The Art of Saying No: Protecting Your Boundaries & Prioritizing Yourself

A strong, confident man standing in front of a fence, represents boundaries, saying no, setting limits, taking control and pushing back.

It can show up as a hard rock in the pit of your stomach. Being in that place where you know you need to speak up for yourself but it feels really difficult in the moment. The arguments start crossing back and forth across your mind like a game of tennis – that is totally unreasonable…but then will I look like a whiner?…I am totally saying no…ugh but then is it going to be a big uncomfortable moment of drama?…

Welcome to the world of boundaries. It means reclaiming control in your life, setting limits, and feeling empowered to make decisions that are right for you. More than being able to decline a request or opting out of things, this is core work that looks at your values, your priorities and ability to find better balance and mental health. 

As men strive to advance their careers, be good parents, and maintain social and family interactions, juggling these responsibilities can become challenging. Being able to set boundaries and know when to say no is a key life skill both in keeping your head above water but also serves to help you better in your career and as a parent. Forging your own destiny is going to require self-reflection, taking care of yourself and aligning to what is really important in your life. Boundaries are one more powerful enabler in that space. 

You’ll be able to fine tune across your responsibilities and others expectations as well as know when to put yourself first. It’s not selfish, it’s incredibly healthy and I suspect overdue for you. You are the guardian of your time and boundaries and I want to equip you with the tools to maintain your integrity and true self. 

Are you ready to learn more about learn more about yourself and find the courage to be able to speak from the heart about what’s okay and not okay?

Most of us are familiar with the ‘terrible twos’ phase that toddlers go through. Part of that time is also a “no” stage that the child goes through in which he assertively answers in the negative a whole lot. While deep in it, some parents may be convinced the child is just out to be a jerk, but there is actually a whole lot going on for him during this time. 

Saying no gives him a  chance to start asserting his independence and finding himself as separate from his parents. He also starts to learn the effects of saying no. Giving him language he can start to assert himself before he is overtaken with frustration and develops into a full blown tantrum. These are the first forays into setting boundaries. It’s a safe environment where he is learning what no means, what choices look like and that he has some agency over himself. 

Fast forward another thirty of forty years and our time and experience with no may have changed and developed different nuances and expectations. Sometimes saying no can be viewed as being defiant or disinterested. However in both our personal and professional lives, a well-placed no reflects a deep respect for oneself and ones values beliefs and time. It’s acknowledging many of your resources are finite and you have the responsibility for managing them. 

Men can often be portrayed as strong and confident. We are valued for how hard we work and not to be a complainer or to prioritize our own needs. Walk it off! Don’t be a little bitch. C’mon man are you whipped? All are taunts that suggest that your own needs aren’t as important as the peer pressure or the wants and asks of the person putting you down. 

Setting and upholding boundaries is no small feat. It can look like setting limits, pushing back or taking control again. Each takes a certain amount of courage – the courage to manage reactions and the pressure to stand your ground even if unpopular.

Learning to set limits is more than just protecting your time and energy. It’s prioritizing what truly matters for you. Then you know what? Each time you say yes it’s intentional, and that your commitments are meaningful. 

Beyond those terrible twos there plenty of other roots to how we feel about setting limits with others. Was it okay to disagree and challenge or did you grow up in household where children were expected to obey and never talk back? Was it okay to express your emotions and ask for help? Did the male role models in your life show healthy balance or did they work endless hours in a job they hated or drank or used other substances rather than speak up about their own needs and feelings? 

Cultural and community factors can also relate to your boundaries. In some families it’s okay to drop by unannounced at any time or answer personal questions that in other households might be shunned as none of their business. Boundaries in your relationships can relate to how co-dependent you are, what behaviours you will and won’t tolerate and what your deal-breakers are. 

Is it any wonder that we can arrive into adulthood without a clear sense of what it looks like to have limits and how to have clear conversations about what is and is not okay and the consequences for crossing your boundaries? Don’t lose hope, we get better at boundaries with every conversation we have about them. It helps us align ourselves inwardly and outwardly and in no time you will be laying down the law in a kind and assertive way. 

Joseph felt conflicted. Here his boss was dumping yet another giant project on his lap. He knew that the company was in a key growth phase, that everyone was feeling a lot of pressure. However this would mean working on his fourth weekend in a row and the lava in the centre of his chest was starting to boil. Do I go and give my boss a piece of my mind and say hell no? I’ll probably be accused of not being a team player and the usual carrot of if I want to be promoted I should really demonstrate my commitment. This constant internal turmoil was starting to affect his sleep and he knew his fuse was getting shorter. 

Welcome to the modern workplace. Where the pace of change seems to quicken every year, the pressure goes up and in modern professional life, men are forever trying to navigate what it takes to climb the career ladder and just how big of a sacrifice is required.

First I would suggest we ponder the idea of work quantity and work quality. Some of the most successful professionals I know have such a commitment to quality that they don’t let quantity get in the way. If you can help others understand that your professional commitment is not endless hours but truly adding value with high quality work that shows a depth of thinking and is pristine you are going to get noticed in the circles that matter.

It’s also important to recognize that quality comes from having the right balance and focus in your priorities. That means also honouring your life outside of work. In fact, one feeds the other. When you invest the time to recharge, step away, pursue your passions or just spend time with the ones you love, you come back clearer, more productive and more effective overall. 

