clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Setting boundaries is more than just saying “no”

Relationships aren’t always easy to preserve. Boundaries can help.

An illustration of a person drawing a circle around their body with a large red pencil.
Nedra Glover Tawwab and Julia Furlan on ghosting, the power of saying no, and how to set strong and effective boundaries in all parts of your life.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Your parents may have taught you that “no” is a complete sentence, but actually saying it — or setting a boundary in general — can be tricky. Sometimes, you feel uncomfortable setting the boundary; sometimes, the other person hates it and has a strong reaction. But the fact remains that in your romantic relationships, at work, in your family, and in friendships, you’re going to have to set some boundaries one way or another.

Boundaries are a way to value yourself, and they don’t have to be scary. Or at least, that’s what our guest today, Nedra Glover Tawwab, writes about in her new book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace. Nedra is a therapist, bestselling author, and relationship expert. We talk about what boundaries are, why they’re so important, and I get some strategies for setting and keeping boundaries even when other people in my life don’t seem to want me to.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Julia Furlan

I want to start with a question that you use to open your book, which is basically, what even is a boundary?

Nedra Glover Tawwab

Boundaries are statements that make you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships. Sometimes it is behaviors that make you feel safe and comfortable. A woman asked me today on Instagram: “How can I set boundaries with my drinking socially?” So that is a behavior. How do you drink less socially?

Sometimes it can be my mother-in-law keeps popping up at my house and you may need to say something to your mother-in-law. So it works in both ways.

Before writing this book, and for many years, I thought of boundaries as saying no or cutting people off. I have learned that it’s a lot of gray areas. It’s all of these situations that we feel very uncomfortable about in our relationship, it is bigger than “no,” it is bigger than just cutting people off.

Boundaries preserve relationships. Cutting someone off is like the ultimate boundary, right? There are 1,000 other boundaries we can set before cutting people off.

Julia Furlan

Right. Sometimes people think that it’s, as we say in Portuguese, oito oitenta — all or nothing.

But, in fact, there is a lot of flexibility. There’s a lot of space that you can give both yourself and the other person when you’re putting in a boundary. One experience that I’ve had is that if the other person has fewer boundaries or doesn’t really live their life with a lot of boundaries in a particular area, there is resentment.

Nedra Glover Tawwab

Yeah, I think in general, we feel best when people do as we do. You don’t answer emails on vacation. It’s now problematic because it is different from what I choose to do. So it’s really important to acknowledge that boundaries are preferences. It’s not a rule. It’s not a fact. It is just what we choose to do.

I choose not to work after 7:00 pm. It is a preference for me because this is what makes me feel comfortable. There are tons of people who love working in the evenings. It makes them feel fulfilled. Keep doing it, if that’s what you like. I’m saying, I don’t like it. And it’s okay for me to think differently about this thing. And it doesn’t mean that I’m lazy because I’m not doing things like you. It doesn’t mean that I’m inefficient. It just means that my time is my time.

Julia Furlan

One thing that I want to go back to that you said is that boundaries are statements or behaviors that make you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships. I would love to know the range of some of those things. What’s a small one and what’s a big one that’s not cutting someone off completely?

Nedra Glover Tawwab

I think a small one is something we did at the beginning of this conversation: making sure we’re appropriately pronouncing each other’s names.

That’s a really small one that can get really annoying, right? If someone’s mispronouncing your name or mislabeling you, sometimes people might be using the wrong pronoun.

It’s never too late to set a boundary. I think we really program ourselves to think like, oh, it’s too late. The moment has passed. You’ve let this person do this thing for six months. You might as well let them do it forever. But now I am recognizing that this is an issue for me.

Julia Furlan

What are some of the larger boundaries that you have guided people on in your work?

Nedra Glover Tawwab

One significant thing that I’ve helped with a ton is helping clients become adults in their relationship with their parents. That is a really big one because it is a struggle to get people to accept that they want to spend holidays differently. They want to maybe not do that yearly family vacation anymore.

They may not want to talk to their parents every single day. There are so many different things that we continue to do just because we’ve been doing them, but they have always bothered us. Like, I don’t want to go over to uncle so-and-so’s house.

Family relationships have been a huge part of the boundaries work that I’ve done. With couples, it has been communicating what your needs are, communicating what you like and what you don’t like because if you are agreeing to spend even this moment, this week with a person, you need to be very clear about what is bothering you. We’re hoping that our partners sort of figure it out. We’re hoping that there is some signal that they receive, that we are secretly bothered by something, and they don’t typically get it.

We get our needs met by communicating them. And that can be really hard. There is this huge, huge, huge thing that I see all the time on social media. I saw a girl saying that when people really love you, you don’t have to tell them how to love you. It’s like, what fairy tale was this in?

Julia Furlan

One of the things that is really hard about boundaries is reckoning with your own feelings around saying it aloud or writing it down. It feels like just the communication of it itself can be its own huge thing.

