Why ‘Just Say No’ is Useless Advice for Boundary Setting


I am sure you’ve heard this.

That boundaries are about ‘just saying no’. Sounds so simply, right? So what makes them so hard to put in place?

Why do we say yes when we don’t want to?

Why do we end up feeling taken advantage of or misunderstood?

Why is it so hard to actually communicate our needs?

Why does trying to please others often come at the expense of doing what’s best for us?

In a nutshell, here’s why:

Because we are human.

And as humans, we are hardwired for connection and attachment. We evolved in tribes and being part of the tribe – belonging – is still one of the most primordial needs for us.

For our brains, not being part of the tribe is dangerous. In the past, rejection meant certain death as we couldn’t survive alone in the savanna.

So we are very sensitive to potential rejection. It even lights up the same area in the brain as physical pain.

It makes sense, then, that setting boundaries, from our old-school brain’s perspective is risky business.

So we stay in enmeshed relationships. We allow people to park out in our internal village, even when this comes at a high cost.

Because it can seem less scary to have other people in our village, even if they are not doing us good, even if we end up resenting or hating them – than to risk being alone.

Unboundaried living makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.

It is understandable that we let people walk all over us. That we end up snarky and resentful or trying to be nice and people please.

Knowing this, when people tell you to ‘just say no’ to set a boundary, it doesn’t actually help.


And yet, even though it doesn’t feel natural, boundary setting is essential to modern life.

It means creating a safe container from which to create, thrive and love without losing ourselves in what others want or expect from us.

Boundaries are key for authenticity and healthy relationships.

So instead of ‘just saying no’ as boundary advice, this is what I think we need to consider: 

♥ First, we need to understand what we are responsible for / can control in a situation and what we can’t (hint: we can’t control other people’s actions or reactions).

♥ We need to know what we want to stand for in the situation, what our values are. And this can take time and thought to figure out and that’s OK.

♥ Then we need to know how to communicate this to others in an effective way.

♥ And we need to know how to make room for the discomfort that inevitably shows up because we are doing something that is counter-intuitive to how our brains evolved.

Boundary setting is not necessarily hard, but it does take practise and it is normal that it doesn’t come naturally for most of us.

We will explore all this in my upcoming boundaries workshop, so you will leave knowing how to set effective boundaries and can start moving from:

Being reactive + resentful


Being proactive + assertive

Because it is only when we have a beautiful gate around our internal village that we can create the kind of village that we actually want to live in.

boundaries_Sept. 2016


A good friend of mine has a good friend, who I would not normally choose to be with.  Recently, during an evening at my friend’s house, her friend who I knew was going to be there so I was probably ‘ready’ for the usual inappropriate remarks, said something intrusive to me.  Instead of being surprised, I took a deep breath and very calmly told her that it was none of her business and please don’t ask me again.  Silence reigned!  Then all went back to normal.


Huge step for me out of my comfort zone to do something like so publicly (I had no problems with Boundaries in my work life yet have had difficulty in my private life).


Your workshop on Boundaries earlier this year has helped me to understand that Boundaries are necessary for being authentic. – Email from a participant in the April Boundaries workshop

Why Boundaries Matter

“Boundaries is simply what’s OK and not OK.” – Brené Brown

Imagine that your internal world – your emotions, thoughts, desires, needs – is a village. This village makes you who you are. And in order for your village to thrive, it needs to feel safe and protected.

And it can only do that when it has a clear protection around it, one that defines what’s OK and not OK to enter your village.

Without a clear boundary, your village is always being invaded.

And this isn’t much fun.

Because it means we end up doing things we don’t want to do.

We feel that people are taking advantage of us.

We try to please everyone.

We have a hard time knowing who we are or what we want because we don’t know where our village ends and other people’s village starts. 

We end up in relationships that are enmeshed, where, as Harriet Lerner writes

We put our energy into taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts and behavior and hand over responsibility for our own.

And this often leads to resentment towards ourselves and others because we can’t say no or clearly state our needs. Or as Brené Brown explains:

We let people get away with things that are not okay. Then we just become more resentful and hateful.

And also, we can’t take care of our own village when we are too busy taking care of other people’s villages.

Learning to set a boundary does not mean you have a walled off village that isn’t able to interact with other villages.

It simply means creating a safe container from which to create, thrive and love without losing ourselves in what others want or expect from us.

According to boundaries expert Chad Buck, a clinical psychologist at Vanderbilt University, boundaries lead to:

♥ More self-awareness and self-care

♥ More assertiveness / confidence

♥ More trust in self and others

♥ More compassion towards self and others

♥ Healthier relationships

♥ Less likely to burn out / less stress

♥ Less anger / resentment

If you would like to find out how to start setting boundaries in your own life so you can have healthier relationships with yourself and others, join me for a workshop on Boundaries: The Key to Healthier Relationships with Yourself + Others.

This workshop is based mostly on Acceptance on Commitment Therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based behavioral approach, as well as the work of Brené Brown, Harriet Lerner and Karla McLaren.