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The Power of “No”: Set Better Boundaries for a Better Life

Just Say No

“’No’ is a complete sentence.” ~Anne Lamott

When I went to counseling for the first time, my therapist told me I needed better boundaries. I had no idea what he was talking about, and although the book he lent me on the subject helped a little, I still didn’t really get it.

I tried here and there to integrate the few concepts I’d picked up from the book into my life, but mostly I stayed away from anything that could be considered boundary setting, as I still couldn’t quite figure out what it meant.

A decade after my first introduction to the concept, though, two life coaches I admire happened to be teaching a free class on the subject, and I jumped at the chance to take my learning to the next level.

After hearing what they had to say, things finally started to click. I began to understand that it wasn’t about trying to control someone else’s actions, but rather about being clear on what action I would take if and when my boundaries were crossed.

Still, it was hard for me to set boundaries, because I felt very uncertain of myself and my worth. Was it okay to tell someone no? Or that I wasn’t satisfied with the way things were?

Since the world works in mysterious ways, chances to test my boundaries continue appearing in my life whether I want them to or not.

Most recently, it came up with my child, an area where I’d never realized boundaries would be necessary (silly, but true).

My mother and I were out to lunch with my toddler, and I spent most of the wait for our food walking around bouncing my daughter, trying to keep her entertained. After the food came I was barely able to eat, because my little girl wanted to be held and would not stay in her high chair.

After that experience, my mom sent me an email. She thought I needed to start setting some gentle boundaries with my daughter, and was buying me a book that she thought would help. I burst out crying because I knew she was right.

As soon and I started reading the book, I finally got it. Everything that I’d been trying to understand about boundaries for the last fifteen years finally made sense, and I finally started believing it was okay for me to get my needs met, and that it was totally acceptable to say no sometimes.

This change with my daughter has come more easily than I imagined, and, thankfully, it’s starting to impact how I interact with adults, too.

I have a feeling I’m going to need another fifteen years to become an expert at setting boundaries, but here are some things I’ve learned so far.

1. Most of us are socialized to actively not have boundaries.

We’re taught that we shouldn’t say no, and that it would be impolite to ignore another person’s wishes.

This point was driven home for me the other day when I saw a kid’s TV program that made it clear that even the youngest members of our society are being taught they should always do what other people want.

In the program, one character (a bear) was watching TV, but then a second character (a little girl) came in and wanted to watch something else. She gave the bear big, sad, puppy dog eyes, and, even though he clearly didn’t want to, he gave up the TV.

As the girl watched TV, the bear paced back and forth, wishing he was watching his program. He kept hoping she would fall asleep, or go play outside, so he could get back to what he really wanted to be doing.

This is exactly how we start learning that it’s not okay to say exactly what we want. When we’re young and impressionable, we’re taught that it’s rude to be clear on what we do and do not like.

2. Not having clear boundaries keeps us in lives that are subpar.

In my own life not having boundaries has been a huge problem. It’s allowed me to stay in unhealthy relationships (both the romantic kind and the friend kind), made me a doormat, and made me anxious and unhappy.

Setting a boundary simply means saying no if I don’t want to do something (instead of feeling guilty and obligated). It means telling my husband what I need rather than getting mad when he doesn’t read my mind. It means only working the hours I’ve set for myself, rather than running myself ragged trying to do “enough.”

3. When you refuse to set a boundary, it leads to anger and resentment.

It can tear relationships apart, keep you in a role at work that doesn’t suit you, and cause you to feel badly about yourself.

Looking back on a relationship I had in college, I can see how not having boundaries set us up for failure. My boyfriend at the time was involved in a couple of activities that made me very uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t set a boundary with him, so instead I just lashed out with anger and jealousy, which just made things worse.

The healthiest thing I could have done for myself would have been to say, “I’m not okay with you doing that. If that’s something you’re going to continue doing, I am going to have to remove myself from this relationship.” I was too fearful of the consequences, though, so it took me a long time to end things.

One caveat when setting boundaries like this: You must be sure you’re not setting a limit in order to control or change someone. You must be truly ready to walk away from the relationship, and you absolutely must be setting the boundary from a place of love and respect for yourself, rather than a place of fear and control toward someone else.

4. Setting boundaries is going to be uncomfortable sometimes.

If you always say yes to everything, or let your parents or neighbors come over unannounced even though it really annoys you, or always clean up after your spouse because you don’t want to upset him or her by requesting they clean up after themselves, you’re going to have to take some scary steps to start drawing lines in the sand.

The uncomfortable feelings don’t mean you shouldn’t follow through with boundary setting, though. In the long run everyone will be happier if you set better boundaries, and if they’re not, it’s really and truly their own issue, not yours.

5. Boundaries are never about trying to change someone else’s actions or behaviors.

This one gets kind of tricky for me, but think of it like this: If you’re in the car and someone is speeding, your boundary wouldn’t be “stop driving so fast,” it would be “I am very scared that you’re driving this fast, if you’re not going to slow down, I need you stop and to let me out of the car.”

You’re not trying to make them stop speeding, you’re telling them you won’t allow yourself to be in the speeding car.

Boundaries are about getting your needs met, but not by getting someone else to sacrifice their own needs. You have to decide what you really want for your own life, and then go about setting limits that serve these goals.

