How to say no without providing a grovelling explanation

Find it impossible to set boundaries or say no, without providing a lengthy grovelling explanation?

Of course, a bit of explanation is sometimes necessary. You don’t want to give loved ones the impression you don’t care, and your boss probably won’t be impressed if you miss deadlines without communicating.

But a concise, considerate note is one thing; always feeling the pressure to over-explain is another matter – especially if it’s causing stress, and if it means we’re inviting other people to decide whether our reasons are valid enough. It’s also incredibly easy to feel stuck in this pattern.

Can I justify putting myself first?
“When we over-explain, we’re often trying to justify that it’s okay to have our own needs,” says life coach Franziska Cecchetti-Pretsch. “And then it’s wanting the acceptance of the other people too – do you see my needs and why I’m doing this? And often they don’t – this is the problem. We’re trying to explain it, but they have their own opinion anyway.”

Read more: Signs it’s time to step away from a family drama

Allowing ‘their opinion’ more sway than our own might mean we frequently end up doing things we don’t really want, work way too many hours, and let our own self-care and wishes slide to the bottom of the pile. Yep, a fast-track to frustration and resentment, unfulfilling relationships and, as we’re seeing more and more, the risk of burnout.

Taking care of our needs shouldn’t be up for debate – but it can be super tricky territory to get to grips with communicating them. “We do blame ourselves for not being better able to set boundaries or say no,” says Ms Cecchetti-Pretsch, who has an exercise around this in sessions she runs with clients. “Where they’re trying to say no, but then they switch over to yes, and then they really beat themselves up: ‘It’s my fault I said yes’. But there are so many hidden dynamics going on that keep us in the plane we’re in.”

Where does it come from?
Those ‘hidden dynamics’ run deep and often stem from childhood and early relationships. Ms Cecchetti-Pretsch, who has a background in social work and extensive experience around family dynamics, believes much of the “over-explanation of boundaries is rooted in how we grew up”. As children, pleasing our guardians is vital for survival; we instinctually internalise what this means in terms of what’s required of us to stay bonded and safe.

“So, if you think of a child setting boundaries or communicating their needs, first of all, this can be very tricky inside – triggering a sense of fear that we no longer belong,” says Ms Cecchetti-Pretsch. “And unfortunately, as children, we don’t always have adults around us who accept that, or really work with us when we’re setting boundaries as children.”

Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide To Reclaiming Yourself, agrees patterns learned in childhood are huge. And not only are healthy boundaries often not modelled for us, we may even have been directly denied them: “In some families, boundaries are not allowed – you can’t feel safe having boundaries. Some adults will tell you your opinion doesn’t matter, you’re a child and basically have to listen and do whatever I say.”

Read more: How to handle conversations with a relative expressing racist views

These things are all very much part of being human and the ‘norms’ society has created. We are continually reinforced with messages that being the best/busiest/most helpful and selfless are ‘good’, and that’s how we’ll gain approval, love and purpose. It’s when these things override our ability to recognise and honour our own true needs and desires, that it becomes a problem.

Why am I so stuck?
As Ms Tawwab notes, we can develop “a loyalty to dysfunctional systems, whether that’s family, a job, a friendship. But that loyalty to dysfunction causes lots of anxiety, depression and stress-related issues that boundaries could correct.”

Ms Cecchetti-Pretsch points out that we can get “addicted to a certain amount of stress and busyness” too: “Then if you suddenly have less, you can feel incredibly guilty and your body goes into a weird state, where it can’t actually relax.”

It can also trigger guilt and discomfort if honouring a boundary threatens your identity in some way. “We bring a whole set of things we’ve learned, patterns we’re unconsciously following,” says Ms Cecchetti-Pretsch. The ‘helper’ identity is a big one. “If you’re somebody who identifies as always helping other people and always giving, if you then say no, you can feel incredibly wrong.”

Read more: What is toxic positivity and is it harmful?

Over-explaining might also be a sign we’re leaving it too late before expressing our needs. Burnout is preventable – but only if we take steps to prevent it, and that’s a collective responsibility. What if we tried just saying: ‘I’m at capacity right now’, or, ‘I really need to rest, I’ll catch up with you next week’, or, ‘Thanks so much but this one’s a no from me!’ It’s important to be aware of our reactions when we’re on the receiving end too – and hear and accept when other people are saying no to us.

The more you practise, the easier it gets
Ms Tawwab says: “The way we become comfortable with anything is practising it. The first time you play tennis is going to feel awkward, until you continue and get the hang of it – it’s the same with boundaries. The more you practise, the better you become, the easier it gets.”

Ms Cecchetti-Pretsch suggests starting with situations and people where you feel more comfortable. “I call it the ‘boundary muscle’ – you’re starting easy. Hopefully you’ll have a better reaction from these people, and then you’ll learn to trust yourself more, so it’s really building that muscle.”

And have an honest look at your own patterns. “Look at your own self-care and what’s keeping you from taking yourself more seriously and tending to your needs,” says Ms Cecchetti-Pretsch. “And your inner dialogue – what are you telling yourself in that moment? When someone triggers you, what’s coming up in your head? Are you going into, ‘Oh my God, I’m doing something wrong’, is guilt coming up, are you blaming yourself? Often, it’s our internal dialogue that keeps us trapped.”

And while you may get some push back, being healthier and happier is ultimately good for all of us – and by giving ourselves permission to honour our needs, we’re giving others a green light too. As Ms Tawwab says: “It can be contagious.”

Do you find it hard to say no? Do you have any tips on setting boundaries you can share in the comments section below?

– With PA

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Written by Abi Jackson



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