The power of no: how to build strong, healthy boundaries

Geen. A tiny, yet mighty word. To hear it can make us feel childlike; sheepish or in trouble. How does it make you feel to say “no”? Strong? Nervous? Guilty? Do you say it often enough?

In Julie, when the gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from most of her Olympics appearances, citing emotional exhaustion that was affecting her ability to perform, her “no” was a thunderbolt. Reactions were largely supportive, maar opinions were divided along political lines in the US. Wit, male sports pundits (en, predictable as the arrow of time, Piers Morgan) used the word “selfish”. It was a similar story when the tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in May, speaking of “long bouts of depression” and “huge waves of anxiety” before her pre- and post-match press conferences.

For both women, after a lifetime of intensive training, in the world’s gaze, the stakes of saying no were huge. But the message was clear: they were removing themselves from systems that might not protect them. A superstar athlete such as Biles pulling away from the most venerated sporting event in the world to prioritise her state of mind felt culturally seismic, yet remarkably simple. Hoekom, if feeling completely overwhelmed, shouldn’t she put others’ expectations second? Why shouldn’t anyone?

“The Olympic games are emotionally exhausting,” says Steve Magness, an Olympic athletics coach and performance scientist. “You spend years building towards a moment and have external pressure coming at you which manifests into unbelievable internal pressure. I don’t think the everyday person understands that.” Magness has spent a decade researching toughness, namely, our “deep misunderstanding” of what it really means. “The easy decision for Biles was to push onwards no matter what. You can always defend ‘trying’. The hard decision was to say no.”

For Magness, the root of strength is being clear what you are capable of. “Toughness is about having self-awareness to figure out where you are, and whether the path forward is the right one to take. Think of the mountain climber, striving for their goal, almost at the peak of the mountain. They still have to maintain clarity about what they’re capable of, as the difficulty isn’t reaching the top of the mountain, it’s coming back down. In that example, toughness is turning around – even if the goal is right there.”

Yet the word is potent for non-athletes, ook. As psychological themes become more ingrained in our daily lexicon, “boundaries” has become a buzzy word. But in our interpersonal relationships, defining personal limits can be problematic. “We live in a society that does not glorify choosing yourself. It is not honoured,” says relationship therapist Nedra Tawwab, author of the recently published book Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. “We are constantly living in others’ headspace and not our own heart space. We’re thinking about what they might say or do; whether they’ll be angry, or whether setting a boundary will even end the relationship.” It is normal to care, “but when your life is impacted by not having healthy boundaries for yourself, we need to pay attention”, says Tawwab.

“As a black woman, Biles has continued to endure so much without taking care of her needs,” says Tawwab, “But there are so many consequences of that ‘strong black woman’ narrative. Ons need to be more selfish and speak up for our needs. In order for us to be well, we need to change the idea that speaking up makes us angry or unresilient. I am happy to see people coming out and saying: ‘This is how I really feel and I can’t take any more,’ because hopefully it inspires other women to do the same. ”

When there are hierarchies of power – such as in the workplace – saying no can feel particularly difficult. But as the borders between work and the rest of our lives have become increasingly blurred, thanks to more people home-working, it is even more vital. “Research tells us that people who proactively state their boundaries, such as leaving or stopping work on time, taking leave or prioritising non-work-related activities, are much better at managing their mental health,” says Dr Jo Yarker, an occupational psychologist, researcher and senior lecturer at Birkbeck University, Londen.

Yarker and Tawwab both suggest practising can help. “In any power-difference relationship, it’s often emotion that leads a conversation about limitations, because we feel threatened or vulnerable. This is particularly true when we are exhausted or under a lot of pressure. But if we want action, we need to lead on logic and reason and with an understanding of our desired outcome.” It’s not easy to just switch emotion off. “You may feel emotion keenly,” says Yarker, “but preparing for conversations about boundaries [she suggests practice and role-play] that clearly define factors you need to change, rather than just saying you feel overwhelmed, will help the interaction have a more equal footing.”

Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to speak up, for a fear of being rejected. But Yarker points out it is management’s responsibility to create a culture where employees feel listened to. 'The new Health and Safety Executive management standards, formulated by government to help employers manage the causes of work-related stress, state that organisations should take an approach that is preventative in terms of psychosocial risk [occupational hazards related to the way work is organised and managed], rather than just being addressed at crisis point.” Regular team check-ins where expectations are identified and managed can help, while each of us can reflect separately on what we need to thrive – and ask for it.

Do we misuse the word selfish when people are clear about their needs? “I think we do, ja,” says Tawwab. “The definition I like is giving when you can and not giving when you can’t," sy sê. “We need to think about what is actually being harmed when we use that word. If I am taking a day off work, that’s not the same as stealing someone’s credit.” The key is practising saying “no” or “enough” in conversations like we are learning a new skill. “We can start with little boundaries like: ‘I will call you back,’ if we aren’t ready to speak to someone at that time. With practice, confidence does build. It can become easy.”

I was recently struck when my new girlfriend asked if we could “put a pin in” an emotional conversation around grief. With an even tone, she calmly stated a boundary and I admired her for it. Our ability to set, or receive, a boundary well relates to how we experienced them within our early relationships. “It is no surprise that people who felt uncared for or overlooked growing up may find it difficult to put boundaries in place, through an unconscious fear of abandonment,” says psychotherapist Ammanda Major, head of clinical practice at Relate. “Equally, if our caregivers had very few boundaries, we might find it hard to understand appropriate ones, because there is no blueprint. This applies to family dynamics, friendships and colleagues, but particularly to romantic relationships.”

But what if a partner, friend or family member seems ook boundaried? “This is a broad brushstroke, but when people are very boundaried or say no a lot, it may be because they fear that not keeping people at arm’s length will invite an emotional vulnerability they are afraid of,” says Major. “This can instil fear in the other person that they will get into trouble if they transgress, and go into an unhealthy place where one person is saying ‘reject’ and the other person is trying, carefully, to find a way through the gaps.”

A popular joke goes: “Why did the narcissist cross the road? They thought it was a boundary.” The implication being that crossing other people’s boundaries is the realm of empathy-devoid bastards. The problem is that what two people mean by the word “boundary” can be very different. Your partner might not feel your advice-giving mother-in-law is overstepping in the way you do. They might feel you responding to group WhatsApp messages over the dinner table isn’t respectful of your time together. “Most people I have come across in therapy have felt their needs were not being met. Some of those needs are around different boundaries, yet when you drill down into what they mean, other dynamics come up,” says Major. “Ultimately, a key indicator of a healthy relationship is give-and-take.”

It can be hard, but honesty is a position to strive for. For any human being, Olympian or otherwise, learning when to say no can bring peace. And isn’t that something we all deserve?

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