How to politely, diplomatically, awesomely maintain your boundaries

Maintaining boundaries can be hard, especially if you're someone who's sweet or struggles with confrontation. This 4-word phrase has helped me maintain my boundaries without hurting feelings or pushing buttons! >>

A few months ago, over an enormous bowl of guac and a big bottle of Malbec, my best friend inadvertently introduced me to a phrase that’s been slowly transforming my life. It began (as most good stories do) with trying to cancel a gym membership.

You know how this story goes: you call them to cancel the gym membership. They give you a guilt trip the size of a city block and insist you come to the gym in person, look them in the face and tell them you’d rather not sweat on their lat press anymore. You sign paperwork. They glare. You glare. It’s awkward at best, demoralizing at worst.

But! My best friend (because she’s amazing and smart and tough) responded to their come-cancel-this-in-person request with:
“I’d prefer not to.” 

After a bit of back and forth, the gym rep caved, said he’s accept this phone call as proof of termination, and my friend was free to spend her $50 a month on a yoga studio closer to her house.

My brain exploded at the brilliant, razor sharp simplicity of that phrase: I’d prefer not to.

If you’re a lady, raised in America, you’ve probably been implicitly taught that you should be
a) pleasant
b) agreeable
c) accommodating

And even though I can be a grade-A hardass and I’m the captain of Team Personal Responsibility, I have my own moments of doing yoga-caliber back bends to please others. God forbid I ruffle the feathers of the shop girl/my neighbor/my insurance agent.

The beauty of “I’d prefer not to” is that it’s simultaneously unquestionably mature while being steely-eyed, this-is-not-a-line-of-questioning-you-want-to-pursue-my-friend ice queen-ery. Use it on people who are not respecting your space or boundaries, presumptuous strangers, sidewalk petition pushers asking you to support something you don’t believe in.

And a slightly warmer version for family members, friends, and well-intentioned strangers:
“I’d prefer to ________________”
“I’d prefer to check out your organization online before I sign anything.”
“I’d prefer a second opinion.”
“I’d prefer we left on Sunday morning so we can beat the traffic.”
“I’d prefer to spread that project over a few days.”

We can’t control anyone else’s behavior and we can’t always fault them for trying, asking, pushing the envelope a little. (Because if you don’t ask, the answer is always no).

But when we say yes to things we don’t want to do or allow people to cross lines we’ve drawn in the proverbial sand, we end up resentful, sulky, and possibly constructing personal voodoo dolls for each person who has inadvertently asked too much of us.

We’re the only ones responsible for setting and maintaining our boundaries.
You get to choose when you say yes and no.
You get to push back (politely, articulately) when someone wants more than you’re willing to give.
You get to question the validity of someone’s demand – gym membership or otherwise.

How do you respond when people ask you to do something you don’t want to do? How do you maintain your boundaries?

P.S. How to be less annoyed with everyone + How to feel good (or any other way you want to feel)

photo credit: evelyn paris // cc

More fun, more free time, more $$

Join 15,000 others and get access to my library of free resources -
workbooks, checklists, and ebooks that will help you get what you want, love what you have, and have time for all of it.

Your email is super safe with us. Powered by ConvertKit



Sometimes its hard to say a simple plain NO, but many a times it helps saying it at the right time and in the right place.
I like that "I'd prefer not to." ….. very gentle yet affirmative.


This reminds me of when Ross was moving, and Chandler asks Phoebe if she can help and she says "Awwww… I wish I could, but I don't want to!" Haha. (This is a little more polite though!)

Shannon Butler

My mom is the queen of just saying a straight up no to shopkeepers/anyone asking for anything (even me!) This feels like a much gentler approach.


That "Philosophy in Literature" class really paid off, lo, those many years ago. Thank you, Hot Italian Professor, for letting us read Bartleby The Scrivener.


Yes! I just started doing this, and it works great. When the cashier asked, "and your email address please?" I just said "I prefer not to provide it."

