Creativity And Boundary-Setting | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Creativity And Boundary-Setting

If someone told you that a piece you wrote is garbage and you’re a moron for writing it, could you object to their behavior?

When I work with people who are having trouble starting a project, this is often an area where they feel blocked.  They don’t trust their ability to protect themselves against mistreatment.  They feel reluctant to “put their work out there” because they don’t think they can handle the criticism that might come their way.

It’s also unsurprising that these people suffer greatly at the hands (or maybe “claws” is the better word) of their inner critic.  Because they don’t feel capable of standing up to the critic, and they know how viciously the critic will savage their work, they understandably find it easier not to start projects they’re interested in.

The Power of “No”

Why is it so hard for many people to stand up to abuse, whether from within or from others?  For one thing, I think many of us, growing up, were shamed or punished for saying “no,” or “talking back.”  Many of us came to believe we were not allowed to set boundaries with others, and perhaps that it was “spoiled” and “childish” to do so.

When I work with someone dealing with this issue, one thing we often explore is how it feels for them to say “no.”  I tend to find that, even if the person is alone with me, and there are no judgmental or critical people within earshot, they still feel some shame around doing this.  They don’t look me in the eye as they say it, and their “no” comes out soft and weak.

Often, if they can release their inhibition, and let out a loud, firm “no,” they not only feel empowered — the project they’ve been putting off starts to look less scary and more doable.  Because they know, from firsthand experience, that they can set clear boundaries with others, the prospect of criticism no longer frightens them so much.

I think another benefit of learning to say a powerful “no” — which may seem like a paradox — is that criticism doesn’t make us as angry when we develop this ability.  Work, and life in general, take on more ease when we know we can handle ourselves if we’re attacked — in a way that’s similar, I think, to the quiet self-assurance of a martial arts master.

Priorities Depend On Boundaries

Yet another reason the ability to say “no” is important is that it allows us to set, and enforce, our own priorities.  Often, I’ve noticed, people who are having trouble starting creative projects say they “just can’t find the time.”  However, the reason they “can’t find the time” is usually that they’re afraid to refuse others’ requests.

Whenever someone calls on the phone, for instance, they can’t bring themselves to let the call go to voicemail.  Nor can they be the one to end the conversation.  After all, the other person might feel neglected, and become angry and critical.

When they experiment with declining requests, and get comfortable with the feelings that come up when they do that, the book or business they’ve been “planning” for years ceases to look like such a daunting undertaking.

I’m not saying we should be critical toward others, or take revenge on those who put us down.  As I’ll discuss later, that’s just another way of giving in to the inner critic — by merging with or embodying it.  But I do think learning to say a forceful, unapologetic “no” can bring us a refreshing sense of creative freedom.

14 thoughts on
Creativity And Boundary-Setting

  1. Wilma Ham

    Chris, “learning to say a forceful, unapologetic “no” ” has indeed given me “a refreshing sense of creative freedom”.
    Learning to say “no’ has been a life saver for me as I finally could put a stop to being buried under tasks I did not want to do because I could not say ‘stop, no more’.
    As you point out there is a myriad of reasons why I could not say ‘no’, you can write a 100 reasons down and they probably will all apply to me. In the end I couldn’t care less where my reluctance to say ‘no’ came from, all I wanted was to learn to say ‘no’ and thank goodness there are ways to learn that and for that I will always be grateful.
    What is so good about your article is that the first step for me too was to realize how not being able to say ‘no’ was actually killing ME, my authentic self. That was a shock and propelled me into doing something, anything to put a stop to that. So that was my first real ‘no’, ‘no’ to continue to kill ME. xox Wilma

  2. Chris - Post author

    Hi Wilma — I think that’s a great observation — that we’re always going to be able to come up with some logical-sounding reason why we “shouldn’t” say no. Oh, it’ll just be this one time, the other person is having a rough day, the moon is in the Seventh House, and so on. Ultimately, that is just a backward rationalization for avoiding the feelings that come up when we refuse to do something. It sounds like you recognized this and this created more freedom for you.

