Setting Boundaries: How to Say No to Your Family, Friends, and Others

3 Signs You’re Letting Your Boundaries Slide. Learn how to say no to family.


Three warning signs to watch for when examining your boundaries.

Sign #1: Seething beneath a calm exterior

When it comes to teaching patients about boundaries, the most common warning sign I see is in patients who choose to tolerate the behavior; they are not actually in a healthy position to accept.

Examples of this:

“My wife is a nag, but I just let it slide.”

“My boss is under a lot of stress. I don’t take his comments personally.”

“What are you going to do? I can’t change her.”

These may be the sentiments my patients want me to hear, but what I really see are men seething beneath the surface of their cool facades. Their emotional distress is palpable, and they genuinely don’t have any idea why.

Saying things such as:

Let it slide. Don’t take it personally. What are you going to do? It’s just the way she is.

This is the language we use to justify not protecting our personal boundaries. We tell ourselves these events aren’t a big deal, but that’s really just a tactic to avoid the guilt of how to say no to family or to confront our loved ones.

Under the surface, the issue we try to cast aside actually churn and build. They disrupt our lives, emotional health, and confidence. They hurt our feelings. They chip away and eventually destroy our most important relationships.

They are a big deal.


Sign #2: Blaming things instead of people

Setting and protecting is difficult. It elicits feelings of guilt and fear because we don’t want to “hurt” the people in our lives. To keep our boundaries intact, we have to learn how to say no to family, even when our loved ones want us to say “yes.”

To mitigate guilt, I find that my patients often blame their anger and frustration on objects, rather than people.

For example:

A husband who dislikes spending every holiday at his in-law’s house will blame the weather or the traffic. He’ll tell me, “Just getting there is a total nightmare!”

A man who doesn’t agree politically with his extended family blames his discomfort on a difference in cultures, saying, “Southerners just get me, you know?”

A father whose adult son is still on his “payroll” will blame the economy by asking me, “How is anyone expected to make a lining in this job market?”

It’s easier to blame things beyond our control than to accept and express uncomfortable feelings. The husband doesn’t have to hurt his wife’s feelings when it’s all the traffic’s fault. The man who can blame a lack of cultural common ground won’t have to do the work of expressing and respecting his opinions. The father, who can blame the economy, doesn’t have to face any consequences of not requiring his kid to pay his own way in life.

These excuses, however, are just excuses. They don’t solve any of our long-term issues, and, in most cases, they make long-term issues worse.


Sign #3: Minimizing feelings

Eventually, as my patients and make progress toward boundary-setting, they’ll come to acknowledge the feelings seething beneath the surface of their lives-their anger or fear or hurt. But I know they still have work to do when they minimize the power these feelings exert on their lives.


Patients often say:

It makes me a little frustrated…

I sort of feel mad…

I guess maybe I’m worried…

What my patients eventually learn, however, is that to establish healthy boundaries, they have to be willing to acknowledge those feelings. It’s not wrong to be angry or afraid or sad or hurt. Nor is it less wrong to be a little mad or sort of worried or kind of frustrated.

A feeling is a feeling is a feeling, no matter its name or strength.

If you’re angry, that’s okay. If you’re afraid, that’s fine too. But until you can recognize and accept the power those feelings have over your relationships, you won’t make any progress in preventing those very same feelings from destroying those very same relationships.


When I see relationships in shambles, I don’t have to dig very deep to find the telltale signs of personal boundaries in need of repair. You have the tools to spot them now, too. Just watch and listen for the three clues:

-Covering true feelings with a calm or happy exterior.

-Shifting the blame.

-Minimizing our feelings.

With practice, you can stop these destructive tendencies from wearing away at your relationships. And like many of my patients, you may even feel your relationships take a “miraculous” turn for the better- the realization that keeping personal boundaries doesn’t make us the bad guy, but instead, delivers the kind of relationship we so long hoped for.


For more topics, go to www.drldabney.com



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