Phrases to Build Your Boundaries
When you think: maybe
Say, “Let me get back to you.”
Why: You can claim you’re going to check your calendar, and the side benefit is you actually can check your calendar! But ultimately you are giving yourself time to process whether you really want to do something, instead of committing and then backing out. I’ve spent too much time in my life letting people down by flaking out. I used to think it was “nicer” to say yes to everything, but then when the event crept closer, I would grasp for any external excuse to wriggle out of it, hoping I could still look “nice” and “willing” but just serendipitously unable.
It is actually more charitable to trust that the person asking can handle your answer, that they want an honest answer, and that they want what is best for you. My life is much simpler when I give myself time to think before committing. Then I can give an authentic yes or no. This approach is built on the foundation of seeing both the inviter and invitee as equals: Both people’s feelings matter, and both people’s time matters. The way you honor someone else’s feelings isn’t by denying your own feelings, patronizing the other person, and pretending to want something you don’t — it’s by trusting that they want and can handle honesty. The way you honor someone else’s time isn’t by sacrificing your own time and being a pushover — it’s by communicating your needs and boundaries so they can go ahead and make other plans. Giving a wishy-washy yes that you end up canceling later can do much more harm than good — I’ve had friends say, “If you had just said no earlier, I could have invited someone else.”
If you use the “Let me get back to you” phrase, remember to get back to them in a timely manner!
When you think: no
Say, “I can’t add anything to my plate right now.”
Why: It’s all-encompassing and doesn’t rely on specific excuses. It’s more of a statement about your emotional capacity than your calendar, and that’s valid!
Any time you use a specific excuse, it leaves you vulnerable to endless altered suggestions. You are presenting it as a problem to fix rather than a strong stance on your limits. “Oh, you have dog-shampooing on Wednesday? Then we will do Thursday. Oh, you’re planning to catch a cold Thursday? Then Friday it is!” Any time you lean on the crutch of unavailability, you leave the situation wide-open to being rescheduled, which means you either have to come up with more excuses, which will start to seem fishy, or you have to admit that you just didn’t want to all along.
The sooner you give a solid “no,” the more time you give people to make other plans. Give them that courtesy!
When you think: not now, not ever
Say, “It’s not my thing, but thanks for inviting me.”
Why: It can actually be beneficial to express when something isn’t your style while politely excusing yourself from wasting your time. You are teaching people who you are, what you like, and which kinds of new things you are and aren’t willing to try. You are showing them how to treat you and defining your boundaries. And if they know you are willing to be honest and say no when you need to, then they can trust that when you say yes, it’s because you actually want to. It also allows them to invite someone else in your place who might be a better fit! It doesn’t hurt to couch your declining in gratitude for being thought of, included, or invited.“I’m not going to make it, but thanks for thinking of me” also works as a short and sweet phrase. Resist the temptation to over-explain why. I’ve been amazed at how often this succinct phrase is all that is needed. Bonus: If you genuinely do want to do something else as an alternative, suggest it! But don’t do it out of obligation. If the tables were turned, would you want someone to do things for you out of obligation?
When you think: absolutely-Not-Please-Stop-Contacting-Me
Say, “. . . . . . . . . . . .”
Yep, that’s right: total silence.
Why: This tactic would be rude for most interactions, but it’s very effective. So it’s our secret weapon reserved only for people who haven’t respected any other response.
One of the best applications of this tactic is in response to a persistent ex who keeps trying to get back into your life. You might say no a million different ways to this person, but they just won’t hear it. “I’ve told them a million times I don’t want to talk,” you might think to yourself. And that’s precisely the problem — you’ve responded to them a million times. Even if the content is a beautiful, awesome assertion of your boundaries, if you are saying anything at all, you are still engaging. At this point, the solution isn’t more talking, but less. No response can be the best response.
To be clear, the idea here isn’t to ghost a perfectly nice person. This tactic is best employed after you’ve tried saying no, and the person has refused to honor that.
It’s Good to Make Jerks Uncomfortable
In response to sexual harassment
Say, “No.” “That’s inappropriate.” “Leave me alone.”
Why: Many of us, especially women, have been socialized to be polite and accommodating above all else. This can be so deeply instilled in us that we adhere to politeness even when it puts us in danger. We ignore our intuition and instead search for the proper social script — anything to make the other person comfortable.
So this is a reminder that if someone is being inappropriate, not only is it OK to make them uncomfortable, it’s actually a social good. If I’m at work and a customer makes a sleazy comment about my appearance, not only is it acceptable for me to say, “That’s inappropriate,” it also might stop them from doing it to someone else.
If you’re worried that standing up for yourself will make you uncomfortable, take a moment to realize that in this situation, you already are uncomfortable. So why not? A person making inappropriate comments, sexually harassing you, or pressuring you to engage with them has already made you uncomfortable. Why are you trying so hard to avoid making them uncomfortable? No more feigning gratitude while your insides squirm. No more smiling while you die inside. In this case it’s not about artfully declining, but is about boldly stepping into your power, claiming your boundaries, and maybe even leading by example.
Of course, this can be a complicated area to navigate. Sometimes our gut instinct is to be polite to creeps as a self-protective mechanism, since sometimes a blatant rejection of a man can lead to a violent response. This has been written about by numerous women, and I will explore it further in future articles. But if you feel it’s physically safe to do so, then explore the empowerment of just saying “no” and allowing them to feel the discomfort they have brought upon themselves by choosing to act inappropriately in the first place.
For the Absolute Boundary Wizard
When you think: no thanks
Say, “No, thanks!”
Why: In a way, it combines all of the above. Keep this one in your pocket. It communicates your answer clearly, and that’s the only thing you owe the other person.
After all, you don’t owe the person asking a “yes” answer; the only thing you owe is clear communication of your answer. “No, thanks” also conveys gratitude and politeness without being insincere or a martyr. It defines your boundaries. It expresses your interests and disinterests, which you are allowed to have. It trains people on how to treat you and what to expect from you. It’s a quick answer that courteously lets people adjust their plans or invite someone else.
It’s also about mutual trust: It shows that you trust your friends and acquaintances to be adults and accept your boundaries. Also, your “no, thanks” lets them trust that your “heck yes” is authentic.
My Life After Boundaries
Not only did I find peace of mind after incorporating these phrases, I also was pleasantly surprised at people’s reactions:
I told my boss, “This project option isn’t for me, but I’m excited to do this alternative.” She responded, “I actually feel the exact same way! And I’m so glad you’re excited for the alternative!”
I told a friend, “This dance class isn’t really my kinda thing, but thanks for including me!” She replied, “I’m so glad you said something! I knew it probably wasn’t a good fit for you and had been feeling bad for pushing it on you. I’m so relieved you felt comfortable telling me! We can definitely grab coffee instead.”
I told a date, “It’s been nice getting to know you, and I think you’re a cool person, but I don’t feel we’re compatible.” He replied, “Okay. I’m bummed, but I understand and I appreciate you being honest.”
And for the dates who aggressively refused to respect my “no, thanks”? Well, there was only one thing I could say to them that made them stop bothering me:
“. . . . . . . . . . . .”