The Art of Saying No: How Black Women Can Set Boundaries for Self-Care and Well-being

As Black women, something most of us can relate to is the pressure to say yes to everything that comes our way. We’re constantly juggling so many different things – work commitments, family obligations, and requests from friends – that it can feel like we don’t have any room to breathe. We’re conditioned to believe that saying no is selfish or even lazy, and the guilt can be overwhelming. But here’s the thing: saying no is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s necessary for our well-being. We need to learn to set boundaries and prioritize our needs, even if it means disappointing someone else. It’s not easy, but it’s essential if we want to avoid burnout and take care of ourselves.

The people pleasers among us know just how anxiety-inducing boundary setting can be, especially with those closest to us. It gets even more challenging when it comes to navigating boundaries in Black families, where cultural beliefs, ideas around authority, and earned respect can create additional complexities (more on this later!).

The concept of boundaries may feel incompatible with your existing family, friendship, or professional dynamics right now, but keep reading for practical tips on how you can create healthy boundaries and say no to people or activities that don’t serve our well-being:

Identify your priorities

When we’re overwhelmed, it can feel like we want to shut the whole world out and say no to everything (even the good stuff!). Before you run away to a desert island, let’s take a step back and prioritize. A good place to start is by reflecting on your values and goals, and what brings you joy and fulfillment. With these things in mind, you can identify the activities or people that support those priorities. This can help you make more intentional decisions about how you spend your time and energy.

Here’s how you do it: Identify the things that drain your energy and cause stress or overwhelm, and try to minimize these activities from your life. For example, if work-related commitments are causing you stress, try to set boundaries around your workload or explore opportunities for a more flexible work schedule. Or if your priority is to spend more time with family, you may need to say no to social invitations that don’t align with that goal.

Practice self-awareness

Black woman thinking about boundary settingTo create healthy boundaries, you need to be aware of your own needs and limitations. Pay attention to how you feel when you say yes to something you don’t want to do. Check in with yourself regularly and notice your bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings in that moment. Do you feel irritable, anxious, resentful? Use these feelings to identify when your needs and limitations and with practice, they’ll soon become a clear signal to set a boundary next time.

Here’s how you do it: If a friend asks you to do something that you know will drain your energy, take a moment to check in with yourself before responding. Ask yourself how you feel about the request, and whether it aligns with your priorities and values. If it doesn’t, it’s okay to say no. You can also practice self-awareness by reflecting on times when you felt like your boundaries were crossed, and what led up to those situations. What could you have done differently to protect your boundaries? What lessons can you take from those experiences to inform your future boundaries? If you’re having trouble with this, our Emotional Self-Care Journal is a great tool for developing self-awareness

Use “I” statements

When we set boundaries, it’s important to use “I” statements instead of blaming or accusing language. This can help you communicate your needs and boundaries in a way that’s assertive, while also fostering healthy relationships with others.

Here’s how you do it: Instead of saying “You’re always asking too much of me!” say “I need to prioritize my own needs right now” or “I need some alone time to recharge” or “I can’t take on any more responsibilities right now”. This communicates your boundaries in a way that’s clear and direct, but not confrontational. It’s also more effective to use neutral language that focuses on your own experiences and needs. For example, instead of saying “You’re always so demanding!” say “I feel overwhelmed when I have too many responsibilities”.

Be clear and direct

Black woman talking on the phone setting boundariesAs Black women, we are often stereotyped as being “aggressive” or “difficult” when we assert ourselves. This can make it even more challenging when it comes to communicating our boundaries. Remember that your boundaries are valid and it’s okay to prioritize your own needs. It can get even more complicated when it comes to Black families and the expectation of ‘respecting our elders’ even when our boundaries aren’t being respected. The familiarity present in family dynamics can also result in guilt-tripping or attempted negotiations. Just know that asserting ourselves and setting boundaries is an unavoidable part of self-care and self-love, and it’s essential to our well-being.

Here’s how you do it: If a coworker asks you to take on an additional project that you know will cause you stress or overwhelm, be clear about your limitations. Say something like “I appreciate the opportunity, but I don’t have the capacity to take on this project right now”. If a family member is ignoring your boundaries, you could try saying “If you cannot respect my boundaries, I will need to take a break from our relationship” but how effective this is will differ depending on the relationship. It’s a difficult and delicate process, so be prepared to reinforce your boundaries over time, and consider seeking support from other family members or a qualified therapist while you navigate this.

Practice self-care

Learning to set and uphold boundaries can be a difficult and draining journey, so it’s really important to take care of yourself throughout the process. Engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, and surround yourself with supportive people who recognize your priorities and respect your boundaries.

Black women talking, offering support, smiling

If you’re looking for a tool to help you incorporate and prioritize self-care in your life, we invite you to check out our range of Self-Care Journals for Black Women. With journal prompts and exercises throughout, they are created by and for Black women, and designed to help you reflect on your thoughts and feelings, set goals, prioritize self-care and cultivate self-love in your daily life. 

On a final note, remember that setting boundaries and prioritizing self-care is an ongoing journey. It’s okay to take it one step at a time, and to ask for support and guidance along the way. If you’re not used to setting boundaries, you may feel guilty or selfish. Remind yourself that with time those feelings will pass and know that you are worthy of a balanced and fulfilling life. Go ahead and set those boundaries, sis!

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