How to set limits

July 20, 2016


I learned how to set limits back in the late 1980s, when I was training to be an emotional support volunteer with people who had HIV or AIDS. The idea then was to ensure that we knew how to take care of ourselves so that we didn’t burn out, and one important aspect of that was learning to set appropriate boundaries. And while I know how to do that, and sometimes do it very well, other times I really do need a reminder.

Because it’s easy to over-give.

Maybe that statement shocks you. We’re taught that giving is good and it IS good. I’m a giver and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There have, however, been times when I have failed to set appropriate boundaries for myself. When I feel the first tinges of resentment, I know that I have failed to set limits. But some people never have that little warning twinge. They give and give and give under the mistaken impression that more is better.

Sometimes it is. Sometimes, though, more is just more.

Setting limits is important in so many different ways. If we’re caregiving taking time for respite is important. It’s what allows us to be more effective at being there for our people.  The same is true of working in any organization. Working too much can hamper our productivity. And even in our personal lives, when it comes to relationships of any kind, including romantic ones, we need to keep our own boundaries in mind.

How can you tell if you’ve failed to set limits and what can you do about it?

You won’t say “No.”

There are times when it’s perfectly OK to say “no” but we don’t, even if we’re overloaded with other responsibilities and are going to find it difficult to do what’s asked.

Most people might say “I CAN’T say no,” but that’s incorrect. Everyone can say “No.”  Oh, I hear the “can’t” all the time.  The truth is, there is some payoff to saying “yes” to things that add too much pressure to our lives. Maybe we get our sense of self worth from giving. Maybe we feel guilty saying no. Maybe we feel we have to make an excuse or give a reason.  But often, we don’t need any reason. No is a complete sentence that stand per. It’s not “No, but…” or “No, because…”

Let’s practice.

“Can you make cupcakes for next week’s meeting?”

“I’m sorry, no.”

 It’s got to be done.

We’ve all been asked to achieve something impossible at work and some of us have really stretched to do it, and not in a good way.  Sometimes we have to belly up and do it. But not always. In those cases, there are some alternatives. Let’s see how that would work:

“I need that report by Tuesday.”

“I can’t make Tuesday, how about Wednesday at close of business?”

Offer a different deadline or some other way to participate, as in “I can’t make cupcakes for this meeting, what about next month, instead?”

Many people find setting limits hard, but it must be done for our own mental health. I’ve seen a lot of delusional thinking about this. (See my related post, here.)

And so, I’ve come up with a little litmus test to help those of us who are boundary-challenged. How can you tell if you’re doing too much?

You can’t resist.

Oh yes, I’ve been offered opportunities that seem too hard to resist. I’ve learned the hard way that if I’m going to take something on, I probably need to also let something go. It’s like keeping an organized closet: if you add something, donate something.

1 You’re the only one with the burden.

Oh, now this is a big one. How about working on a team and being the only one doing the majority of the work? Time to say “no.” Use that complete sentence. You do not need to carry the whole burden. Set limits.

In a relationship or friendship, maybe you are often initiating and getting nothing back.  The solution is simple. STOP initiating.

Maybe you’ve made an invitation and gotten no response. Stop inviting. If they wanted to take you up on the offer, they would.

2   Stop and think.

Take  a moment. Sometimes we just have to stop and consider a request.  Given everything else we have to do, can we reasonably say yes?  What else might suffer if we add another task? Can we give our full focus to the most important things in our lives?

3   Prioritize.

The other day I asked a dear friend who has many important things on her plate, “how do your priorities lay out?”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “They’re ALL important!”

She’s right. They are all important. But this is a story we tell ourselves. Because without a priority list, no matter how much you want to do it all well, it’s not possible. We aren’t super-people. Something has to give, even if you don’t realize it. Something will be given short shrift and probably several somethings.  You have to set limits to be effective.  If you have no priority list, you aren’t giving your best to anything.

So, there you have it. Lessons I’ve learned during my life, sometimes the hard way.

Your thoughts?