Here are some strategies for being able to manage up set some limits:

  • Clear Communication: Initiate open and honest conversations with your boss about your workload and capacity. Share your commitment to work quality and your willingness to contribute, but also be clear about your limits. This sets realistic expectations and demonstrates your professional integrity.
  • Prioritization and Proposal: When faced with multiple demands, prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance. Present your boss with a structured plan that outlines how you intend to tackle the workload, suggesting timelines that are ambitious yet realistic. This shows initiative and helps your boss see that you understand and want to support them in their top priorities. 
  • Offer Alternatives: If you need to decline additional work, do so diplomatically by explaining your current commitments and how taking on more would impact the quality of your output. Where possible, suggest alternatives or solutions, such as delegating certain tasks or re-prioritizing existing projects.

Still getting some pushback? It’s to be expected at least some of the time. Stay calm and be committed to explore this further with some more dialogue. Sometimes your boss is checking if you are really serious and at other times you are going to need to gently but assertively teach your boss you are serious about your boundaries. 

  • Be Assertive Yet Respectful: When pushing back, maintain a tone that is assertive but not confrontational. Use “I” statements to express your perspective, such as “I feel that taking on this project right now would affect my ability to deliver the expected results on time.”
  • Document and Follow Up: Keep a record of your discussions and agreements. Follow up with emails summarizing key points and next steps. This not only keeps everyone on the same page but also provides a clear trail of your proactive approach and your commitment to finding workable solutions.
  • Seek Feedback and Collaborate: Regularly seek feedback on your performance and your approach to managing workload. This demonstrates your openness to growth and your intent to collaborate effectively, further establishing your reputation as a professional who is committed but also values balance and excellence.

As your skills build, so will your confidence. You’ll begin to establish yourself as someone who handles the pressure well, who can focus on what is important and a man with principles who won’t be walked over like a doormat. It’s the careful dance of being a team player, while also honouring your commitments to self, your own growth and that will be able to continue to advance because you have cracked how not get burnt out and overwhelmed. 

As Joseph began having conversations with his boss, he first relied on a few scripts he had found to help keep him on track. He approached conversations calmly and assertively as best he could. They felt a bit shaky at first and there were a few times when he gave in when he would have preferred not to. Over time his confidence grew and his boss learned he was serious about his boundaries. Now and again Joseph knows his boss isn’t happy about his boundaries, but he also knows that his boss respects him and doesn’t blame him for the overall lack of resources in their department. Joseph reports feeling lighter, clearer and sleeping better, and just as predicted also feels like he can consistently deliver better quality work and that’s where his focus remains. 

Understanding the power of a well-articulated no is a first step. A clear and confident no sends a message that you are in control of your decisions and that you make your decisions and commitments with thought and intention. Remember this isn’t rejecting the other person or their request, it’s checking in with your own priorities and capacity and trying to help in the most sincere way which sometimes means your bandwidth simply isn’t there to agree to their request. 

Approach these conversations with empathy, acknowledging the other person’s needs or disappointment, but remain assertive about your decision. Remember, it’s not just about defending your boundaries; it’s about nurturing relationships based on mutual respect and understanding.

Techniques for Assertive Communication

  • Be Direct but Courteous: Use clear language that leaves no room for misunderstanding. Phrases like “I won’t be able to commit to this as I have other priorities at the moment” are direct yet respectful.
  • Avoid Over-Justifying: While it’s okay to provide a brief reason for your decline, avoid over-justifying or making elaborate excuses. This can lead to unnecessary negotiation or guilt.
  • Offer Alternatives When Possible: If appropriate, offer an alternative solution or a compromise. For instance, “I can’t take on this project now, but I can revisit it in a month, or maybe [another person] has the current capacity to help.”

Identifying Your Non-Negotiables

Start by identifying your non-negotiables — the values, commitments, and activities that are most important to you. These are your lines in the sand, the aspects of your life you’re unwilling to compromise on. Having a clear understanding of these priorities makes it easier to say no to requests or expectations that infringe upon them.

Practicing the ‘Positive No’

The ‘positive no’ is a powerful strategy that involves sandwiching your refusal between two positive statements. Begin with a positive affirmation or gratitude, state your no and your reason, and conclude with a positive note or alternative solution. For example, “I appreciate you thinking of me for this project, but I won’t be able to commit due to my current workload. I’d be happy to discuss future opportunities once my schedule clears up.

Practicing and Refining Your Approach

Becoming comfortable with assertive decline is a skill that requires practice and refinement. Start with smaller, less consequential requests to build your confidence. It’s easier to declare that no you don’t want fries with that than it is to tell someone you won’t give them one of your kidneys 

Reflect on each experience, noting what felt right and what could be improved. Over time, this practice will refine your approach, making assertive decline a natural part of your interactions. If you need further help with boundary work or something about it feels really difficult or emotionally charged, consider working with a coach or other trusted mentor. 

In honing the art of assertive decline, you not only protect your time and energy but also command respect for your clear and thoughtful communication. It’s a sign of a man who knows his worth, understands his limits, and respects not just his own needs but also the dynamics of the relationships he values.

Remember that the art of saying no is a skill honed over time, through practice, reflection, and a steadfast commitment to self-discovery. Each no is a stepping stone towards a life lived with intention, purpose, and profound respect for oneself and others. Embrace this journey with an open heart and a clear mind, for in mastering the art of saying no, you unlock the doors to your true potential, paving the way for a life of authenticity, empowerment, and enduring well-being.

  1. In what situations do I typically struggle to set or enforce boundaries? Is it work, relationships, family, or something else?
  2. Reflect on a recent time you said yes when you wanted to say no. How do I typically react to challenges to my boundaries? Do I become passive, aggressive, or withdraw altogether?
  3. Do I feel resentful or angry towards others frequently? Resentment is often a sign of unaddressed boundary violations.
  4. What are my biggest fears around setting boundaries? Am I afraid of rejection, confrontation, or damaging relationships?
  5. What aspects of my life need more attention and care? Identifying these areas helps you prioritize your time and energy for self-care and personal growth.

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