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How to say no: Boundary-setting tips from Nedra Tawwab

<i>Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images</i><br/>A grocery cashier sanitizes a checkout lane and the pandemic has created more tasks at work and at home.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
A grocery cashier sanitizes a checkout lane and the pandemic has created more tasks at work and at home.

By Upasna Gautam, CNN

In a world where people struggle with anxiety, depression and burnout, therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab has some solutions.

Setting boundaries with others can help ward off some of these issues, said Tawwab, who wrote “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself.” But increased pressure during the pandemic to do multiple tasks at work and at home has made boundary-setting even more difficult, she noted, forcing people to reevaluate their lives and to learn to say no.

“Life is filled with lots of choices, and I think of boundaries as choices,” she said. “People will always want you to do something. If we always do what people want us to do, we will be very busy.”

In a discussion with CNN, Tawwab helped illuminate choices so people can reclaim control of their lives, establish healthy boundaries and enjoy rewarding relationships.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: What connection have you seen between pandemic burnout and the workplace and boundary setting?

Tawwab: Many of us were already burned out, and the pandemic just really took us there. It made us evaluate the factors that were leading to the burnout. For many of us, it was work and the unhealthy relationships we were in. The pandemic highlighted something that was already there.

CNN: How do you think these factors contributed to the “Great Resignation“?

Tawwab: At the beginning of the pandemic, many of us were put into situations that we never could have imagined. We know now that life can be flexible, we know that we can manage multiple roles. People are trying to figure out how to make a living without making that their entire life. We’re in a state of reevaluating what feels important. It may not be worth it to put ourselves through things that we are dealing with at work.

CNN: For someone who has never set boundaries before but knows a change is needed, where do you start?

Tawwab: Start with your feelings. Where are you feeling frustrated or resentful? When those feelings come up, what are you doing in response? Are you tolerating it, or are you trying to make a difference in your life? It will be helpful if you started to make a difference by saying, “This is a space where I need to say no.”

We need to create spaces where people can focus on what they need without being overloaded with tasks.

CNN: Why is it so hard for people to say no?

Tawwab: It’s not about always being compliant with everything that someone requests of you. Sometimes you need to push back, sometimes you have questions, and sometimes you need support. You have to figure out how to balance the energy of wanting to be liked and wanting to be a good worker.

CNN: How do you strike that balance, and how do you know which side you need to be on?

Tawwab: Recognize your capacity. When do you get anxious or frustrated about doing things? When do you start to notice your mood shifting toward your coworkers or loved ones because you’re irritated? Dig into what you feel when you’re asked to do another project. What comes up for you? Are you becoming anxious? Do you have time to fit this in? Are you starting to have a physical reaction to taking on too many things? That’s where you learn to place a boundary.

CNN: In your work as a therapist, have you seen correlations between increased anxiety, lack of boundaries and workplace stress over the last two years?

Tawwab: I think workplace anxiety shows up as unintentional slowdown. You become laxer in your duties, in an unintentional way. You become more stalled, worry about completing things, or you’re anxious about how this person might feel if you say no. There is anxiety around the way in which you can complete your job duties. I’ve seen it most show up as a slowdown and a lack of drive and determination.

CNN: What guidance do you have for people who know that they need to have a difficult conversation?

Tawwab: People have said no before, and I think our brain tricks us. You do know how to say no to some things, but you don’t know how to say no to everything. There are other areas in life where you say no — what makes you feel comfortable in those spaces? And what makes you feel uncomfortable in these spaces? We have to walk ourselves through “Why do I think that this is going to backfire? Why do I think this will not be well received?” Lots of times it is a narrative that we’re telling ourselves and rarely is it the truth.

CNN: What about sensitive conversations where the stakes are higher? For example, with a boss, parent or in-law.

Tawwab: Start with vulnerability. It can be helpful to tell people, “For my mental health, I cannot commit to doing this extra thing because I’m already spread thin.” Use words to describe what mental health is. What you might be going through is anxiety or feeling overwhelmed, and you might say, “I’m overwhelmed with tasks. I get very frustrated because I can’t find the right words to say no. So, when you challenge me, it makes me feel as if it’s unsafe to say no.”

CNN: What if that person thinks you’re being disrespectful or rude? How do you navigate that conversation?

Tawwab: I think a lot about family with this. Explain that you understand it was probably different with your parents and list the things you have in common: “We believe in love, community, connection, togetherness. I believe that it’s OK for me to have a difference of opinion. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in love, community, connection, togetherness. It means that my opinion is different about some things, but I still love family, even if I’m trying to have some things that are different for me.”

CNN: During the past two years, people have started to learn about the things that make them work and live better. For those who are self-driven, what tips do you have so they can curb potential burnout?

Tawwab: We drive most cars in the range of zero to maybe 80, and mostly around the 40-to-55-mile marker. You can’t exist at 80, and you can’t exist at zero. Many of us will try to exist at that higher number, and it’s like you’re speeding through life.

You’re missing all the important moments because you’re not able to slow down. There’s something about taking the scenic route at times because life is to be enjoyed. Intentional slowdown is important. We need to practice being less productive and figure out how to be restful.

CNN: Over the past two years, did you have to create new or break old boundaries?

Tawwab: I have been practicing intentional boundaries around how I allocate time.

Sometimes in our race to be busy and to be productive, we’re just saying yes. Sometimes a present-day yes is also a future yes — so I think, “Is that going to bleed into Christmas? So let me say no in advance. Because I know I won’t be available — I will be watching everything that Hallmark and Lifetime has to offer.”

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