Compassionate Boundaries: How to Say No (Fifth of Series)

Compassionate Love Blog: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness, addiction, and abuse (c)2013  Nancy Virden, Always the Fight Ministry 

“Just say no” was the campaign against drugs in the 1980s promoted by Nancy Reagan, First Lady of the United States.  Clearly, it failed. 

Let us all just say no. No to crime! No to medical problems! No to disagreeable national policies!

Okay, I choose to say no to stray dogs, kitty litter, and speed limits (nah, only wishin’). Swipe my hands together – swish swish. Good to go.

Realistic boundaries protect us if we draw them around ourselves. For example, one healthy boundary is safe driving. In the same way, refusing to stress our way into an emotional car wreck is wise. 

Ah, but we fear rejection, trouble, and guilt.  Not everyone carries such burdens. Still, when a depressed or otherwise needy person asks for help,  it is tough.  

Some guidelines for saying no

1) No is not a selfish word.  It is not our go-to in every situation either, so be wary of apathy.  However, confusing yes with kindness is why boundaries fail.  Yes may be selfish after all. “I care about you, but will be no good to you or anyone else if I do not limit my involvement. Maybe another time.”

2) Be confident in your reasons for saying no. (See earlier posts in this series, links below). Knowing you are protecting your most valuable yeses, will help with saying no.  “I’m sorry you are hurting. I am here for you in the best way I am able.”

3) Smile. Use a friendly and sincere tone. Do not point. Speak gently, not yelling.  More power lies in consistency than in a world of anger.

4) Specifics such as timeframes allow the other person to realize your no is not a dismissal.  “I am available between 7:00 and 7:30 tonight if you want to call me then.”  

(5) We have realistic limits.  If someone asks for a ride,  you might answer,   “Unfortunately, I cannot come to pick you up. Is there someone else you can ask?  No?  I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you to go this time.”

(6) “No” is best if it is firm.  Remember the adage? If you fool me once, shame on you. If you fool me twice, shame on me. (By the way, if you fool me 350,000 times, you’re a weather forecaster! But I digress.) 

Offering a helping hand is not the same as carrying a person’s full burden. For someone in pain, it is simple to fall into the practice of taking advantage when a would-be good Samaritan’s no sounds wishy-washy.   A therapist said to me, “I may carry 90% for a while, but I do not want that to define the relationship.”  In other words, Nancy do the work!   

(7) Use reassurance.  All that mattered in the worst of my struggles with major depression was the desperate need for someone to reach out to me.  However, when good and kind people let me know they cared, it was never enough. That is because depression opened a chasm of emptiness  it took years to fill.

Meanwhile, reassuring comments were like water and air to me.  Helpful examples include: “I’m glad you reached out to me.  I will do everything I can to visit you after the holidays.“;  “I have to focus on my family, but you are not forgotten. We’ll be praying for you”; “This is not going to be an easy fix and will take time. I’ll call you next week.”

No is not selfish. Yes is not always generous. No is not mean. Yes is not automatically kind.  Learn compassionate boundaries by following this series.

Enjoy peace of mind.  Stay tuned.


Other posts in this series: Friendship (1) ; God’s Example (2)Values and Family (3) ; Self-Care (4) ;   Motives Beware! (6)Refuse Blame (7) ; Refer to Experts (8)  ; How to Say Yes (9)



NOTE:  I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental and behavioral health challenges.  In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental or behavioral health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, in the U.S. call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or for a list of international suicide hotlines, go here

If you are suicidal with a plan, immediately call 911 in the U.S.  (for international emergency numbers, go here ), or go to your nearest emergency room. Do not be alone. Hope and help are yours.


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