39 comments on “How to set limits
  1. Peggy says:

    Saying NO was a lesson long in coming for me – but one I learned when push came to shove. Best thing I ever did was begin the practice of creating and enforcing healthy boundaries. Saying No when I meant No and saying Yes when I meant Yes. I learned that when I said Yes when I desperately wanted to say No was the set up for resentment and unspoken anger.

  2. Leanne says:

    These are all such vital lessons for women of our generation. We seem to be so easily sucked in to giving too much or letting others overstep our boundaries. I’m learning to value myself and my time more and to be a lot choosier about who I share myself with – I refuse to waste any more of my life trying to please everybody (at my own expense!) Pick your battles/choose your priorities is so true.

  3. Scott says:

    I agree 100%. I’ve been taken advantage of so many times that my standard response is “No” and only “Yes” a few times per year.

  4. Robin Masshole Mommy says:

    I have a lot of trouble saying no, but I am definitely working on it and try to say no as much as I can when I feel overwhelmed.

  5. T.O. Weller says:

    Carol, this resonates now more than ever! How does this happen? You write what I’m thinking. 🙂

    With recent events in my family, I’ve had to make some choices to lighten my calendar load for the next couple of months. I have a hard time saying ‘no’, but then I realized that if I don’t, the people I don’t want to say ‘no’ to will be disappointed in another way when I can’t be there for them the way they need me to be.

    Saying ‘no’ is not always a selfish act.

  6. This is such an important lesson. I don’t know why it takes so long for us to learn. I would love to post this on my blog for all my caregivers, Carol. Let me know if that’s okay with you!

  7. Setting limits is so important. Sometimes is so difficult but we have to do it.

  8. I used to struggle with saying NO. We must all learn to set limits. Sometimes it could be hard, but it’s the best way.

  9. sue says:

    I’ve written before about this Carol – about being able to say ‘No’ which doesn’t come easily to me. It is all about not taking on the responsibility for everyone and doing what you can when you can.

  10. Liz Mays says:

    I had a friend who went through a divorce and I found myself in this situation. It was absolutely exhausting emotionally!

    • tp keane says:

      it’s so hard when its your friend and they’re going through so much. Sometimes saying no isn’t an option, but I think allocating time for it is key.

  11. tp keane says:

    I’m so guilty of not setting limits for myself. I will say yes and bend over backward for someone else, but there will be no reciprocation or thanks after it.

  12. Lizzi Lewis says:

    It’s definitely something I’m not good at, and am vaguely working on 🙂

  13. These are great tips, especially the one about prioritizing. I have become very good at saying no as I’ve gotten older.

  14. Sheryl Kraft says:

    Loved this post, Carol. It’s such an important reminder for all of us at different points in our lives…and I’m at one of those right now. This really resonated with me. Thank you.

  15. Amy Jones says:

    Sometimes it’s really hard to say no to someone, but thats something I’ve tried to fix over the years, thanks for the advices

  16. This resonates deeply as I’m playing caregiver with my husband. Seems HE must be priority, and I have found myself quite testy about that a time or two. But I’m getting better at saying I need a few moments of ME time. You’re so right that we must take care of ourselves, too, and set boundaries. Great tips and thoughts here, as usual, Carol.

  17. Elizabeth O. says:

    It’s important to learn to say no and to set limits for yourself. I think this is a reminder that we all need because people tend to give too much or to offer so much help when in reality, you can’t really balance them all. There has to be limits.

  18. Frances D says:

    I have never been good at saying “no” but I am getting better at it. When I want or have to say “no” I do sometimes an alternative: I’m sorry I can’t xyz today, but I have a couple hours free on Wednesday afternoon. I can give you from 2-4pm. It works well most of the time. Of course some folks will try and guilt you, but I am not allowing in my life anymore. No more emotional blackmail. I had more than enough of it growing up. Thanks for sharing. PS I also did volunteer work with a fairly large of people with AIDS in the 80’s through the mid-90’s. I met some really unforgettable people – one that I’m sure had reached an Enlightened state.

  19. Nancy Hill says:

    Women in general seem to have this problems and then there are those of us from out of balance families who were taught to never say, “No.” Taught to never even think about contradicting someone, often a single person, or any person in authority. We need a lot of cultural, societal, and personal healing, and then learning to take care of ourselves – by saying, “No!” and doing it without offering justification.

