Healthy Boundaries vs. Unhealthy Expectations: Saying No When They Want You to Say Yes

Remember when we were kids? For some of us that’s not so long ago. For others, well… it’s a little bit longer. We may recall our childhood fondly or we may want to turn our back on the memories. But for most of us, one of the last things we wanted to hear our parents say was, “I’m so disappointed in you.”

It’s almost impossible to bear up under the weight of our parents’ disappointment.

You know what? As I transitioned from childhood through my teen years to being an adult, I wish someone had told me, “It’s okay to disappoint another person—even your mom and dad.”

I wish someone had said that not living up to someone else’s expectations didn’t make me a bad person. That it didn’t make me a disappointment.

Maybe, just maybe, you need to know these truths. There are times when we choose to say no in an effort to protect ourselves—to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And then someone evaluates our choice and tells us we’re wrong. Self-centered. We’re told how much our choice hurts them and we begin to doubt ourselves.

Consider this quote by American author and research professor Brené Brown: “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”

Oftentimes, disappointment happens when our boundary runs up against someone else’s expectations. Maybe a family member or friend wants you to say yes to attending an event. Or to interacting with a certain person who tears you down. Or to taking on another responsibility when your schedule is already overflowing with commitments.

Setting a boundary doesn’t mean you don’t care about the person or persons on the other side. A respectful boundary—one that is thought out, prayed about, and explained—often upholds a value that is important to you. It can also be established on universal boundaries that most people will respect, like not tolerating abusive speech or behavior and creating an honest culture within relationships. Even so, not everyone will agree with or understand your choice.

As much as someone else wants you to say yes, there are valid reasons for you not to. We shouldn’t say yes if:

  • It violates our values
  • It keeps us from saying yes to something more important
  • It drains us emotionally rather than fulfilling us
  • It allows the continuation of disrespectful or abusive behavior toward us or someone else

How can you maintain a healthy boundary when someone’s expectations for you are unrealistic or, even worse, unhealthy? Consider these things to help you say no when someone else wants you to say yes:

1. Realize there are two people in a relationship.

Too often we put more weight on what others want from us than on what we need. One of the greatest commandments is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). Consider that for just a moment: we are to love others, yes, but we are also to love ourselves. It’s okay to take care of yourself. Your emotional and/or physical health is just as important as what the other person says only you can do for them. “You have to do this because no one else can” is a manipulative statement that backs you into a corner emotionally, leaving you no escape route.

2. Recognize and refuse to play the game of “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Avoid the trap of right versus wrong. Another person is going to believe their request is reasonable and right. Justified. Your boundary is right, too. Allow that both of you can be right… and leave it at that. You may never be able to convince the other person that your decision is more right than their expectation—or even that you aren’t wrong. Save your time and energy and agree to disagree, respecting each other’s point of view.

3. Remain calm when they ignore your boundary.

Sometimes it’s as if the boundaries we establish are invisible. Nonexistent. We say, “No, I can’t do that,” and we get a phone call the very next day asking us to reconsider. There’s no need to overreact or to argue. Just restate the no and move on. Better yet, let the call go to voice mail and reply by text. Yes, this can be considered an avoidance tactic, but it’s also a subtle reinforcement of your boundary, i.e., I’m not talking about this anymore.

4. Respect your boundary, even if someone else doesn’t.

Years ago, I had to set up a difficult but needed boundary with my extended family—a clear “There will be no communication” message. Despite this, I kept receiving emails, texts, and phone calls. My first reaction? To respond in an attempt to say, “Didn’t you hear what I told you? I’m not going to talk with you about this anymore.” However, my counselor looked at me and said, “You respect your boundary even if they don’t.” His advice was so wise—and I’ve returned to it again and again. What kind of boundary was it if I ignored it just because they ignored it?

In the end, we need to learn that it is okay to tell other people no—and we don’t have to offer an explanation, either. As author Anne Lamott says, “No is a complete sentence.”

Sometimes the most effective boundary is the simplest: a direct no—declining any explanation, because that avoids emotional upheaval. Say no in a respectful tone—and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Read more from Beth Vogt in her novel Moments We Forget

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