Why Saying No is So Hard: How to Have Better Boundaries in Your Life


As we advance in years, so does the volume of responsibilities and the expectations we assume. But amongst those expectations, one seems to stubbornly persist—that of continually saying yes, to go with the flow, to accommodate. At the tender age of 44, I’ve come to reckon with the fact that the inability to say no, the difficulty in setting boundaries, emanates from a deeply rooted desire to remain affable and agreeable. But at what cost? Let’s journey through the intricate pathways where the assertive “no” seems elusive and, often, so hard to pronounce. What was that word again?

Boundaries in Personal Life

The sunrise of adulthood brought forth a basket of friendships, relationships, and connections—all delicate and all demanding nurture and time. As a mental health blogger, I juggled myriad roles, continuously swinging between being a parent, an employee, a friend, a partner, and a self-advocate.

But as years unfolded, I discovered a significant yet overlooked aspect of relationships—boundaries. A personal territory delineating where I ended and another began. Where my need to be of service to others was butting against my need to take care of myself.  It meant occasionally embracing the discomfort that accompanied a stern “no,” to honor my needs, emotions, and individuality. It meant not crumpling in the awkward moment when the asker realizes you said “no” instead of your normal enthusiastic “YES!”.  

But why is “no” so hard? Why does it sometimes feel impossible to form the words. Why do my fingers hesitate when I start to type n-o? In personal relationships, it often masked a fear of rejection, a premonition that the fabric of connection would unravel with a slight tug of disagreement. Despite no evidence that the relationship had the fragility the thoughts racing in my mind would imply.  It took moments of exhaustion, strained relationships, and a toll on my mental health to realize that boundaries were not a wall or a relationship bomb but a gateway to healthier connections, mutual respect, and self-care. It was a slow realization that boundaries could foster understanding and create relationships grounded on respect rather than expectations and sometimes exploitation. 

Setting Boundaries at Work

Transposing the difficulty of setting boundaries from personal life to work manifested equally arduous challenges. Work culture frequently demands an extra mile—a project that extends beyond work hours, a problem that expands the scope of a task beyond expectations, incessantly ringing emails, and the unsaid expectation to remain ever available. I couldn’t even leave my house without my Surface Go laptop in my shoulder bag. Not even for a 10 minute run to the store. No call goes unanswered when seen. Probably not healthy right?  

In my journey, I learned to articulate my boundaries clearly and early, even amidst an ecosystem that seemingly endorsed a blur between professional and personal lives. It wasn’t just about managing time; it was about honoring my space, my mental health, and my well-being. It wasn’t easy. It went against what my conditioned self wanted. But it must be done. 

As I ventured deeper into my forties, I adopted the assertive “no,” delicately balancing it with collaborative spirits. It was a respectful nod to personal limits, a statement that asserted, “I value my work, but I value myself too.” It was being honest with clients and saying “Your project is important but so am I.” It was a steady walk towards fostering a relationships grounded in mutual respect and understanding, which surprisingly led to more productivity and a healthier work environment. As an independent contractor, it also meant sometimes I had to walk away from a project because they could not respect the boundaries I have set. 

Mental Health Consequences of Lack of Boundaries

The landscape without boundaries was a fertile ground for anxiety, stress, and emotional depletion. I was busy writing new chapters in the Book of Burnout. The inability to delineate personal space bore heavily on my mental health, ushering in a spectrum of consequences ranging from burnout, professional failures, failure to complete projects to deteriorating relationships both professionally and personally. 

The mental fatigue from being continually available, from stretching beyond one’s capacity, from never stopping, was often misinterpreted as dedication, a misconceived notion that glorified personal sacrifices. It took years to understand that the blurred boundaries were not an epitome of strength but a precursor to a fragile mental state, teetering on the verge of breaking down.

In my 20s a boss asked me if I enjoyed my job. I said yes. He told me I didn’t show it. Upon pressing further, he told me that although I worked 40 hours a week, he expected far more. He told me it was a time in life where I should give the company 80 hours a week like he did. I complied and was rewarded with a divorce and a $4,000 a year raise after 1 year of 24/7 on call work that often required several hours of remote work a week in the middle of the night and multiple trips to the office in the middle of the night a week. This in addition to my 80 hours in the office. Years later I realized that my boss was awful and his advice was horrible. I can’t get that marriage or those years back. I gave up a lot for $48,000 a year. 

Practical Ways to Practice Setting Boundaries

In a world where “yes” comes easier, how does one foster the courage to say “no”? Here, I share a few practical insights derived from personal experiences:

  1. Self-awareness: Understand your limits. Know what feels comfortable and what doesn’t. It is the cornerstone of setting boundaries. If you hesitate to answer then there is a good chance the answer should be ‘no’. 
  2. Communication: Express your boundaries clearly and assertively, without feeling guilty. Set your boundaries early in any relationship. 
  3. Consistency: Be consistent in maintaining your boundaries. It is a continual practice, not a one-time event. Establishing boundaries in an existing relationship can be a difficult or uncomfortable task but it is worth it. 
  4. Self-compassion: Be kind to yourself. Setting boundaries is a journey fraught with challenge and often set-backs. . 
  5. Seek Therapy: Sometimes, the roots of the inability to set boundaries lie deep. Therapy can be a safe space to work through these challenges and build healthier patterns. You are worth it and so is the work. 

The journey towards embracing the assertive “no” has been liberating, albeit challenging. At 44, it is a journey of unlearning and relearning, a pathway to healthier mental health, and a walk towards self-respect and dignity. Setting boundaries is not an act of rebellion; it is an act of self-love, a gentle reminder to oneself and others that your well-being is a priority, not an afterthought. It’s time we understood why “no” is so hard yet so necessary. It’s time we embraced the boundaries that foster not just personal and professional growth but a deeper connection with oneself and others. 


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