Autonomy and healthy boundaries aka the essentials to saying NO

Note: This is part of a 7 lessons challenge spread over 14 days called “Say Yes to Your No”. It is meant to help you become more confident in saying NO to what doesn’t serve you anymore so you can say yes to yourself. This is lesson 4.

Autonomy is the 4th A of healing in the book “When the body says NO” by Dr.Gabor Maté. The following paragraphs in ” ” are excerpts from the chapter “The 7 A’s of healing” in this book.

“In the final analysis, disease itself is a boundary question. When we look at the research that predicts who is likely to become ill, we find that the people at greatest risk are those who experienced the most severe boundary invasions before they were able to construct an autonomous sense of self.”

The case of Jason, with diabetes since he was five

Jason and his mom have been Dr. Maté’s patients for 10 years. Now 23, Jason had a whole year in which he kept getting in and out of the hospital with diverse issues and complications no matter how hard his mother, Heather, was trying to protect him.

On one side, his mother was over-controlling him, telling him what to do and not to do, and treating him like a child because she was afraid he might die.

On the other side he felt suffocated and like he was not allowed to make his own mistakes, live his life, so he got more and more sick.

Jason was not allowed to assert himself as an autonomous person so he kept resisting and getting angry with his mom’s controlling behaviour. They both needed to re-assess their actions so healthy boundaries could be enabled between them.

When boundaries are not enabled

“Most commonly in the lives of children, boundaries are not so much violated as simply not constructed in the first place. Many parents cannot help their child develop boundaries because they themselves were never enabled to do so in their own formative years. We can only do what we know.”

“Without a clear boundary between himself and his parent, the child remains enmeshed in the relationship.That enmeshment is later a template for his way of connecting to the rest of the world.”


“Enmeshment or what Dr. Michael Kerr called a lack of differentiation – comes to dominate one’s intimate relationships.

It can take two forms, withdrawal and sullen and self-defeating resistance to authority, like Jason’s, or chronic and compulsive care taking of others, like Heather’s. In some people the two may co-exist, depending on with whom they happen to be.”

How to start creating healthy boundaries

In her book “Anger, Boundaries, and Safety” Dr. Joann Peterson explains the concept of boundaries: “Boundaries are invisible, the result of a conscious, internal felt sense defining who I am.

Asking yourself, “In my life and relationships, what do I desire, want more of, or less of, or what don’t I want, what are my stated limits?” begins the process…In this self-definition, we define what we value and want in life at this particular time from a place of internal self-reference; the locus of control is from inside ourselves.

Autonomy, then, is the development of that internal centre of control.”

The ideas that I most resonated with and how I use them

Having dealt with blurred boundaries in my own family when I was a child, I’ve resonated a lot with the questions that help us start the process of enabling healthy boundaries.

What do I want more or less of?

What do I need?

How do I feel?

What do I desire…?

I’ve started to understand that when a person – like I used to be in my early 20’s- is more preoccupied with what another adult wants, needs, desires than what s/he wants, needs, desires – then it means they need to start working on their boundaries. 

It’s a long process but it is worth the effort. And the first step is to notice that you have a boundaries issue. Because if you’ve been raised without them, you’ll not understand what’s wrong with the way you’re interacting with other people for a long time.

The good news is that we can learn this even in adulthood.

Autonomy & saying NO

Without healthy boundaries there is no sense of autonomy. Without autonomy we feel like we don’t even have the right or the option of saying NO.

We feel like whatever request comes from another person is what we have to do. It’s like any invitation we receive becomes a command in our mind. It’s a tiring way of life.

No matter how weak or strong our relationship with another person is, when we lack a strong self of self, of where we end and the other begins, we’ll be struggling to say NO to anything. Even if that means we get tired, exhausted and end up feeling resentful.

That’s one of the main factors that contributes to us becoming people pleasers.

Of course the biggest challenge of saying NO we have is with the ones we love the most, our parents, our spouses, our close family and friends.

So once we start cultivating healthy boundaries and autonomy this automatically empowers our NO.

My search for healthy boundaries and autonomy

For many years I didn’t realize I had a boundaries issue.

I was like a fish swimming in a pink colored fish bowl, I thought the water was pink, not that I had a pink filter. Meaning I didn’t know how to be any different. However, life has its ways of helping us get rid of our false filters, be they pink or any other colour.

And this happens usually through pain. 

A lot of it…

At least that’s how I slowly started to question my beliefs and my “normal”. 

And after years of struggle things started to click for me. A small “Aha” here, another one there came with the help of therapy, introspection, journaling, conscious movement, meditation, troubled and failed relationships and many other elements.

I’m still working on this every single day. I’m more aware when I slip back to my blurred boundaries pattern and then I do my best to remedy that. 

I’m sure I have many other pink filters that I’ll discover in time. 

And also it might be that there will be some unconscious filters that I’ll never become aware of, and that’s OK too.

Next steps – Practical exercises

Notice how you feel in your body when you say NO

​​Throughout the day bring attention to your body whenever you find yourself in a situation where you’d like to say NO or you actually say NO. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s a small or a big request, if it happens at work or at home. 

Bring your awareness to your body in that moment and take note. 

Be curious and notice the sensations you have. 

Also you might become aware of the internal dialogue that happens in that moment. 

If you feel like at the end of the day you can write what you discovered. Again, the key here is to do this in a compassionate way, no judging, shaming or blaming yourself for what you discover. Be curious and compassionate.​

Questions of the day

In my life and relationships

what do I desire?

want more of, or less of?

or what don’t I want?

what are my stated limits?

You can think of these questions while walking in the park or driving, or you can write the answers in a journaling session. Whatever suits you to get you started.

Once you’ve went through today’s exercises go over to the Facebook group and share your experience. If you are not on Facebook leave a comment below.

Missed day three? You can read it here.

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