Making Space for Myself as an Uncorrelated Mormon–Part 4: Learning to Say No

I’m going to share with you something important I’ve learned in therapy (said the blogger, both of his remaining readers scrambling for the exits). In order to have healthy relationships, we need to have healthy boundaries. And when constructing boundaries, we must be aware that they can be either too porous or too rigid.

First, the problem with too porous:

“When you have a poor psychological boundary, you are in a constant state of emotional vulnerability…you lack the means to keep negativity at bay…the only way you can make yourself comfortable is by stopping the upsetting stimulus. In order for you to feel right again…your only options are the two losing strategies of control or withdrawal.” (Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage)

Then, the problem with too rigid:

“When you’re behind a wall, you take in nothing. You are not engaged with the speaker; in fact, no matter what you may look from the outside, you’re not actually listening at all. You are shut up in a closed fortress that no one can breach.” (Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage)

In contrast:

“A healthy psychological boundary is supple…By providing protection, your psychological boundary allows you to stay engaged with what’s being said, without the need to stop or run from it…When you are boundaryless you are connected but not protected. When you are behind a wall you are protected but not connected.” (Terrence Real, The New Rules of Marriage)

Our therapist also taught us that we need to recognize the nature of our own psychological boundary. Are we walled off, or are we boundaryless? Becoming self-aware can help us know what corrections we need to make in our relationships.

The notion of a healthy boundary is essential to making space for ourselves as uncorrelated Mormons. We are in a relationship with the Church and, it will be no surprise for you to hear, the Church is boundaryless. The ways the Church imposes itself on our lives are legion, and they are explicitly enshrined in the temple covenant to give our all to the building up of Zion on the earth.

This is not inherently bad. Many of us have chosen to engage in this way and find such engagement rewarding. Soul transformation requires deep engagement, whether within a church context or not, so I can see the potential benefit of a boundaryless church. It might facilitate, in the language of Bonnhoeffer, the experience of costly grace.

The problem, though, is that our doctrine, or at least our culture, discourages us from having psychological boundaries. Never say no to a calling, always be the one who signs up for things, never miss that next meeting, always take that last phone call, lengthen your stride and quicken your pace. As my former stake president taught, you can always find a way to fit additional church service into your life (which brings to mind the image of that damned camel, sticking its nose into the tent during a sandstorm).

To this I say: “No!” This is not the way to health or soul transformation. Instead, in my experience, the absence of a healthy psychological barrier either leads to our selfhood being absorbed by the Church—where we feel that our choices are not our own, our worth is validated by others rather than by ourselves, and we cease living as the autonomous subjects of our own lives—or it leads to complete retreat as the only means of protection, where we feel we must leave the church entirely to regain our sense of self.

So I suppose this series of posts is a rebellion against the psychological enmeshment of church with self, a statement of resistance to the dismal dichotomy of “leave or be absorbed” that is forced upon us by the absence of a protective psychological barrier. There must be another way, and in my hopeful moments I am convinced that there is, that we can take in the true, the beautiful, and the good that is offered by the Church without forfeiting our own personhood. But I am also convinced that it begins with learning to say no.

(I realize, of course, that for some people leaving is a safer or saner approach and is not necessarily the result of the absence of a protective psychological barrier.)

For good Mormons, this represents a paradigm shift (points for those of you playing business jargon bingo at home). We must recognize our inherent value, trusting in our own authority to know what is best for our souls. To do so we must learn to be more assertive.

Now I will admit that this can be hard, at least for a conflict-avoidant, go-along-to-get-along guy like me. But, as you may have heard, there is no other way.

So how do we learn to be assertive? Well, in deference to my co-bloggers, who unlike me actually do research and use theory to underpin their arguments, I decided to fire up the Google to see what science teaches about assertiveness. I learned some interesting things, not the least of which is that a research budget of zero and an attention span of somewhat less than that do not get you very deep into the science. So I mostly gave up on primary research and went looking for basic resources, common-sense stuff that was practical. My favorites were this short guide on “How to say ‘no’ assertively” from the Australian Centre for Clinical Interventions, and this Bill of Assertive Rights from Manual J. Smith and his classic book on assertiveness, “When I Say No I Feel Guilty”:

  1. You have the right to judge your own behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and to take the responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself.
  2. You have the right to offer no reasons or excuses for justifying your behavior.
  3. You have the right to judge if you are responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems.
  4. You have the right to change your mind.
  5. You have the right to make mistakes — and be responsible for them.
  6. You have the right to say, “I don’t know.”
  7. You have the right to be independent of the goodwill of others before coping with them.
  8. You have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
  9. You have the right to say, “I don’t understand.”
  10. You have the right to say, “I don’t care.”

I would like to end by bearing my testimony that healthy psychological boundaries are true. The best decision I made last year was to tell my stake high councilman that I would not teach early-morning seminary unless I could share the duties, alternating days with an additional teacher. So, they called two of us, and as a result this year has been a delight (for me, anyway; not sure my students would agree), in contrast to my seminary experience of six years ago where I was on my own, feeling overwhelmed by the unrelenting preparation and early-rising, dressing in a tie instead of my jammies, slowly being ground down till my thrill in sharing the gospel with the kids became less and less apparent. This year I’m energized and excited, thinking all week about what I can do for the students to stir their souls, to awaken them to the life of the spirit and the joy of Christ, to personally experience God.

