Master the Art of Setting Boundaries with the Pause Method

Do you often find yourself overwhelmed, with too much to do in the day and not enough time to do it? Would others describe you as selfless? Are you perplexed about how to enforce those mysterious things called healthy boundaries? Are you the first person your co-workers and friends call when they need help out of a jam? Have you ever suspected you might be a “people pleaser?” It sounds like you could use the “pause method.”

Do You Need Help Setting Boundaries?

If you said yes to some or all of these, you’re not alone. So many of us women are taught some very mixed-up messages from a young age, such as: Standing up for ourselves is not “ladylike.” We should always sacrifice for our families – and do it with a smile. If we say no to a request, we’re being selfish, difficult, or cruel. (There’s also a “B” word people use here – I’m sure everyone reading knows which one I mean.)

As a result of following these so-called rules, we can become overburdened, overworked, and overstressed. Then, if we don’t have any healthy outlet to release this stress, we can run into bigger problems, like substance abuse, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more. But if you’re one of those people who finds yourself saying yes when you don’t really want to – then burning the candle at both ends to get everything done – I have a handy strategy to share: the pause method.

What’s the Pause Method?

Let’s start with a newsflash: You don’t have to be “nice” to everyone, and not everyone has to like you. In fact, it’s totally normal that people won’t – how could anyone make everyone happy at all times? But young girls and women have often been taught to be passive and agreeable, so it’s important as we mature – or when teaching our daughters – to embrace our own voice instead of caving into peer pressure to act a certain way. While some women fear that standing up for ourselves may cause confrontation (traditionally, another female no-no), you’ll be surprised to find it doesn’t have to invite battle. And it can be as simple as taking a pause.

My husband, Dr. Daniel Amen, recommends the pause method to his patients who are looking to create healthy boundaries:

Instead of simply saying yes to anything that’s asked of you, take a pause. Our yeses can become automatic, which is why the pause is necessary. Then respond by saying, “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.”

That’s it! You don’t have to do anything complicated – just say you’ll consider it. Then leave it at that and think about it in your own time. If you can take on the task, great – but agree only if you truly have the time and energy to do so. If you don’t, decline the offer, using polite but firm language.

The Best Ways to Set Boundaries & How to Say No

Here’s another tip: If you’re not used to saying no, or even “Let me think about it,” you may be tempted to follow up with a whole list of explanations: why you need time, why you’re not sure, or why you’re saying no. Don’t fall into this trap. People don’t need to know the whys behind your response; you might want to launch into this knee-jerk reaction, just to smooth things over or make your “no” more palatable. But let your response be your response, and leave it at that. Remember: “No” is a full sentence.

Finally, I’ll share one more warning: When you first start using the pause method, chances are, it’s going to feel a little uncomfortable. When you’re used to saying yes without a second thought, it’s normal that a pause or a no would just sound…wrong. That’s OK! Keep practicing this technique. You’ll find that it gets easier – the more you do it, the more effortless it will feel. Nothing feels natural the first time, whether it’s riding a bike or starting a new job. But, over time, it becomes second nature and part of our inner arsenal. Have faith in yourself, knowing that you don’t need to people-please to be liked. You’re good enough all on your own.

Setting Boundaries is Self-Care

We often think about self-care practices as indulgent time at the spa, but using the pause method to help with setting boundaries is the ultimate in caring for yourself (and saving your sanity). You’re also able to show up for the people and tasks you actually do care about. Everything you say no to, after all, allows for more things in your life that you want to say an enthusiastic “Yes!” too.

As someone with trauma in her past, including difficult family members, I found that setting boundaries was such a key skill for me to learn – and it’s something we can use in every area of our lives, from work and school to home and family gatherings.

Here are some quick reminders as you practice the pause method:

  • Get clear, for yourself, on your own wants, needs, and priorities. It’s difficult to set boundaries when you’re not sure of your own best-case scenarios.
  • Communicate your needs clearly and without excess emotion. It’s easy for people to get us all riled up or ready to argue, but when we act from a place of reaction instead of response, we can escalate things and make situations even worse.
  • Stick to your word. Those who have trouble with boundaries become known as pushovers. When you don’t hold firm, people can have a tendency to roll over you. Remember to use the pause method whenever someone asks you to do something for them, especially if you’ve already told them no.
  • Give yourself some love. It can be scary at first to stand up for yourself. Be prepared to calm yourself if needed after you’ve achieved this, especially in the beginning.
  • Don’t forget to congratulate yourself – you’re now well on your way to creating healthier boundaries in relationships with everyone you know!

You can start using the pause method today. The next time someone asks you for a favor, practice saying, “Let me think about it.” You may be surprised how easy it can be.

Find out more about my journey to learning how to say no in my memoir, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, from BrainMD.

Tana Amen, BSN, RN