Just say no image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Jen Picicci

About Jen Picicci

Jen Picicci is an artist and writer who uses words, colors, and a sprinkle of humor to inspire and uplift. She can usually be found wrangling a toddler, petting a cat, practicing her hand-lettering skills, or eating something chocolate. To learn more about her or get her free guide This is Your Life, Make it Beautiful, visit her website

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  • raychil

    Totally!! I’ve been trying to set boundaries a while now but I always feel sooo bad about it. Will try and take this on board more, thanks 🙂

  • Hello Jen
    Thank you for sharing. Congratulations to you.
    Like you, I struggled with this. When a person has low self-esteem, boundaries are difficult to set, because you aim to please everyone.

    As a result, I was a very angry and resentful person for a long time. I am so relieved that that is in the past now and I am now pretty good at setting boundaries.

    PS: I really like your website. Good luck with it all.

  • Tracy

    I really like your analogy about the speeding car. That sums up very well the difference between setting boundaries and trying to change someone’s behaviour.

  • Kimkyle

    What were the two books you were given?

  • Teresa Brill

    I agree. I thought that was a great example.

  • Dog Parbus

    We have to realize that when we set boundaries, we make ourselves better for everyone. When we set boundaries, two things happen. We are not resentful and we teach others to respect our time.

    If we don’t respect our time, how can we expect others to respect it?

  • LaTrice Dowe

    Thank you, Jen for not only writing such an excellent article, but sharing a few tips that were based on your life experience.

  • Mary McBride

    Great article! One note: Anne LaMott borrowed that saying from some conventionally held wisdom, and while she may have published it in some of her writings (not sure), I don’t think it should be attributed to her.

  • Mayer

    Splendid article Jen. Do you mind sharing the books that were recommended to you? Anyone who identifies with this article would enjoy them, maybe even need them.

  • Jen – Thanks for sharing this, and aspects of your personal life, with us. This post is right on!
    Setting boundaries is always difficult, but if you set them in the beginning, they’re easier than trying to change the actions and outcomes. It’s like launching a rocket to Mars, only to try and recalibrate the trajectory to Venus mid-flight.
    I always think about it in terms of training a puppy. What you let them do develops their understanding of your relationship over your time together. What are you willing to allow, compromise and stand firm.
    It’s not true you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s incredibly more difficult!

  • mysteryjesus

    What was the name of the book? I need a book like that myself.

  • Trisha

    Thank you for your post. Really helped me understand boundaries.

  • Jen

    Thanks, Mary!

  • Jen

    Hi there, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember the name of the book my therapist gave me – it was probably 17 years ago! I did a quick search but couldn’t find anything that rang a bell. The second book was one by Janet Lansbury that was actually about raising toddlers, called “No Bad Kids,” but was almost entirely about setting boundaries. Sorry I can’t be of more help!

  • Jen

    Hi there, as I wrote above, I (unfortunately) don’t remember the name of the book my therapist gave me – it was probably 17 years ago! I did a quick search but couldn’t find anything that rang a bell. The second book was one by Janet Lansbury that was actually about raising toddlers, called “No Bad Kids,” but was almost entirely about setting boundaries. Sorry I can’t be of more help! I would say any resource that teaches you that it’s okay to put yourself first is a good start!

  • Jen

    Hi there, to tell you the truth, I don’t remember the name of the book my therapist gave me – it was probably 17 years ago! I did a quick search but couldn’t find anything that rang a bell. The second book was one by Janet Lansbury that was actually about raising toddlers, called “No Bad Kids,” but was almost entirely about setting boundaries. Sorry I can’t be of more help! As I said to the others asking about this, anything with boundaries in the title or anything about saying no would probably be a good start.

  • Jen

    I can relate!

  • Jen

    You’re welcome. I’m just trying to do my best!

  • Jen

    So true!!

  • Jen

    Yup, resentment goes away with the right boundaries.

  • Jen


  • Sean

    I really enjoyed the article, and this issue is something I need to work on for myself quite a bit. What was the book that you read on the topic that you really enjoyed? And as a sidebar, I really liked the car analogy, but I’m stuck on trying to apply it to the situation with the bear and little girl. What’s the equivalent to “I’m not going to stop you from speeding” strategy for the bear while fulfilling his own wishes?

  • vic

    Thank you for this article. I have started in the last 2-3 years to make changes in this very area and have an observation from my own experience: the people that care that you live the life you deserve/want do not care as much as you think they will when you make your boundaries clear to them – they do the same for themselves and understand and respect you more for it. Then there are the other people that don’t really want the best for your but have been exploiting your weakness in this area to their own ends and they get really really mad when you set your boundaries with them as a way of trying to override your needs again. I found the latter group incredibly difficult to deal with but I realise now that once your path to personal development/growth starts, you have to leave these people behind or you will get stuck. You are right – you cannot change other people, and you have to be ready to follow through with living the life you deserve/want and that might mean losing people along the way.

  • Alliekitty

    This was so helpful!!!! Thank you! !!

  • Good read and a nice article

  • Marilyn

    There’s another side to this though. Yesterday my daughter asked me if I could have my 13year old grand-daughter for a few hours while she took a friend to hospital. I myself am recovering from surgery and was feeling pretty worn out. I really wanted to say no but didn’t want to make things more difficult for my daughter. What happened in the end was that I spent a few hours with grand-daughter and felt a whole lot better for it, as it had taken me out of myself!