Once in my former work center, there was a mental health professional who was hosting a stress management seminar, in a downstairs auditorium. In passing he stopped to strike up some small talk, and the event which he was hosting came up in the conversation. He kindly invited me, and I kindly declined. Amicably, he posed a question to me (and I paraphrase): “What is one thing you see that reduces stress?”

My answer was simple: Assertiveness. Let the yes in your heart, be the yes of your mouth. Same principle for your “no’s.”

A large part of the reason why we are so stressed stems from our inconsistency in giving the people in our lives, whether loved ones, or colleagues, or neighbors, a proper “no.” We open ourselves up to bitterness, anger, and self- disappointment, because we reinforce a lack of self-value and self-respect, which undermine our sense of personal empowerment.

The main reason we say no is because we don’t want to disappoint people. But what we fail to see ahead, is that even if we appease people’s demands on our time, resources, etc in the short term, in the long term we will disappoint them anyway. Sooner or later, our bitterness, our anger, our hatred, or whatever adverse emotional condition we’re cultivating will manifest itself in harmful ways. This is a no-brainer. I don’t need a PhD in psychology to tell you that, and you don’t need one to know it.

Boundaries, to put it simply, are spheres of influence (i.e. marriage, children, work) or confines of privacy (i.e. emotional issues, etc). What someone is to you, determines which sphere of influence in your life they can approach or speak on, or which private confine they are allowed to enter. The problem is not that people enter such spaces (that’s inevitable). The problem is we allow people to stay there, if when we know they shouldn’t be there, or when we don’t want them there.

It is very important to understand, that learning to decline things gracefully (or forcefully if necessary), is one the best life skills one can acquire. An essential element to a life well-lived is the ability–the insistence–to the protect your peace.

Often, in my observations in life, I have found that many adults don’t have healthy boundaries. They haven’t marked their territory, in a manner of speaking. What this means is that immediate family, friends, and even children have undue influence upon their behavior. We all know that when we do things we don’t want to do, but simply do them just to get along, we become resentful. When you’re resentful, you cannot cultivate true joy and appreciation. It clouds your emotional/psychic vitality.

A lack of assertiveness in life can do a number of things: emasculation and stripping of individual dignity within a relationship, the loss of control and influence over one’s children, an ineffective boss, an undisciplined work environment that fails to adequately address harmful behavior. The list is very long, so we won’t focus much on that, because I believe by now you get the idea.

The question every one should ask themselves, is what are some good things that get to happen when I establish my boundaries and protect my time? Well, for starters, allow me to help by stating a few benefits: (1) a more peaceful mind which allows it to relax and address long-neglected thoughts, (2) healthier relationships, (3) less stress, (4) a higher sense of self-control. These benefits alone can drastically reduce the chances of a mental breakdown, self-harm, meanness, or destructive retaliation.

How does one protect their peace, establish boundaries that affirm their value, while communicating their value and individual dignity to other people? For one, I insist that people learn how to gracefully say “no.” We’ve reached a point in social discourse where “no thanks” is not sufficient for every or most situations, if ever it were. “Please allow me to decline” is a better one. Another one is “perhaps another time, but thank you for thinking of me.” You get the idea. Learn to say no in a way that doesn’t come across as quasi-hostile rejection. Because people are sensitive, and if you struggle saying no, chances are their reaction could guilt you.

Secondly–and this is a little harder, you have to be willing to sit down with people in private and have a conversation. Often, they may not realize that they are breaching your boundaries. And how should they? You didn’t protect them–they assumed you were okay with everything or most things they wanted you to do. Sometimes (and this is rare), they may initiate the conversation if they sense “bad vibes.” My advice is DO NOT blow off any opportunity to address an elephant in the room. It’s hard to do at first. But it becomes easier, and you become a better person.

These are just a couple things. But I will end here.

Assertiveness is not easy. It takes practice. But the key to mastering it, is to hold tight to the principle: I have dignity, therefore, my territory is just as important as anyone else’s.