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Learning to say “NO” doesn’t make you a bad person – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”– Brene’ Brown

Several times during my coaching career, I’ve worked with clients who resist setting boundaries. They can’t ever seem to say “no” to whatever they’re asked, and often turn into the dreaded “Yes-Person”.  As a society we have acquired a greater understanding of setting boundaries, in particular, when work impinges on our discretionary time, and I’ve coached quite a few clients about the advantages of disconnecting when not in the office. But I can’t forget about those people who are challenged to set limits on their time, money, and personal space when it comes to family members.

A former client, a very successful businessman, gave in frequently to his wife’s desire to watch her granddaughter’s middle school lacrosse games almost every Saturday, even though he had no interest in watching lacrosse. As a member of two of the state’s most prestigious and expensive country clubs, he wanted to play golf on Saturdays instead of driving several hours to New Hampshire to sit in the stands for two hours and watch 12-year-olds chase a ball around and clobber each other with lacrosse sticks. He was done with driving two hours to New Hampshire to watch children play a game, and then drive two hours back, feeling angry that his day evaporated into thin air. After all, he wasn’t spending all that time driving to cheer on his favorite college team in the NCAA Lacrosse National Championships. These were awkward kids learning to play the game.

During our sessions, we talked about ways to deal with his wife if he said “no” to those long days on the road. Finally, he made the decision to gently announce his intentions. He realized he needed to set boundaries. He delicately told his wife that he wanted to play golf on Saturdays, not spend the day in the car. She balked at first, but he persisted, and, in the end, he prevailed. He had learned how to set boundaries, and he felt something new – triumph. He no longer felt obligated to say “yes”. He could say “no” with confidence and without guilt.

A more challenging situation came up more recently when a client’s discussion focused around his personal financial challenges. We worked on various ways for him to increase his income, and focused on what kind of work he wanted. His personal business was flagging, and he was indecisive about his next move. Just as our time was up, he mentioned that his younger son’s college tuition price tag is $45,000 per year, and the college is charging families $300 to attend the school’s orientation. In addition to the charge for the orientation, the cost of the airline tickets, hotel, and food for the weekend seemed overwhelming. After a few minutes of this line of conversation, he blurted out that his son had turned down several scholarships to smaller, Northeastern schools, and insisted on attending a college in the south. Despite their financial struggles, the parents had agreed to take on this additional financial burden.

I began to realize that his issues were related to establishing boundaries, and feeling obliged to his son. I had to switch gears from coach to advisor and offer some practical suggestions for boundary setting. The famous financial advisor, Suze Orman, in one of her books, warns parents not to pay for a child’s college education, because in her words, “there is no loan for retirement”. That comment took my client aback. We pivoted to a discussion of the scholarships the son had turned down, and suggested he revisit those, and explore the many alternative paths people take to achieve their education, and that some parents flat out tell their children there is no money for college, and they are saving for retirement. My client needed to explain to his son that the cost of his education was a burden, especially after rejecting the scholarships he was offered.

He looked at me in surprise and thoughtfully revealed that he heard the same advice in a conversation with a friend earlier in the day. His universe was beginning to line up. He left with a feeling of relief, like a weight had been lifted. He only needed to formulate the conversation with his son about revisiting his scholarship offers or try a junior college or prep school. Without laying down a boundary, my client was willing to further jeopardize his financial security to please the son’s desires. He struggled with grasping that parents can’t be all things to children all the time, and that sometimes the parents’ necessities come first, especially when they are on the lower end of Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs. 

As a society, we’ve begun to disconnect from work, and place boundaries on the demands of growing a career. But ironically, many people grapple with setting boundaries with family members, often to their detriment. There comes a point where “no” is the answer, and no one is obligated to feel bad about it.

“Those who get angry when you set a boundary are the ones you need to set boundaries for.” – J.S. Wolfe


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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