Tell me if this is a familiar scenario: Somebody asks you to do something and you almost immediately agree, even though it’s not something you want to do. Maybe it’s at work — you take on extra responsibilities even though you’re swamped. Or maybe it’s at home — you agree to help a friend next weekend, but you’re overworked, under-rested, or maybe your toddler just started preschool and isn’t adjusting to the new sleep schedule.

As soon as you say yes to this new responsibility, something inside locks up. You start to think about all the ways this is going to put you out. You think about the last time you helped this person and how they didn’t seem to appreciate it. Maybe you lost sleep, lost money, had an argument with your spouse over it.

You think of excuses, hoping it’s not too late to back out. But you also don’t want to break your word. Either way, you start to feel resentful, used, annoyed, unappreciated. The relationship you have with this person, whether it is personal or professional, suffers. You don’t have great feelings about Deborah anymore. You swear you won’t help her again, but you might be wrong. After all, you have poor personal boundaries.

You can beat yourself up about it. But you’re still going to make commitments you wish you hadn’t until you start setting some boundaries.

How do you know you’re about to say yes when you really mean no? A true yes — a yes that is in line with your values and best interest — you feel with your whole body. It’s easy. There is no doubt. There is no worry.

Reasons you say yes when you want to say no:

  • You follow the golden rule — Do unto others. You help people because that’s what you’d want someone to do if you were in need. But I’m willing to bet that, if you see a lot of yourself in what I’m writing here, you don’t ask for a lot from other people. You’re self-sufficient and responsible, and that’s why people ask for your help in the first place.
  • You’re a person of your word. Sadly, this implies that you’re not allowed to change your mind after putting more thought into something. You’re willing to put yourself out to avoid feeling “flaky.”
  • You may be a caregiver-type; you may practice savior-behavior. People always come to you when they’re in a jam. You always put out the fires.
  • You fear that you’ll lose that person if you say no. You don’t want to be “rejected” or “abandoned.”
  • You fear that if you say no, you’ll have an argument that will send out a shockwave, upsetting other people you care about, e.g., your father is upset with you now because you said no to your sister.

Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, recently tweeted about a speaking engagement she had, saying that “during the signing line a white woman who asked me a question during the event said she wasn’t satisfied with my answer and I called upon all 43 years of life on this here earth and said ‘it is not my job to satisfy you.’”

When I read this, I marveled at how boundaried she was. When we’re in a vulnerable position, put on the spot, face to face with someone else, we often fail to be straightforward about our personal boundaries. We might jump into fix it mode and do everything we can to appease the person and smooth things over. It’s about wanting to be liked and have our social interactions go smoothly.

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor in social work, has spent two decades studying shame, empathy and vulnerability. Brown says we often don’t set boundaries, we let people do things that are not okay and then we’re resentful. We tend to imagine that setting a boundary means being rude or pushy. But setting boundaries doesn’t mean you’re being coldhearted.

“One of the most shocking findings of my work was the idea that the most compassionate people I had interviewed over the last 13 years were also the absolutely most boundaried,” Brown explained.

Setting boundaries that uphold your values and allow you to practice self-care is a self-compassionate act. The alternative is resentment and unstable relationships. Having poor boundaries means overextending ourselves and allowing people to say and do things that hurt us and keep us from living our truth. Resentment can make us isolate ourselves from friends as we start feeling like we have to hide from their unrealistic expectations.

Love and respect begin with self-love and self-respect.

Next time someone asks you for something, take a step back and pause. Give it thought. If they put you on the spot and need an answer right away, then the answer is, “No, I need more time to think about it before I can make a commitment.” Often, if you don’t commit right away, the person will find another way to work things out without your help.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a pushover or a doormat for other people. As Brown explains, she’d “rather be loving and generous and very straightforward with what’s okay and not okay.”