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Do you say "Yes" when you want to say "no"?

Boundaries—a word used often and means various things to so many people. At first glance, I find that many tend to think of boundaries as saying “No.” In our culture of “Yes” and doing more, many have built up the courage to say “No” after years of overextending and people-pleasing. However, that is a fraction of what it means to deeply understand and exercise boundaries with all the complexities the word entails.

The Different Types of Boundaries

For example, most people don’t know that there is a deep connection between our goals, desires, needs and our boundaries. Now that we are a month into the new year, how have your desired goals been going? If you’ve been struggling to keep up with them, it’s likely you might need some help understanding your internal boundary system. The feeling of not meeting the goals where you desire change, due to fears showing up in your inner world, can be disheartening and keep us from really giving our energy to what we crave in life.

The truth is we all have both external and internal boundaries and they are directly connected. We have physical, emotional and even energetic boundaries. I like to think of boundaries as a combination of a connection to ourselves (and the different parts of ourselves inside (i.e., inner child, critical adult) and how to speak up and navigate our personal needs with the needs of others. Most of the time, this involves awareness, flexibility, and asking for what we need. But with work and in healthy relationships we can often meet our needs and still meet the needs of another.

Our Boundaries and Other People

There is no rule of thumb when it comes to boundaries because when we interact with others, sometimes we do end up giving up our needs a little for the ones we love, and at times they do this as well. It’s a flexible way of being where there is a sense of fluid exchange between people as they both voice their needs and look for ways to compromise.

Sometimes I see people who have said “yes” for years swing the pendulum because of burnout. Saying “no” can feel liberating for individuals who are too trapped in fear to take care of themselves. Often there is a sweet middle path, and this becomes easier the more we are in touch with our own inner needs and desires.

How We Develop Boundaries as Children

If we were lucky when we were small, our parents had a sense of peering inside of us and reflecting on what we might be experiencing. When this happens, we develop a clear sense of self and our needs. If we didn’t get enough of this mirroring and reflecting of our own inner world, knowing what we need as an adult can sometimes be confusing. This can lead to a default of saying “yes” or pleasing people later. I remember a period in my life when I was healing that I didn’t always know what I needed. I would get done from a long day and be left feeling completely clueless whether I needed to go to a yoga class, see a friend, or go home for some downtime. Without that direct mirroring from our parents—the kind where they sit us down and see into our world—we don’t develop a strong sense of self, so later on, learning what we need can be particularly hard.

Struggling with Our Needs

On top of all that, once one has figured out their needs, asking for those needs from others can be scary and overwhelming – especially if this was not practiced or experienced. Feelings of rejection or vulnerability might surface if you get brave enough to actually request a need and speak up. Setting boundaries with people you have never set them with before can bring up fear and even extreme reactions.

Most of the time, I find people don’t want to hurt others because they know what it’s like to be hurt. Letting other people down is not something they want others to experience. But the truth is, a lot of people who have healthy boundaries in place will or might be disappointed but are typically very understanding when you start to speak more of your truth.

How to Find Your Needs

Listening to your body is an important step to figuring out what you need. The more connected you become to your inner world, the more you can learn to meet your needs more effectively. Likewise, the more you invite people into your life who have healthy boundaries and start practicing exchanging your needs, desires, and limits with them, the more likely you’ll learn how to navigate your inner needs and the outer world.

I see my clients struggling to let fear run the show (usually this is something that people are not even aware of) – they overextend themselves in places where they give away their power. It might show up in relationships that are so important that they’ll please others over taking care of themselves, and it expresses itself in unhealthy ways. Whether it’s not exercising at all, exercising excessively, becoming a workaholic, or completely disregarding important work, their inner world cannot throttle what’s required to get their needs met. For example, if our sense of self-worth is externally coming from work, it would make sense that having limits with working would be hard. Or if working protects us from other deeper feelings like being in scarcity or feeling alone then it would make sense that we might even need to be a workaholic until we can slowly address loneliness and fear. It’s in that work that real change in our work-life balance and the boundaries we have with work will change.

Boundaries have a lot to do with honoring and getting to know yourself. This brief example might help. Let’s say you were overworked and run down, and you had a friend who needed a favor. You might think, “This is a really good friend, I have to do this,” but you might also pause and check in with your body and state of mind. Noticing how overwhelmed you were, you might be able to honor your need that you just have to say “no” right now because you need to take care of yourself—explaining this to your friend and hoping they understand that sometimes you can meet requests and sometimes you simply can’t because of what is going on in your own inner world. But if you're so scared of disappointing that friend or had experiences where when you did say “no” you got a consequence that was unpleasant or scary, you are more likely to override your own needs and self-sacrifice.

That is a small example of how listening to ourselves and honouring how we feel first and then tending to and addressing the outer world will come as a second response. It’s as if we have to train ourselves to tune in first to what’s going on inside, understand how we become the way we are and heal from some of our fears, and in the process we slowly become braver and more confident to ask for what we need. It also becomes clearer as you form this deeper understanding of yourself and your inner world.

How to Listen to Your Body

Listening to your body is also key. Your body has a “felt” sense of a " yes," a " no," and a "maybe." You can practice pressing pause on what is going on and take some time to collect your breath and drop into your body. Your body has a sensation that will let you know if it is a “yes,” and you might even feel your body move or tilt forward when there is a “yes.” You may feel something very different when you feel a “no.” Once you have that figured out you might even be able to sense more needs and desires as your body will start speaking to you around what feels right and why. And don’t get too overwhelmed if you identify as someone who struggles with boundaries. It’s complicated and there are even more layers to understand how this relates to you than I could even put in a blog. Learning to understand your inner world, listen to your body, ask for your needs, heal your fears and form relationships with flexible boundaries takes time and awareness.

At your service.

With Love and Gratitude


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