How to (charmingly) maintain your boundaries

Do you want to maintain boundaries better? Not say 'yes' when you mean to say 'no'? We've all been there! This 4-word phrase will help you maintain your boundaries!

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).

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. Annnnnnd 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. Click To Tweet
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. Maintaining your boundaries is a habit that you can develop – just like meditating and taking vitamins. This will help!

photos by André Branco and Chris Barbalis // cc

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  1. Haddock

    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.

  2. The Rachael Way

    OMG this is perfect. I was pondering this just this week. You always know the way to my soul, Miss Sarah <3

  3. Jen

    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!)

    • Anonymous

      It also reminds of Chandler's "I WANT TO QUIT THE GYM!!!!!"

  4. 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.

  5. Amy Jo Pendergrass

    So simple, yet so effective. Now why didn't I think of that?!

  6. Darcie

    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.

  7. Annie

    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."

  8. Meandering Design

    I love that phrase, but I adopted it from Bartleby as well. People don't know how to respond to you when you say that.

  9. 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*

  10. Kelbar

    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 .

  11. 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!

  12. Kate

    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."

  13. Cynthia

    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 🙂

  14. 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.

  15. Charlie

    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.

  16. dori

    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.

    • Katie Grimmer

      that's the best story I have ever heard.

  18. Annie

    I LOVE this post. Everything. Truth. That is all. And also thanks for writing it.

  19. 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! 🙂

  20. Eileen

    Ha! Shades of Bartelby the Scrivener, only with actual good results! I LOVE it. 🙂

  21. S

    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.

  22. Allison

    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.

  23. Anonymous

    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. 🙂

  24. Ashley

    I’m going to try this with, “hey girl, why aren’t you smiling?”

    • Sarah Von Bargen


  25. Snow

    This one gets amazing results…..especially when said in a calm, conversational tone:
    “This is unacceptable”
    You can see them come to a screeching halt back to the present and suddenly engage.
    Unacceptable is non-negotiable.
    The situation suddenly becomes an opportunity for new beginning with sincere participation….or….an opportunity for you to congratulate yourself for putting yourself and your values first and hopefully an inspiration to others to do the same.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Ohhhh! That gives me goosebumps!

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