Nedra Glover Tawwab

Yeah, by unpopular opinion, I do suggest getting it out whichever way you can, in person, by phone, via text or email. Whatever it is, because it is better out than in.

Julia Furlan

People don’t always respect your boundaries, even if you’re specific. Even if you’ve worked really hard to articulate it. There is sometimes a whole dynamic, where the person loves to get under your skin or enjoys the experience of making you upset or teasing you.

Nedra Glover Tawwab

Yeah. I think when people habitually disrespect our boundaries, we have to try something different. I’m thinking of a relationship with someone who could not keep a secret. A solution that you can manage is to not tell this person anything that’s secret because they’ve demonstrated that they cannot respect that boundary.

So how do we change the way we behave with people who demonstrate that they can’t respect your boundaries? There are times where people say, “You know, I know you told me that you didn’t wanna hear me talk about all the terrible things happening in my relationship anymore …” but that’s a wonderful time for you to jump in and say, “I will not listen.”

Julia Furlan

One thing that I want to recognize here, though, is that especially when you’re putting up a boundary with someone that you love and that you really care for, you’re changing the way that something’s going. You’re changing a dynamic. You’re trying to get out of a pattern. There is a grief that can come up, and I’ve felt this grief before where that boundaryless relationship was also a symbol of some special closeness, and you’re having to let go of some of that closeness. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Nedra Glover Tawwab

Is it that you’re letting go of the closeness because you have to let go of the relationship, or are you letting go of the idea that this person could respect the boundary?

So there’s a disappointment that you’re dealing with. You know, I think in being in relationships with other people, the unfortunate risk is being hurt and being disappointed by people. No matter how much people love us, in some way big or small they will disappoint us because it’s so unintentional.

Usually when a person isn’t respecting your boundaries, it’s because they can’t. It is really because they just can’t do this thing you’re asking, or at least I feel like they can’t.

You’re right. You do have to grieve the loss of who you thought that person could be for you and reconstruct what’s possible with the person that you actually have. Sometimes we will stay in those relationships. We’ll keep doing the same thing, place in the same boundary over and over. But it’s really on us to change the way in which we engage.

I often hear people say, ”My friend always calls me to complain. Every time we talk, they’re complaining.” And I think, every time you talk, are you picking up the phone every time to be complained to?

And I know that’s a really hard boundary to say, “Instead of talking to this person every day after work, I will talk to them on Tuesdays like that. That is what I can manage without being overwhelmed.”

And it is really hard to think about, oh my gosh, we used to talk every day, and here I am, intentionally stepping back because I’ve set this boundary over and over and this person refuses to listen to me.

Julia Furlan

Can you speak a little bit to the things that might open up? What do people gain by putting up this boundary?

Nedra Glover Tawwab

A relationship that’s less stressful, a relationship that seems less contentious, a relationship that you receive more joy from. Sometimes we get burnt out with people doing some of the things that we’ve asked them not to do. And then we start to complain and get upset and become anxious about having to engage with them. So stepping back could be the healthiest option.

Julia Furlan

Sometimes people in general, not specifically me at all, in no way is this about me, might be a little conflict-averse. They don’t want to have a big conversation. They get really scared. And then they bail. How often do you have to have boundary conversation about ghosting?

Nedra Glover Tawwab

Ghosting is an interesting topic because I don’t think people believe that they are the type of person who might be hard to communicate with. But there are some people, when you bring them a boundary, it becomes an abusive situation. Belittling may occur. They may become really defensive. It may just be a really unhealthy interaction.

And there are other situations of ghosting where it’s like, “I really can’t say this to the person. I hope that they just start to get the picture when I stop answering them because I don’t have the words. I don’t feel comfortable.” Ghosting is never an easy decision. It’s not the best solution, but it is a solution.

We can’t control how every relationship ends, and many of our relationships don’t work out.

The friends you had in elementary school, then middle school, then high school, then college or wherever you used to live, a lot of these things, they just sort of fizzle out. There’s this low level of non-harmful ghosting,

Julia Furlan

How do you talk to your followers who are conflict-averse? Are there any tips to pump yourself up before setting a boundary?

Nedra Glover Tawwab

I would say don’t pump yourself up. When we pump ourselves up, we deflate ourselves later because we think about all of the things that could go wrong. We get into this very spirally way of thinking. We think about very black-and-white outcomes. Practicing beforehand in the mirror and on paper, I think it can really work us up into an anxiety spiral that might not even be useful. The world is very flexible and we cannot add those black-and-white principles. And I think when you are averse to conflict, you are thinking of one outcome and it is very bad. You are thinking about one way of saying something.

It’s really healthy to think about the flexibility, that you can’t control how this person feels and you don’t know how they would feel about you. I would say in most cases, when we set boundaries and relationships, it actually goes well.

They’re not like, oh my gosh, you’re not my friend anymore. It’s not as big as we think. Keep it simple. If you can whittle your thoughts down to one simple sentence, I think it will be easier. Don’t think of it as “having a boundaries conversation” as much as it is just talking to someone and just letting them know.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.