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"Could you...?" - "No." - Setting sustainable boundaries without losing friends.

This article is a content overview of the 'Next Level' community session held on 12 May 2021. It is NOT a true representation of the content, which includes shared reflections, practices, live coaching and lots of giggles. If you'd like to join the best conversations you've had all day, head over to and get your (free!) ticket :)!

I'm currently reading "Indistractable" by Nir Eyal... And even the title gave me an important insight... Have you ever thought how the word "DIStraction" means the opposite (or: Re-direction) of traction?? Isn't that exactly how our lives get hijacked these days - causing a loss of TRACTION in all areas of life?

So sustainable boundaries can have to do with our time - but they can of course also be around our own physical space (and body), our values and multiple other things. But how do we hold and maintain these little fortresses within our lives effectively?

Let's first give a nod of acknowledgement to WHY we so often give away control over our time, our attention and sometimes our values - because, to be honest - it's because we're good people! Most of the time we allow our boundaries being crossed because we are afraid we may offend, let down or disappoint other human beings. We worry that, if we say a clear resounding 'no', they'll think less of us, like us less or hold a grudge. We like to keep people happy, and relationships are important to us. So that's a good thing right??

Well - yes. Except there's two small problems: the first is that, being rough and real here for a moment, if we agree to something we don't really want to do for the purpose of having someone LIKE us, we're actually doing it for OURSELVES, not them (because we want to avoid 'not being liked'). And secondly - well: You don't need to be an airplane pilot to know that you can't fly on an empty tank.

So - how can we do better at maintaining and sustaining the little fortresses that are ours to maintain: our time, our energy, our values...

As so often - the truth will set you free.

So - take a moment right now, take a notebook and a pencil, and draw three vertical lines on a piece of paper, making three columns. The left column header is "Things I am tolerating (but know I probably shouldn't)". Take 5 mins or so and simply write a running list of stuff that you're putting up with on a regular basis EVEN THOUGH you'd much prefer not to... Yes, maybe 'work' is on that list, and maybe even 'kids'. It's ok - you don't need to show this to anyone... but be dirt honest with yourself.

Once you've got a good list together (it might well be quite long!), let's get ready to create some LEVERAGE. Leverage means putting up with a little bit of pain for a moment to gain lots of pleasure a bit later on. Are you willing to do that?

Our second column is titled "What it's costing me" - and again, take 5 or 10 minutes and write about the IMPACT these things on the left have on your life. Write about the overwhelm, the exhaustion, the frustration, the anger, the resentment - and the lost opportunities that come with the territory. You can link back to specific items in the first column or just write a running list. Either is fine. Again - be dirt honest - and ask yourself: How does this feel?? Who else is this affecting? And how?

This is the true cost of not maintaining boundaries. Ouch.

Let's move on to something more uplifting. In the third column, write about "What life could be like if I maintained my boundaries". Write about how you would feel instead, what you could do with your time, what you might achieve, how great life might be if you didn't have to deal with the daily frustrations. Could you finally have some 'me' time? Which of your relationships would improve if you were less stressed and frustrated? What would it mean for your sense of purpose and fulfilment?

Feeling a bit better? Feeling excited?

Let's move on to step 2.

One very key distinction that will help you with your boundaries, but also life in general is this:


Ever. Problem. Has. An. Owner.

Unfortunately, all too often, we get confused about who owns what. And it's easy to do.

Let's look at a simple example (and no, this is DEFINITELY not a problem I have experienced myself LOL):

Your partner/flatmate/kids regularly leave the dishes in the sink instead of putting them in the (empty) dishwasher next door.

What is it costing? - Time, every day, cleaning up after others. Frustration. Anger. Resentment. Irritability. You're actually less available for the relationship because you're holding a grudge. You have to deal with calming your annoyance on a daily basis. Some days you've been late for important meetings because you were held up putting other people's dishes away. You get the idea.

What could life be like without it? - No time wasted. A clean kitchen, all the time. Feelings of satisfaction, joy, appreciation. Happy memories made during cheery kitchen banter. More love and appreciation for one another. Life is good.

So - sounds like a good thing to tackle. But who OWNS this problem?

It's easy to think that it's your partner/flatmate/kids who own the problem = having to do something they don't want to do. They REALLY have a problem with being organized, tidy, cleanliness etc, don't they? They also have a problem with being respectful to you. They have a problem constantly ignoring your requests. THEY need to do something about it.


They don't. They don't have a problem at all. They are PERFECTLY happy and content leaving the dishes in the sink.

It's YOU who has the problem.