Jessica Rodarte

To solicitors (I pretty much hate all solicitors), I say, "I'm not interested, but thank you." With those close to me it's more tough. Lately, I've been thinking of following my "no" with a hug. Something like this- "Though I reject this [suggestion, idea, unhealthy food], I love you." *heartfelt hug*


To phone solicitors, I say: " I appreciate that you're doing a difficult job. Unfortunately, I don't do business with phone solicitors. And, I wish you well". Using "I don't" makes your decision definite, and reduces the chances of the other person making a rebuttal.
To most people seeking a donation, I say that I contribute to X and Y charities, and have no extra funds to donate. I do make an exception for a cause that touches my heart, such as helping the victims of the forest fires last year in Arizona. Then, I take $ out of savings to contribute, or donate help in kind.
Other useful phrases are "I don't think so" and "That won't work for me". These are weaker, though; and leave you open to cajoling/sales pitches .

Brandi Hussey

This post is awesome!! I wholeheartedly agree.

I employ something similar when paying for something in a store. So many companies now make their sales people ask for your email address before you can pay. My response is always, "No, thank you." I say it nicely, but firmly, and feel great doing it (I'm very protective/territorial of my inbox). It's a great decisive phrase with no ambiguity.

I remember one shopping expedition with my sister. She went first, and went through the whole sign up thing. When it was my turn, I said what I always said, and continued checking out. Afterwards, my sister told me, "I didn't know that was an option!" Saying no is always an option!


Yes to Bartleby the Scrivener! Our poor English teacher in high school heard that phrase a lot from my class after we read that. We were jerks.

I like saying "I appreciate you asking, but I'm going to pass." or "I really appreciate all the help you've given me but no thank you." when I have someone trying to press something. I feel like it acknowledges that this is something they had to do or at least something they thought would be helpful but no. It also softens the "no." But, if the issue is pressed, they only get two nice phrases and then I'm going full-on "No."


I love this, thank you for writing about this topic! I used to work at a certain very popular coffee shop where the manager would ALWAYS ask people to stay later or pick up a shift that they didn't actually want. From day one of this, I always held my ground with a "No, I'm sorry, I really can't today". One time a co-worker overheard this dialogue and asked me afterwards how I did it and if I could teach her. By learning to say no, you're learning to better respect yourself, I think 🙂

The Bun

I'm a very informal sort of person, so I tend to cheerfully proclaim, "Nope, I'm good, thanks." I get super nervous about this sort of thing, and making it sound to my ears like they're offering me a favor that I don't want or need to take advantage of (instead of them wanting something from me) seems to help me handle it.


I recently finished a book that had saying 'no' as one of it's major points (Greg McKeown's Essentialism) – but it's easy to just read that and think 'nice thought', so reading your post is a confirmation of sorts, a yes I should actually be doing this. I like your thoughts of 'I'd prefer not to' and suggesting alternatives. The second is particularly good if you're worried about sounding annoyed or offending someone, which is a big issue when you've got to say 'no' to offered help.


I actually have no problem saying NO… just ask my husband. But I find that as a woman, when I simply say 'no' it is perceived as rude. Your method is much easier to hear so will be more effective for me. Thanks!


It makes me so happy there are others who also immediately thought of Bartleby! I don't have a hard time saying no, but sometimes people are taken aback by it. This is a much softer delivery.

Sarah Von Bargen

True story: one of my favorite professors once gave a big essay test on Bartleby and one student had the guts to write 'I'd prefer not to" and hand in the blue book with just that. AND HE GOT AN A.

Kate @ Our Little Sins

This is fabulous! I'm going to add that to my two other get-out-of-awkward-situations-while-looking-graceful phrases – "It's not my favourite" and "My intuition tells me the best thing to do it…"

GOLD! Thanks, from a very happy long-time-lurker-first-time-commenter! 🙂


Oh I love this. I did just manage to tell a cashier recently that asked for my birthday to sign me up for a preferred shopper program that it was more information than I was willing to give her. Turns out, she didn't really need it.


I'm going to add it to my vocabulary of phrases. (You might be hearing it soon when you ask me for something) LOL. Seriously though, I like it.


Loved this post!
In a prior job, I used to use, "I wish I could but I can't."
Just this week, put on the spot, I came up with, "Not today. Maybe another time." I was very proud of myself. 🙂

Link Love

[…] This four word phrase might change your life ♥ Tough love time: 3 Reasons Why You Will Never Finish That Project ♥ Looking for even more […]


Leave a comment