The diary of a coach: set your boundaries and be guided by them

Saying ‘no’ may feel difficult, but it’s essential to avoid taking on too much and burning out, says Harpreet Chana

Credit: Kay Oliver Photography

When you’re in the business of looking after everyone else it can be really hard to push back and say no. Most of us feel awful even thinking about the word let alone using it. Especially at work.

Funnily enough I have no problem saying no to my children – no you can’t have another biscuit, no you can’t go on the iPad, no you can’t scream like that and pull mummy’s hair (that’s the baby’s favourite thing to do at the moment). But my mouth used to just clamp shut when someone at work or someone in my family/friend circle used to ask me to do something. My whole body would be saying: ‘NO! I really don’t want to do this!’ but my mouth – as if on autopilot – would just say yes. They would walk away, and I would think to myself: ‘Why on earth have I just done that?’ Then the inevitable struggle to juggle all the balls would start as I would add yet more to my plate and think how will I manage to do that now on top of everything else?

Or, I would happily volunteer my time when I knew I had none left to give or, even worse, I was totally exhausted. Yes of course I’ll help at the Christmas fayre, I’ll bake that cake, I’ll help you move, I’ll help you at your children’s party on a Saturday at 7am, yes I’ll come to your event until ridiculously late even though I’ve not slept much this week and would much rather be at home in my slippers (I have done all of these at some point).

The point is that we struggle to say no because we were taught at a young age that it’s wrong to say it. It means we are naughty; we are rude or impolite; we are selfish. How often if you said no to something were you then admonished by your parents? How often have you told your own children off for saying it to you?

We are taught as children that saying ‘yes’ was the polite and likeable thing to say. But now that we are all adults, saying no should no longer be off limits. We should be able to say no to people or situations based on our evaluation and decision making.

Unfortunately though, that's not what happens. We still hold on to that childhood belief that saying no means that we are dislikeable, rude, unkind or selfish and we worry that if we say no we will be humiliated or feel guilty or be rejected. But it’s simply not true. Saying no actually helps you to communicate a boundary – to yourself and to others.

It’s a lack of a boundary that I see time and again in my coaching clients that leads to them taking on too much and then really struggling with stress and burnout.

You work in HR because you like people. You want to help and support people. That means saying no and setting boundaries can feel like a difficult step. But if you don't have boundaries with yourself, you end up working until you get to the point of total physical and emotional exhaustion because there are always more people to help and support. When you don't have boundaries with others, you can let your life be ruled by everyone else but you.

One of my favourite tips to share with my clients is to pause when you’re being asked to do anything. To check in with yourself and ask yourself, out of 10, how much do I want to be doing this? If the answer is less than 7/10, don't do it. This is such a simple tool, but it is incredibly effective and clients report feeling so much more empowered when they finally start to set some boundaries for themselves and others. I would love for you to try this!

Harpreet Chana is founder and CEO of The Mental Wealth Academy