to react. Was it the words? The implication? The tone of their voice? Is your response familiar to you? Do you always react in this way to those words or actions? Do you react in the same way if someone else says or does the same thing? If not, why is it that this particular person causes you to react? Become your own detective. Who makes you react in this way? What are the specific words and or actions that trigger your reaction?

After a while you will be able to see more clearly what your triggers are, which boundary is crossed most frequently and who is the biggest culprit. Now you’re ready to tackle it.

Begin using the technique of ‘No-one may…’

It is often difficult to determine exactly what is causing you to feel emotional. In these instances, I ask people to do this exercise. Write: “No-one may…” and then simply complete the sentence. Please note, I am not recommending that you say this to the person involved! However, it is a powerful way of unleashing the exact nature of the boundary that has been crossed. And it’s also helps you free yourself of your feelings to one particular person. For example, “No one may be disrespectful to me at work” or “No one make keep making me the butt of their jokes” is universal, not individual.

Why do people cross our boundaries?

Apart from the common boundaries like expecting not to be abused and hurt or harmed, our boundaries are unique to us. And as we don’t go around telling people what our boundaries are, people with very different boundaries can easily step over, or even trample over ours without even realizing it. For example, if someone is a natural tease and prankster, they are likely to find it funny if someone teases them back. This person may think that teasing others is a way of sharing fun even showing the person they care for them. It simply may not occur to them, that their teasing could cause pain or anxiety to someone who was, for example, painfully shy.

Choosing whether or not to define a boundary

The truth is we cross people’s boundaries everyday. Not maliciously. Mostly blindly. If someone crosses one of your boundaries, should you instantly leap to define or defend it? No. Often they have simply not realized what they have done or said and in these cases, ask yourself if you can forgive them. If however, someone keeps crossing your boundaries and you keep having a strong emotional reaction, then you need to ask why you are allowing this person to treat you in this way? Is it the fear of the consequence? If yes, is the consequence (and please check-in with yourself just how sure you are of this consequence) really worse than how you feel when they keep crossing your boundary? More often than not, if you decide to tell someone how you are feeling, they will change their behaviour. Most people would not want to deliberately upset, be disrespectful or be hurtful towards you. By telling them, you also give them the chance to grow within themselves, as they understand more about the impact of their ways.

How to say ‘No’ ‘

Deciding to talk to the person who has crossed your boundaries is one thing: doing it is quite another. Most people fear it will end up in an argument or a row and that alone can be enough to not address the issue.

I have developed a technique called Truth Talking that can help you. It allows you to speak your truth as you see it through your eyes. Using this technique you can say what you need to say without justifying it, hiding your real feelings and at the same time not blaming others. It’s a way of communicating from your heart so you will be heard.

When a boundary has been crossed, in the moment it happens, you are unlikely to be able to speak about it (at least in a way where you will be heard), as you will be feeling too emotional. This is OK. Just because you weren’t able to say anything there and then, does not mean it’s too late to say anything. So the beginning of Truth Talking is to simply remind the person where and when you both were when the boundary crossing happened. This can be as simple as, ‘Remember when we were at ……………… and doing ……………… I’d like to talk to you about something that has been bothering me since then’.

Now for Truth Talking. It is a formula where you construct 3 sentences to let the person know how you are feeling about their words, actions or deeds towards to you. It is a different way of speaking, so I suggest writing it down to help you work-it-out first. In this way you are more likely to say it in a way that you’ll be heard. All of the sentences begin with ‘I…’ Many people feel uncomfortable using “I…” but trust me if you begin this conversation with, ‘You…’ or ‘Why don’t you…’ the person is likely to leap to the defensive, which means you will not be heard.

The 3 sentences of the formula are:

  • The genuine acknowledgement.
  • The emotional statement.
  • The request or step into Wonderland.

The strongest Truth Talking sentences begin with; I am… or I feel… or I need…. Other common ways of starting these sentences include:

  • I know…
  • I understand…
  • I see…
  • I hear…
  • I acknowledge…
  • I respect…
  • I honour…
  • I want…
  • I would like…

The genuine acknowledgement sentence allows the person you are speaking to, to hear that you ‘see’ their view point. They are more likely to now listen to your viewpoint too. This sentence often begins: ‘I know (or see, understand, recognise etc) that you are…’ and includes who they are or what they are doing in relation to the situation.

The emotional statement is to tell them exactly how you feel. Really feel. No justification is required. You are entitled to your feelings. It’s not about blaming someone else for your feelings. It’s simply saying, ‘I am hurt (angry, sad, lonely etc) about…’

The request is to ask for what you see as a good solution to this issue. Even though it may start with, ‘I need…’ it should be seen as a way of opening up a dialogue between you both, rather than an insistence or demand for the way you move forward.

Instead of a request, sometimes it helps to step into what I call Wonderland. This is just to invite curiosity. It is often very revealing to both parties and is especially useful if the person’s behaviour, words or deeds are a mystery to you. These sentences begin with, ‘I am curious about…’

Golden rule for Truth Talking

The way you speak tells people almost as much as the words themselves. When using Truth Talking, if you put emotional content into the words, especially if you emphasis “I”, it will come across as superior, demanding and possibly unreasonable. Truth Talking needs to be spoke in a voice known as ‘charge neutral’. All this means is that no emphasis is put on any of the words: instead the tone of the voice is held evenly throughout. After writing down your sentences, practice speaking it in this way.

Truth Talking: A beginning not the end

Truth Talking is really a way of beginning a conversation: not simply demanding something needs to be changed. Defining your boundaries helps you stand up for what you believe and stand for. It is also a great way to begin understanding yourself in greater depth.

I hope this article provides you with the tools to be able to say ‘no’ so you can stand up for what matters to you.

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