How to Say "No" and Set Boundaries to Reduce Stress

Updated on November 13, 2017
Blake Flannery profile image

Blake has worked in the mental health field since 2002 educating and inspiring hope on the journey toward recovery.

Fences Keep Things Where They Belong

Whether it's their dog, your kid, their lawnmower, or your trash.  A fence helps clear up who's responsible for what.
Whether it's their dog, your kid, their lawnmower, or your trash. A fence helps clear up who's responsible for what.

Boundaries Are Invisible but Important

We all have invisible lines around us that separate actions from others that are comfortable and actions of others that make us uncomfortable. How close someone stands to you while talking can lead to uncomfortable feelings.

You may find yourself taking small steps backwards as the person gets too close for comfort. That feeling of discomfort causes stress. In this situation, the stress may not be overwhelming, but in other situations, the stress may be unbearable when others cross your line physically or emotionally.

Boundaries, specifically strong boundaries, help us reduce the stress of uncomfortable feelings and future regret. Setting strong boundaries can be challenging when years of old habits are preceding your attempts.

These tips for setting boundaries to reduce stress can serve as a guide for you to improve your quality of life by interacting with others in healthy ways.

How Boundaries Reduce Stress

"Fences make happy neighbors" is a popular saying that can be applied here. Boundaries make happy and less stressed people because others are less likely to cross those boundaries. When someone understands what is o.k. and not o.k. with you, he or she must ask for permission to gain access to come closer to you.

If your boss understands fully that your family time is sacred to you, and that you are unwilling to give up that time, you will not likely be the first to be asked to put in extra hours.

Some relationships are professional, some are personal, and others are intimate. When someone who you have a professional relationships starts getting too personal or intimate, stress follows.

Not allowing those people to move into inappropriate territory will avoid those feelings of stress. The earlier the better, because it's much easier to set a boundary upfront than to have to push someone back and build a boundary simultaneously.

How to Set Boundaries Effectively

The tactic to use to set boundaries will depend on the type of boundary that is needed, but it will always require an assertion and a reinforcement of what you want or need. It is important to use an assertive communication style in order to avoid escalation and manage conflict effectively.

Speaking from your own perspective about your own thoughts and feelings is one of the best ways to avoid offending the other person. One tool you can use to do this is the assertive "I Statement." Here are some examples of these types of messages.

  • "I'd rather not."
  • "I would like to..."
  • "I need you to..."
  • "I feel upset when..."

These "I Statements" are not magical in the fact that you will always get what you want, but your likelihood is dramatically increased because you are being direct in a non-threatening way. Keep in mind that it is important not to say "You Statements" disguised as "I Statements."

"You Statements" Disguised as "I Statements:"

  • "I think you're an idiot!"
  • "I wish you'd go to hell!"
  • "I need you to shut your pie hole!"

Barbed Wire Fence Is an Assertive Boundary

Be a barbed wire fence.  Set a boundary that makes people think twice about trying to surmount it without hurting, but give them a chance respect the boundary.
Be a barbed wire fence. Set a boundary that makes people think twice about trying to surmount it without hurting, but give them a chance respect the boundary.

How to Reinforce the Boundary You Set

Even when people get the assertive language down, the message can break down if the reinforcement of that message is not present or is too weak. Another way people sometimes sabotage their boundary setting is by making threats that the person cannot follow through.

Think of the reinforcement as an offering of consequences. In other words, you offer a positive consequence of the person doing what you want him to do and a negative consequence of the person disrespecting your boundary. Here's an example of the reinforcement part underlined:

"I really don't like the way that you are touching me right now, because the timing doesn't feel right. I feel ashamed, because I don't want to do this. Could you allow me to just hold your hand for a little while, and I will let you know when it's o.k. to go any further? If I feel pushed to do something I don't want to do, I won't want to go out with you again."

If you try reading the above example without the reinforcement at the end, it is much less strong. The other person may push back, testing the boundary. Think of the assertion as a wooden fence set in cement. It may still be broken with enough force. If, however, a brick wall is placed directly behind that wooden fence, a person is much less likely to run head first into it expecting to bust through.

How to Say "No" Like You Mean It

A large percentage of what is communicated comes from nonverbal cues that are seen or heard. Try turning on a sitcom, press mute, and watch for a while. You can still tell how serious a person is and generally what the person is feeling.

Keep in mind that a person can say, "I don't like that" in many different tones and facial expressions resulting in different meanings. Make sure that when you say "No" others hear a solid, serious "No."

  • Keep your head up with appropriate eye contact
  • Shoulders should be relaxed but not shrugged
  • Facial emotion should be serious to match the message
  • Speed of speech should be medium
  • Volume should be adequate for the environment
  • Use an even tone without too much inflection

Changing Old Habits: How to Set New Boundaries

If you have historically set weak boundaries with others, you will have a more difficult time creating stronger boundaries because of the expectations others have of you. Keep this in mind as you change your own behavior. A new way of living with less stress is worth the difficult work you need to do now.

Start with those people you are most confident with as you practice boundary setting. Build your confidence, hone your skills, and move on to new challenges. As your interactions become stronger, others will view you, talk to you, and talk about you in a different way. A new lower stress life will follow where you can feel respected and make your own decisions.

Most Difficult People for Setting Limits

Who do you find it most difficult to say "no" to?

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 

      4 years ago

      Very helpful. As you say, it's so important to create strong boundaries from day one. When I started my job, I had weak boundaries and was very happy-go-lucky, will take on anything, everything is A-Okay with me. Then, during my fifth year on the job, my boss added a HUGE responsibility to my workload (doubling my work). When I tried to talk with her about it, she didn't like this "new" me. She wanted that idiot who would take on anything!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Useful article, glad to say I scored 100% :)

    • abbykorinnelee profile image

      Abigayle Korinne 

      7 years ago from Plymouth WI

      I always have a hard tome saying no lol

    • Blake Flannery profile imageAUTHOR

      Blake Flannery 

      7 years ago from United States

      L.L. Woodard,

      With time and maturity, you can learn to be better at boundary setting. It may help to think of someone you know in your life who is really good and then ask yourself, "What would he/she do or say?" I've found this to be helpful for me.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 

      7 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Boundary setting is one of the toughest endeavors for me. I know the appropriate things to say, but can't seem to say them.

      Great hub; voted up and Shared.


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