  3. Jenny Ann Fraser

    Hello Chris, thank you for another thought provoking article. I too have difficulty saying no sometimes but I’m getting better. I’ve found, that taking responsibility for all that I say yes to has made things easier. I now understand that if I do not choose to say no to something I don’t want to do that I am responsible for that and so… no complaining or blaming the other person is allowed.
    Saying no is empowering under the right circumstances. It’s another way that I take responsibility for the quality of my life and as a result, the quality of my life increases.

  4. Chris - Post author

    Hi Jenny — that’s a good point — that if we say “yes” when we really mean “no,” we often just end up resenting the person who asked us while we’re helping them out. Becoming able to refuse requests, I think, actually lessens the misery for others as well as for ourselves.

  5. Catrien Ross

    Chris, hello, I am new here – following through from your comment on Gail’s wonderful flourishing life blog.

    You used the word refreshing in your last sentence, and that was exactly my feeling as I read your post. I really appreciated the way you linked our ability to say no to our power of creative expression. In a tortured reflection of how we interact with our world, our inability to say no turns back within to become the no we say to ourselves instead, stifling our life force and quashing our productivity.

    A wonderful, inspiring post, Chris. Thanks and greetings from the mountains of Japan – Catrien Ross.

  6. J.D. Meier

    > Priorities Depend On Boundaries
    Now that is some mighty crisp wisdom.

    My favorite boundary is time. It’s an incredibly effective way to prioritize. On one hand, it’s about figuring the next best thing for me to do with the time I have. On the other, it’s about figuring out by when something should happen. For example, a lot of things become irrelevant, when you miss the boat or miss the window of opportunity.

  7. Chris - Post author

    Hi Catrien — I’m glad you felt refreshed reading the post. I like that way of putting it — that our inability to say “no” in fact becomes a “no” we say to ourselves — the energy of separation gets turned inward and fuels the inner critical part.

  8. Chris - Post author

    Hi J.D. — it sounds like your work becomes easier and more meaningful when you’re able to protect your time. I’ve definitely found that to be true in my own work, and other areas of my life, as well.

  9. Patricia

    I feel reaffirmed in reading this post. I have made a commitment to put myself first right now and several things are testing my resolve…even my own inner ego beckons…and the sly “it’s not fair” I am proud to say that I am holding firm. I may even say NO to being my brother’s personal representative (he has no one else) but I truly do not wish to care give another dying person right now and he is so scattered and not following through….I have set a time limit and if he can not meet it – I will say NO…
    I think I am also releasing the feisty 50s that I passed over….I just don’t wish to do this, I want to work on some more of fun of living…play more…so if we can not play through this dying then…find someone who wants to do it all…forlornly.

  10. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patricia — I can definitely sense your strength and the extent of the struggle it took to get to the point you’re at. I like that sentiment — we have such arbitrary rules in our culture about when we need to be forlorn and sorrowful, and shaking up those rules once in a while can be liberating.

  11. Walter

    Saying no gives me the feeling that I’ve let someone down, at least this is how I feel. As a consequence, I have made some bad decisions in my life. I try to please others even if its to my detriment. It took me time to develop my power of saying no, it was hard at first, but just like any skill, I have mastered it in time. :-)

  12. Patty - Why Not Start Now?

    It’s funny, Chris. I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t have much trouble saying no to others. But I do resist saying no to myself. Ah, so many enticing things to see, try, do, play around with. So many possibilities and visions. In order to get any work done, I actually have to say no and put boundaries around that. Still got a long way to go, though.

  13. Chris - Post author

    Hi Walter — it sounds like you’ve developed a lot of awareness around why and how you’ve had trouble saying no in the past, and that this helped you develop the ability to protect yourself and your schedule. I’m glad to hear that.

  14. Chris - Post author

    Hi Patty — it sounds like the concern for you has been around saying no to impulses to do this or that while you’re trying to focus for a long period of time on a project. On the plus side, I get the sense that at least the projects you’re feeling the urge to do involve real creative expression, as opposed to just “taking the edge off” like many of us do.

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