A client recently asked for support with creating healthy boundaries.

She has a lot of fear around telling her family and friends that she’s unavailable (even for a relatively short period), and she wants to learn how to say no without feeling guilty.

The process I shared with her is outlined below. It is designed to help with setting healthy boundaries, something many of us struggle with. Especially if you are a people pleaser, saying no to others to honor your own needs can feel very scary.

As you work through the steps, know that it is possible that you will have some residual fear going into this conversation. Doing something that you’ve been trained to believe is wrong or makes you a less-good person can be tough, so make sure you practice self-compassion and know that you can say no with love.

The work of setting healthy boundaries is about accessing the courage to speak your needs despite fear. It’s not about eliminating the fear altogether.

In twelve-step programs, they talk about “acting as if” we were already capable of that which we long to do. When you act as if you already believe in yourself, difficult conversations can become way easier.

Step One: Acknowledge Your Fear

If you’ve already noticed that you feel afraid to say no to loved ones, you are one major step into the game.  Many people go through their lives habitually putting others first, never truly stepping into their purpose or sharing their deeper gifts with the world.  It can be uncomfortable to wake up to the fact that we long to give ourselves the same care that we give to everyone else. Acknowledging your discomfort and fear without making yourself wrong for feeling this way is the first step towards learning how to set healthy boundaries.

Step Two. Notice Your Story

The next step is to observe the story that you’re telling yourself underneath the shame. While you may feel your emotion before you hear your thoughts, the truth is that the feeling of shame always comes after a thought. Go back to the moment before you remember feeling the guilt about saying no, and listen to what your inner Judge is telling you it means about you.

Stories that the Judge is infamous for include: “You don’t deserve to say no to them.”  “You’re selfish and self-centered if you put yourself first.”  “If you say no to them now, then you can’t count on them to be there for you in the future.” “If you say no to them, they will be mad at you and stop loving you.”  Underneath these stories is a common thread of “you’re not worth being put first,” or “you’re only good enough when you put others first.”  Guilt almost always comes from basing our self-worth on what we do for others rather than who we are for ourselves.

Step Three: Find a New Story

The next step is to inquire within and look for a new story that creates a sense of ease and peace. Your new story could sound like the following. “I’m saying no to them right now so that I can say yes to what’s most important to me.”  “I believe in a world in which we meet everyone’s needs, and I deserve to get my needs met, too.”  “I am loveable and worthy no matter what I do.”  Or, it might sound different than any of these.  Feel for what internal story can help you set healthy boundaries.

Step Four. Identify Your Needs

We are interdependent creatures whose survival depends on our ability to give and receive.  Often, when we feel guilty about saying no, it’s because we have two different needs that seem to be competing.  On the one hand, we have a need to focus on developing our work in the world.  On the other, we have a need for connection and support.  Therefore, in addition to being rooted in self-judgment (as we discussed above), the fear we feel around saying no can also be about fearing that you can’t meet your needs. Spend some time getting clear on what your needs are—both those that you will meet by saying no and those that you fear you won’t meet by saying no.

Step Five: Envision The Solution

After you articulate your needs, imagine the solution.  How will it sound when you say no without feeling guilty?  How can you tell your loved one that you are unavailable while honoring your needs for interdependence and connection?  How can you let your loved one know how important they are to you and how important your work is to you in a way that feels right?

Be as concrete as possible in your request for time, letting your loved one know exactly how much time alone you are hoping for and your boundaries around what you can offer. Such requests to your loved ones could sound like, “Tuesdays from 9-5 are my business development days.  Please don’t call or text or email me during this time,” or “I’m sorry.  This week, I’m not available to help you with your big move.  Can you please leave a few boxes for me to unpack next Saturday for you?”

Step Six: Have the Conversation

Share your need for connection with your loved one and your need for time to work.  Let them know how scary this feels for you and let them know about the self-judgment and guilt making this request brings up.  Then, state your request specifically and clearly.

Do you have trouble setting healthy boundaries without feeling guilty?  If you’re ready to gain connection and space for yourself and are looking for support as you do so, I invite you to consider life coaching. You deserve to live your life with authenticity and ease.


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