Why it’s hard to set boundaries: the yes autopilot

Every day, I get asked by people if they can quickly pick my brain, if I can re-share one of their articles, or if I’d be okay to review their landing page. I always do my best to oblige, but sometimes I end up finishing the day tired, with the nagging feeling that I didn’t end up working on any of my more essential tasks. Setting boundaries is hard. As we grow up, we are taught to be kind, helpful, and generous. Being someone who values relationships makes it harder to say no when someone is seeking our help.

A boundary can be seen as an invisible line you draw around yourself to identify what is acceptable and what is unacceptable to do. Boundaries do not have to be fixed—in fact, they are often fluid and ever-changing, depending on your goals, relationships, and mental states. For example, being a parent means that you may need to create stricter boundaries when it comes to your social life. Being on a diet may mean stricter boundaries in terms of going out. Having an upcoming exam may mean stricter boundaries in terms of helping a friend learn how to code.


Why we stay on “yes autopilot”

By saying yes to everything, you may end up on a treadmill of overcommitment which will be hard to get off. Yet, despite the negative effects, many of us struggle with setting clear boundaries.

  • Social conditioning. We tend to link our identity with our achievements. Helping someone means we’re helpful, being available means we’re a good friend, organising an event at work means we’re a team player.
  • Perfectionism. We often want to bring our absolute best to everyone and everything we set out to do, and as a result we’d rather try to manage the extra stress rather than let someone else down.
  • Upbringing. It may be as simple as a lack of education around boundaries during your childhood. If your boundaries were not respected as a child, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to set boundaries for yourself and for others as an adult.
  • Lack of focus. If your own goals are not clearly defined, it may feel easier to say yes to everything as a way to keep busy and give yourself the illusion of productivity.
  • FOMO. Your fear of missing out may prevent you from setting clear boundaries. What if something important happens while I’m not there? What if people bond during an event and I’m not here?
Boundaries - Yes Man Poster

But saying yes all the time can leave us exhausted, without enough mental energy to focus on the goals that really matter to us. As a result, we live our lives on autopilot, in a limbo where we’re doing a lot of things, but not getting any closer to our goals. It can also result in resentment, where you blame other people for your own lack of productivity. You start ruminating, avoiding other people, overthinking everything. Overall, saying yes to everything is not mentally healthy.


How to set boundaries

Creating and enforcing clear boundaries takes time and practice, but it’s well worth the effort. Research shows that self-compassion and better boundaries mean better self-esteem, more mental energy, and more independence and agency.

“Boundaries protect relationships from becoming unsafe. In that way, they actually bring us closer together than further apart, and are therefore necessary in any relationship.”

Melissa Coats, Licensed Professional Counselor.
  • Define your goals and values. In order to set clear boundaries, you need to know what matters to you. Is it to do your best work? To be there for your family? To start a company? Clarify what you want for yourself. Then, think about what these goals mean. Starting a company means saving money; saying yes to going to a fancy restaurant may not be aligned with your goal. Being there for your family may not align with having drinks with your colleagues every night. Finishing your thesis may not align with spending two hours on the phone with your friend. Doing your best work may not align with helping a colleague with an unrelated task.
  • Take a step back. When being asked something, look at the big picture. Does this align with your goals? Could someone else help this person? Is it that urgent? Very often, you will realise the request is neither important nor urgent. If this person or what they are working on matters to you, it’s okay to say you will give them a hand once you’re done with your own tasks. And in other cases, it’s still fine to say no if the ask doesn’t align with the goals you defined for yourself.
  • Get comfortable with saying no. Of course, it’s easier said than done. But saying no becomes easier with practice. Saying no doesn’t mean being rude. You can even write down one liners to re-use whenever you’re in such a situation, such as “I would love to help, but I currently have a lot on my plate and won’t be able to give this the time it deserves.”
  • Don’t over explain. Be brief, confident, and clear. You don’t need to give a long explanation of why you won’t be able to help. Just say you’re sorry you’re unable to help at that time. Keep it polite and to the point. Most people will understand.

If people react badly, remember that you’re not the cause, and you’re not the cure. They probably have lots to deal with, and it’s not your job to help them manage their emotions. If it’s someone you are close to and it happens all the time, it may be useful to have a calm conversation to reset their expectations and make your relationship healthier. If it’s a one-time ask and the person acts rude when you say no, just ignore it, move on, and focus on your own goals.

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