Creating Boundaries – Knowing When to Say Yes vs No

One of the more important pieces of advice I gave to my daughter before she went off to college was how to say “No”. It’s something I should have talked about more while she was in high school. Of course there were plenty of times she said “no” to me and her family, but she had a harder time saying “no” to the outside world: friends, teachers, and bosses. So when my friend, Amy Alfred, recently sent an invitation to a new program she was hosting on learning to say “no” and setting boundaries, I thought it was the perfect topic for others to read about and share with their high school and college bound children.


Yes and No Are Important Words. Know When To Use Them.


personalboundaries2Saying YES when you mean YES, and NO when you mean NO does not come naturally to everyone and can be a hard skill to acquire. It is especially important for students who are making the huge transition going off to college. Learning to say “no” is really being able to set appropriate boundaries, which are key in so many issues of college life like dating, academics, rooming, and friendships.


A boundary is something that indicates or fixes a limit, and setting one provides a safe space between you and the world, a kind of protective shell or personal property line. There are all different sorts of boundaries, including physical ones, emotional, sexual, time, relationship, spiritual, ethical, and space boundaries.


As a psychologist who has worked in college counseling centers, I’ve seen the problem of boundaries at the core of many situations students would come to talk about. Let’s take the example of Mandy, who finds herself in a small group to work on a chemistry project. She feels frustrated after each meeting because none of the other students seem interested in taking on the work, and she consistently volunteers to do it. How about the case of Steve, who finds that his loud and messy roommate is driving him crazy? Then there is Carlos, who is asked to take on more and more shifts at the student bookstore, when he is struggling to finish his class work. Another student, Surya, is asked by a close friend to tell her was on a recent test. And finally, there is Gillian, who is confused and upset when her date pushed her to have sex with him when she wasn’t sure she was ready. These are all real scenarios that happen on college campuses daily, and without the tools to say NO appropriately, students are left feeling anxious, irritated, afraid, or angry.


These Students Need Help Setting Boundaries

So let’s embark on a bit of coaching with these students, and see how we can help. For Mandy, it will be necessary for her to sit back and not volunteer so quickly. She could also let the group know that she really wants the work to be more collaborative in nature. Instead of picking up all of his roommate’s clothes, trash, and books for him, Steve could calmly let his roommate know he doesn’t appreciate living in a pigsty, and would really like him to clean up his stuff. Carlos can thank his manager for trusting him to work more, but can let him know that he can only do the 15 hours that they contracted for due to his studies. Surya can let her friend know she is uncomfortable giving out test information, since it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the class. Gillian can discuss her feelings with her date, and let him know that she wants to take her time in the relationship in order to see how things develop and that she doesn’t want him to push her too quickly to be intimate with him.


These are the first steps to setting good boundaries, however, sometimes maintaining boundaries takes more work when the other person does not respect the message. Instead of just letting go, students need to continue to work on getting what they need in order to feel good about the interaction. So if Mandy continues to feel overburdened with the group project, she can think about choosing different people next time, or if that is not possible, she can go to her professor and discuss strategies. If Gillian’s boyfriend continues to make her feel uncomfortable sexually, then she may set a firmer boundary and decide to end the relationship.


Our own actions and words teach others how to treat us. What you permit, you promote. These statements should make us sit up a little straighter and examine how we contribute to having boundaries that make us feel safe, or having those that make us feel uncomfortable. One college freshman at Northwestern found that while it took her a bit of time, she was really happy that she took matters into her own hands, and felt increasingly comfortable developing skills that would help her transition to college life.


Teens and young adults need to understand that saying NO doesn’t necessarily hurt people’s feelings, but it can allow them to work from a more authentic place and set priorities to attend to all parts of their life with less stress. Remember that saying “No” is a complete sentence, and that when you say “Yes” to other people, you are not saying “No” to yourself.


Dr. Amy Alfred is a licensed psychologist with 25 years of experience. She has worked in several college counseling centers across the country, and currently maintains a private practice in Narberth, PA where she sees adolescents and adults struggling with a wide variety of issues. These include anxiety, transitions, depression, stress, relational concerns, parenting, self-esteem and boundary issues. For any questions or inquiries, feel free to contact Dr. Alfred at [email protected], or 610-755-2929.

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