I am lucky enough to live a short drive from my parents and maternal grandmother. My two brothers are miles away, so I'm the one who steps in to help my family when needed. I am happy to do this but I've learnt over time that continually saying yes to their requests can take its toll on my stress levels. People find it difficult to say no for all sorts of reasons. For me, it is probably because I am my parents' only daughter, so I have taken on the traditional role of "helper" over time. I can also see how vulnerable they are becoming in their older age and I feel naturally protective of them.
When I began to feel anger towards them, however, I started to wonder why that was. I would feel claustrophobic when my mother would just "pop" around, and stressed out when my grandmother called in the middle of the day. Because I work from home, it was too easy for them to ask things of me. When I said I couldn't help, I felt guilty, so I kept saying yes but then got angry. Michelle Zelli, a neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, told me this was because my sense of personal boundaries within the family was not strong. "With weak boundaries we allow ourselves to be pushed to or even beyond our limits and then respond in a harsh or aggressive manner," she says.
A well-formed boundary, Zelli says, is one that enables us to say no in a kind and gentle way, maintaining balance. I had been avoiding the phone, not looking family members in the eye or arranging to be out when I knew Mum might come by - ways of coping that were hurtful to my family and only made the situation worse. I was reassured to discover simple, practical ways to learn how to say no. Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, offered me some brilliant tips for learning how to do it with confidence.
First, I was to practise saying no with authority when it didn't matter too much, so I was prepared for when it did. When someone asked me to sign up to something in the street, for example, Hodson advised me to "be ready with a deep breath, a good, strong look in the eye, a quick smile and a loud 'Thanks, but no' before moving off happily". It was a good start, as I used to cross the street rather than deal with such situations.
Next, I was to seize control of a conversation by using active listening techniques - in other words, asking a question to stall for time. For example, you could say: "So what you are telling me to do is lend you Dh50 because I've just been paid. Is that correct?" This gives you time to PLAN-IT - Hodson's acronym for pause, listen, analyse, note illogic and target your answer. "You're then in a position to say a strong and direct: 'No, I won't'," Hodson says.
When I became better at saying no in inconsequential situations, I found the confidence to do so with kindness to my family. I also used the increased self-awareness to work out a better sense of my boundaries - of what I could and could not cope with when it came to my family's demands. It is probably most difficult to say no in a family situation because of all the emotions involved. For one of Zelli's clients, telling a snoring husband that she couldn't sleep in the same room as him presented a similar challenge.
"By strengthening her boundaries, my client learnt to firmly and lovingly explain how important it was that she got good sleep each night and that, although she loved him being next to her, she was much happier and relaxed when she got her eight hours," Zelli says. As a result, the client's husband booked a simple medical procedure in a bid to reduce his snoring. As for me, I now feel more assured that when I can't do something to help my family, it isn't a reason to feel guilty. I can communicate "no" with confidence, and as a result, I am no longer the only person on whom my family calls - unless it's really important.
Caroline Sylger Jones is the author of Body & Soul Escapes and Body & Soul Escapes: Britain & Ireland, resource books about how and where to retreat and replenish. Visit www.carolinesylgerjones.co.uk.