Saying No: The Importance of Setting Boundaries

By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

Having healthy boundaries is important for everything we do. It’s also suuuuuuper hard, and some struggle to do it their entire lives.

We’re here to help you figure out why you need to set healthy boundaries and how to make them stick.

Let’s do this! 💪

Are boundaries really that important?

You know that phrase, “If you want something done, give it to the busiest person?” The thing is, the busiest person is usually the one who always says yes. 😞

Sure, they’re reliable, dependable, and fast. But, at what cost? When you say yes to everything, soon you’ll be burned out 🔥 and have to say no to everything at once. There are only so many times we can put aside our needs before our bodies take charge.

It’s about pacing

See, without setting boundaries, we’re not able to care for ourselves correctly. 🤔 We need to pace ourselves, to balance activity and rest. 😪 Did you know that planning how and where you’ll rest (like setting an hour aside each day) helps manage health conditions better, reduces fatigue, and increases fitness?

That first one, managing health conditions, is super important ❗ because setting boundaries gets especially tricky when you’re living with a chronic condition like HIV.

Why is it harder for people with chronic conditions?

Living with a chronic condition means that your body is working harder to do the same things as someone without them. 😓 That effort is usually completely invisible, known only to you.

You might be dealing with issues like:
● Only walking so far before your legs or back force you to stop🚶
● Fatigue and pain limiting your ability to work ⏱️
● Crowded rooms and bright lights might be difficult to handle ☀️
● Getting stressed out…which leads to worsening your symptoms, or even causes you to forget to take medication 💊

But how does setting a boundary help with that?

We get it: You want to do everything, to live life to the fullest! 🏋️

Believe it or not, saying ‘no’ is one of the best ways to manage your energy. Your body deserves rest, and it will allow you to engage in meaningful activities that bring you joy! Having sources of joy in your life helps you live life to the fullest, too. 🌴

Will there be days that you struggle and need to leave work early, or must reinforce your boundaries against people who just don’t get it? Absolutely. But the work you’re doing will result in you being happier and healthier in the long run. ❤️‍🩹

Setting boundaries: When is it time?

Everybody’s boundaries will be different, but knowing when to set them is the crucial bit. ⌛ It might be easiest to visualize your body as an alert system. Your arms, legs, breathing—everything is telling you how you feel. So, that means you can listen and respond to your body.

Think of it like your body is giving you a green, orange, or red light:
🟢 Green light: You feel comfortable. If you have a chronic condition, your symptoms aren’t bothering you, and you don’t expect them to bother you anytime soon.
● 🟠 Orange light: Are your shoulders aching from being hunched up all the time? Maybe you’re experiencing dizziness and need to take some deep breaths, or you’re just generally anxious? Then it’s time to pump the breaks before a crash happens.
● 🔴 Red light: If you’re forgetting important life events-- to take essential medicine 💊, or you’re feeling like you just want to curl up into a ball in 🛌 and run away from everything-- then it’s time to stop.

Basically, if you’re feeling great, then go for it! If you’re not, then you can always hit the brakes, and just say ‘no’. The more you learn to listen to your body’s warning signs, the more you’ll be able to take care of things before they become a problem. It’ll make your whole life more stress-free, and help you feel healthier overall.

Is it really okay to say ‘no’?

It’s normal to be a little worried when your body is telling you to take a break. Luckily, a lot of people out there understand that people say ‘no’ for these sorts of real-life reasons.

Those kind, understanding people are awesome. 🫂 But, the world we live in sometimes rewards those who put their needs second. Just keep in mind (like we said earlier); the ‘busiest person’ is usually taking on too much.

If what they do brings them joy, meaning, and somehow enough rest, then amazing! And if that’s you, all the power to you, boo.

But if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, then saying ‘no’ is absolutely an option. It’s especially hard if you’ve developed a chronic condition and your situation has changed. People might expect you to have the same energy as before, but you simply don’t. 🤷

Setting and defending your boundaries will allow you to protect yourself. It will help you improve your physical and mental health while you deal with life’s stresses.

How to stick to your boundaries

You deserve to say no without guilt. 💗 It’s your body and your life. The hardest part of setting boundaries isn’t saying no to someone; it’s respecting ourselves when we say no. You’ve learned to listen to your body. Now it’s time to act.

To respect yourself and stick to your boundaries, try reframing the way you think about these sorts of situations. 🧠 Here’s an example.

Let’s say you’re at your best friend’s birthday party. You were having fun, but it’s been a long day, and you’re not feeling your best. Your body is giving you a red light. 🛑

Leaving early might make you feel a little guilty. You want to be there to celebrate with everyone, and you can stay at the party, even though your body wants to call it a night.

Instead, you take a moment to remind yourself that you’re making efforts to attend a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s okay to take a break, leave early if needed, and get home safely.

This little change in thought allows you to be kind to yourself., You’re are listening to your body and fulfilling its needs. 🤗

Speaking up and setting boundaries

Here are a couple of ways you can set boundaries in a clear and compassionate way:
● Be direct: “I can’t attend tomorrow,” is better than “I’ll have to check if I can come”. It closes the door and leaves no wiggle room.
● Avoid accusations: Speak from your perspective. “I am not able to answer emails after 6 pm,” is preferable to “You have to stop sending me emails after 6 pm.”
● Short and sweet: You’ve probably heard that ‘No’ is a complete sentence. There’s no need to over-explain yourself or justify your boundaries beyond what is needed now. You are in charge of your body.

Go with the flow

Even with the best of boundaries, life doesn’t always go as planned. Luckily, we’re super adaptable! Continue to listen 👂 to your body even if something is messing up your daily routines or causing a big disruption. Take time for yourself, because when you do, you’ll have the energy you need to tackle that disruption. Rest improves results. Funny, right?

If you want more tips on how to live healthily and happily (especially if you’re living with HIV), why not check out the Positive Peers app? You’ll have access to blogs, medication reminders, and more! It’s a great way to keep reminding yourself to put your needs first, even when you’re feeling overwhelmed. ❤️