And all because I managed to say “No.”

Earlier posts on making space can be found here, here, here, and here


  1. I know lots of people have a problem saying no. I don’t really understand this problem because I always want to say yes and I rarely have too many things to say yes to. I think I have very healthy boundaries so maybe my “no”s are so quick I’m not even acknowledging that I’m saying them. Of course I can’t do everything so I don’t. Perhaps I am saying no in my mind and in my actions appropriate to my appropriate boundaries without feeling guilty.
    My husband definitely doesn’t have a problem saying no. I definitely wish he would say yes more often. But he doesn’t.

  2. Great post, Mike! I love your phrasing of the “psychological enmeshment of church with self,” which I agree is such a pernicious problem. And I am totally on board with your solution. I have been *so* much happier with my participation in the Church since I decided to just ignore all the commands/requests/suggestions/guilt trips that I didn’t care about.

  3. I think this is such an important thing to learn. I figured out my first semester in college that I could most definitely become over-involved in church stuff and needed to balance my life a little better. (That involvement was pretty much all my own doing, not anyone pressuring me to do more, and still I got so over-involved I went a little nutso.) So I backed up, decided what was good for me and what wasn’t, and chose some other things to get involved in as well to balance my life a little better.

    Apparently I was successful, because after that I became known in my ward as someone who knew how to say no, or appropriately balance things, or something, and I gave a number of people (solicited) advice the next few years about how it was okay to say no. The advice generally consisted of some combination of “not running faster than you have strength” and “loving your neighbor _as yourself_” meaning that you had to love (and take care of) yourself well if you were going to take care of others well. It surprised me how incredibly relieved people were (as in, most cried tears of relief) when someone told them that it was okay if they took some time for themselves.

  4. My daughter is serving in a YW presidency in which the president has a young family of six children. The president says “no” all the time to stake and ward assignments that conflict with her family responsibilities and is doing a great job of leading, delegating, and serving. My daughter is also learning that balance can be achieving between Church service, family service, and meeting personal needs. What a wonderful blessing!

  5. This is very sage counsel. Learning to say no was really, really hard for me, but I would like to add my testimony to yours that setting boundaries is empowering and healthy and improves relationships. I see it this way: I am uniquely responsible for improving on the talents God has given me, fulfilling my responsibilities on this earth, etc. While others, including the church, can offer me opportunities, I’m the only one that can determine if those opportunities help me fulfill my unique mission, or would be a distraction (not necessarily a bad distraction, just a distraction) from a more vital purpose. Those ideas seem grounded in Mormon concept of God’s plan, personal revelation, etc. (Not, by the by, that my “no” always fails to shock and astonish various calling-issuers and others.)

    During my first year of graduate school, I ended up with three church callings, including two quite demanding ones (temple ordinance worker, visiting teaching coordinator, relief society teacher). I tried to do the best I could while balancing my studies, because at that point I hadn’t felt okay about saying no to any of these calls, but I failed. I just couldn’t do it. I went to see my bishop, explained how much I was struggling, and to my surprise, instead of immediately offering to release me from some of my duties, he asked me what I wanted. When I told him I wanted to be released from everything but my RS teaching job, he said, “Good. That’s what I would have suggested, but I wanted you to be the one to ask for it.” He wanted me to learn that it was okay to say no. Is that a good bishop, or what??

  6. Using these ideas, my wife and I worked out a plan for church that we tried on Sunday. I poured lots of energy into teaching the 9-year-olds during the second hour, then I took the baby home while my wife went into that terrifyingly crowded room for Sharing Time and Singing Time. (I can do singing time when I’m up “on stage” leading it all–in fact, I love it–but sitting in a small room filled with well over a hundred people is exhausting in a bad way.)

    The result was that I had a surprising amount of energy to give to my wife and kids after church, where typically I dive straight into recovery mode. I hope to try it again. Maybe it wasn’t a fluke!

  7. Thanks everyone for sharing the great comments. Reading them reinforces my sense that feeling empowered to say no lets us give more freely when we are able to say yes.

  8. The church isn’t boundariless. The church has very rigid boundaries to protect itself. We can’t ask questions of church leaders directly. If we try the get pushed back to the local level. If e criticize the church their are real consequences. The church enforces its boundaries strongly. What the church generally lacks is respect for other people’s boundaries.

  9. I was electrified reading this paragraph because it was like you had reached into my soul and described my current struggle:

    “…the absence of a healthy psychological barrier either leads to our selfhood being absorbed by the Church—where we feel that our choices are not our own, our worth is validated by others rather than by ourselves, and we cease living as the autonomous subjects of our own lives—or it leads to complete retreat as the only means of protection, where we feel we must leave the church entirely to regain our sense of self.”

    THANK YOU for fleshing out my heart and validating my experience. My boundaries have been too porous and I now know what I need to do to survive and thrive once again.


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