And what do we commonly do if we are not mindfully aware of our problem ownership? - We try to shift OUR problem onto them - by way of how we're reacting. If we only get annoyed enough, they'll realize they have a problem, right?


They just end up confused.

So what does this mean? - What it means is we have to take OWNERSHIP of our problems. Acknowledge that it is only "US", "I", "moi" "me" who has a problem - noone else.

How does that shift our perspective?

Well - who is in charge of solving a problem only YOU own? - Exactly. You are.

This is how we can start taking responsibility for our boundaries, for our communication - and let go of the expectation that somehow others will 'fix it' for us.

So - whether it is people who constantly keep interrupting you at work, calling you, speaking in ways you don't like, eating your food from the fridge, dumping extra work on you at 4.55pm on a Friday - it's YOU who has a problem with that. Not them.

So - let's take care of it. Let's solve our own problem.

First, we need to identify what the problem is, exactly. What behavior do we want others to modify/start/stop/change?

Then, we need to work out HOW we'd like them to do that. We need to make a REQUEST. And then we need to HELP them fulfill our request (because, remember, it's OUR problem, not theirs - so we really can't expect too much, right?)

A common formula comes from NVC (non-violent communication):

When you {insert behavior = leave dishes by the sink} it impacts me because {describe impact = I clean them up, I feel frustrated over the messy kitchen etc}. I would appreciate it if {insert what you want instead = you'd put the dishes in the dishwasher straight away}.

So far, so good. "But" you might say "I've tried this plenty of times - they just don't listen!".

That's because it's not THEIR problem - it's yours. So think about how you can HELP them even more.

Maybe you have to listen to why it's challenging for them - and help them find solutions. Maybe you have to help them with reminders. Maybe you have to give incentives. Maybe you need to be more vulnerable and open about how it's affecting you.

Trade your expectations for appreciation.

There are a few reasons why a person may not respond to your request:

  • Your message wasn't complete - it didn't describe the behavior, it's effects and their resulting emotion and the request clearly enough: Clarify further

  • They feel upset when they heard your request and their upset wasn't listened to: Sso listen undefensively and let them 'talk it out'.

  • They own a problem themselves (conflict of needs): Take a "you fix mine, I'll fix yours" approach

  • They don't believe their behavior affects you (conflict of values): a deeper, further conversation may be needed or you may have to respectfully 'agree to disagree'.

But what about a different situation - what about things that are 'not ok' - like your colleague making sexist remarks over morning tea?

Unfortunately - it's still your problem. It's still your responsibility to communicate what it is that you don't like, how it impacts you and what you'd like instead. And then HELP them do better somehow.

No matter how much you think they're a sexist pig - you can't influence anyone while you're judging them.

They'll just get defensive - and strike back.

And the relationships? What about 'being liked'?

Taking ownership of your problems and the adopting a 'helping' mindset is going to go a long way towards maintaining relationships. But it's also helpful to look at the alternatives.

Our communication can only ever be one of these four things. A great example is this:

You're at dinner and the person you're having dinner with has food stuck in their teeth.

If you don't care about them personally, you may either

  • do nothing (and quietly think about how they may embarrass themselves in their next meeting) = manipulative insincerity

  • say something like "You've got stuff in your teeth - you pig!" = obnoxious aggression

But if you care TOO much, you may actually choose to say NOTHING to spare them (and yourself) the embarrassment - ultimately harming them more = ruinous empathy.

So - speaking up, but in a caring way (what Kim calls 'radical candor') is the only remaining option.

Having said ALL of that - there are also situations in life where we need to just say 'no'. No helping, no explanation, no justifying.

Those are situations where - you guessed it - the OTHER person owns a problem - and tries to make it yours in one of the two unhelpful, uncaring ways above (manipulative insincerity or obnoxious aggression).

If you are willing to take OWNERSHIP of your problems and your boundaries in this way, it is perfectly alright to expect others to do the same. Engaging with any form of 'obnoxious aggression' or 'manipulative insincerity' is only going to make the problem worse - and enable the other person to not take responsibility for themselves.

So when you have identified that

  1. THEY own the problem and

  2. They try to make it yours in a manipulative or aggressive way

"No" is in fact a complete sentence.

And to practice that - here's a fun exercise. Find someone to play with (partner, kids, colleague) and ask them to do WHATEVER they can to try and convince you to agree to do something.

Your role is to just keep saying 'no'. Not "No, sorry". Just no. No apologies, no justifications, no explanation. If you slip up, they win a point.

Then reverse the game.

Practice makes perfect.

Much love,

Natalie xx

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