  20. Karlyn Cruz says:

    This is a nice post. It is important to set limits in life especially when dealing with children.

  21. Sometimes I find it difficult to say no, specially if it is a loved one. However, I feel that there are times that I am at the losing end so I have learned to say that word and follow it up with an explanation why I responded that way.

  22. Kim Smith says:

    Saying no is such a hard lesson to learn for “people pleasers” like me. I have struggled with this. And that one little word is so liberating……Great post.

  23. Pamela Kuhn says:

    If we take on something, something has to go. I love that thought! I’m guilty of saying yes, yes, yes. Then it all caught up with me and my body just stopped. This is an important post and I hope many will embrace your thoughts.

  24. I am guilty of overgiving and have the hardest time setting limits. It has just been the last year that I have been able to say NO to things and help people without over giving of myself.

  25. Tam Gamble says:

    If only I could say no, my life would be so much easier sometimes. I am getting better but if I had had this ability my working career would have probably been a great deal easier.

  26. Kathy says:

    I still struggle with saying no sometimes. I find it hard to say no sometimes. I need to start saying it more often though because it makes me end up in situations I didn’t want.

  27. Liv says:

    You’re right. Sometimes you just have to say no. And mean it.

  28. Echo says:

    Saying No was really hard for me for a long time. I always thought I was going to disappoint people. Now, as a parent, I realize it has to be done!

  29. Kathy Kenny Ngo says:

    I have a struggle on saying no to my friends. But I guess it’s time for me to learn how to prioritize and study if I should be saying yes, or just say no this time.

  30. Lisa Rios says:

    I very much agree that setting limits is so important to make sure everything that happens around you is smooth. But honestly I am not sure how far one could maintain that and these are some great tips to get it done!

  31. Donnabeth says:

    I think I have to start to have a mental note of my limits. I sometimes say yes without thinking then regret the decision afterwards.

  32. Eileen Kelly says:

    Have you been following me? 🙂 I have such a problem saying no. I must take your advice and be okay with saying no more times to avoid stress

  33. Silly Mummy says:

    Yes, this is so important & something I struggle with & need to improve on.

  34. Liz Jo says:

    I still struggle with “saying no” all the time. Need to get a stronger backbone!

    Thanks for linking up with Welcome Home Wednesdays! Live every Wednesday at 7AM CT.

    liz @ j for joiner

  35. wow wow wow! you have no idea how much i resonated with this and needed to read this at this exact moment in my life. Yes it is so incredibly hard to set limits when your soaring for the skies and trying to accomplish your dreams that you dont take the time to set a limit and by the time you realize it your waist deep in the drama of your own making. It’s been a recent dilemma of mine and i’m working to change that so your post has been the most help i’ve had in awhile thank you so so much

  36. AJ Sefton says:

    A common problem with women, brought up to be the nurturers and givers. Although, of course, not setting boundaries or limits is an issue for a lot of people, not just women. The problem – as you highlighted – is knowing when that limit has been reached.

    Sage advice, thank you.

  37. I recently made a commitment to lead a small group through my church, and when I did I let another evening activity go, taking on the mindset of the one in one out of the closet rule. I know I would be crazy if I didn’t do that and it felt so good. I can still overcommit but just like purging a drawer that is out of control, I find it necessary to purge my schedule. It is still hard for me to say no but I find prioritizing is the best route to doing so.

  38. I was happy to learn more about you. In fact, there is a little nugget in the interview that may end up being a blog post for me at a future time. I ve thought about the different ways we bloggers connect with each other, and something you said really made me think. I always love reading Carol s blog posts and loved learning more about her here. And, of course RIley!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Follow Carol


Here you’ll find my blog, some of my essays, published writing, and my solo performances. There’s also a link to my Etsy shop for healing and grief tools offered through A Healing Spirit.


I love comments, so if something resonates with you in any way, don’t hesitate to leave a comment on my blog. Thank you for stopping by–oh, and why not subscribe so you don’t miss a single post?


Subscribe to my Blog

Receive notifications of my new blog posts directly to your email.