How to Set Boundaries Without Feeling Guilty | Podcast

Loder, VanessaIn this 30-minute session, Vanessa Loder shares the seven key habits that will enable you to say no and set boundaries with ease. Learning these skills will free up additional time and energy for you to pursue those things that really matter, and by applying this formula, you’ll create even more respect from those around you while standing firm in your authentic values. Click Play to listen or read the full transcript below.

Do you feel as though you’ve never accomplished all you need to do in a given day and others are still asking for more? You know that feeling when you say “yes” to something, and then immediately regret it? Women are overcommitted in a lot of ways, and tend to feel more of a psychological burden when asked to do someone a favor. In this session, you will learn research that explains why women tend to feel so exhausted and why women have a more difficult time saying no.

Mindfulness Based Achievement’s Values Assessment Tool

Vanessa Loder is an entrepreneur and former private equity investor and the co-founder and CEO of Mindfulness Based Achievement, the New MBA, a company that provides in-person and online educational tools to help high potential women leaders learn how to “Lean In” without burning out. She is the founder and CEO of Akoya Power, a company that supports women in leading more purposeful professional lives. Through meditation, visualization and coaching, Loder and her cofounder, Lisa Abramson, teach women how to quiet their minds, set boundaries without feeling guilty, let go of the pressure to be “perfect” and get more of what they want in life. Loder’s Tedx talk is titled, “How to Lean In Without Burning Out.” Her personal transformation, subsequent research and work has led to thousands of women finding more passion, success and love with greater ease. Loder earned an M.B.A. from Stanford University and a B.A. in economics from Columbia University where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude.

View Transcript

Conferences for Women

How to Set Boundaries Without Feeling Guilty

Guest: Vanessa Loder

Interviewer: Karen Breslau

Karen: Welcome to the Conference for Women Teleclass: How to Set Boundaries Without Feeling Guilty. Our guest today is Vanessa Loder, co-founder of Mindfulness Based Achievement, the new MBA, a company that provides in-person and online educational tools that help women leaders learn how to lean in without burning out. She is also the founder and CEO of Akoya Power, a company that supports women in leading more purposeful, professional lives.

In this session Vanessa Loder will share seven key habits that will enable you to say no and set boundaries with ease. Learning these skills will free time and energy for you to pursue those things that really matter. We’ll be sharing highlights from today’s call on Twitter. You can follow along and join the conversation @PennWomen, @TexasWomen, @MassWomen, and in California at #LeadOnCA. And a reminder, today’s teleclass will be available as a podcast on your conference website. If you registered through Eventbrite, you will receive an email telling you when the podcast is available. And now feeling no guilt I’d like to welcome Vanessa Loder to the Conference for Women teleclass – Vanessa.

Vanessa: Thank you. That was just a lovely introduction. Feeling no guilt in this moment I will say.

Karen: Yes, exactly.

Vanessa: Yeah, guilt is definitely something I still struggle with, which is why I love teaching about this topic. And I wanted to start by just telling a story. I was leading a workshop for working mothers a couple of years ago, and one of the mothers in the group shared with everyone that a couple weeks prior their husband was going to pick up their child from daycare. And for whatever reason he ended up there about 45 minutes early. There was less traffic, or he got there sooner than expected. And that night over dinner she asked him, “So what did you do during that 45 minutes?” And he said, “I got a beer.” And she said, “What? You got a beer at 3:00 in the afternoon before picking our son up from daycare?” And her husband said, “Yeah, why? What’s the problem?” And it was a moment for me that was such an aha because all of the women in the room were shocked and just laughing at the fact that a husband would go and get a beer at 3:00 in the afternoon when he had 45 minutes to spare.

And when I asked them through a show of hands, “How many of you if you had 45 minutes to spare before picking your child up from daycare would – maybe not go get a beer – but even go get a pedicure or just do anything relaxing for yourself?” And not a single hand went up. And I said, “What would you do in that time?” And everyone said, “Well I would take a call for work. I would check my email. I would see if there’s a store nearby that I could pick up diapers or groceries. I would go run some sort of errand.” And it was this really defining moment for me where I realized, wow, there’s a way in which I think we, as women, are taking on so much more than we need to sometimes. And even though some people’s initial reaction might be, “Well who does that guy think he is to get a beer at 3:00 in the afternoon,” perhaps instead we should be asking ourselves, “Who am I not taking a little bit of time to relax for myself? And why am I saying yes to every single demand that comes at me and then feeling so exhausted and overwhelmed and busy.”

And so that’s really what we’re going to talk about today is how can you start to say no and set boundaries without feeling guilty. And I want to start off by telling a little bit about my background as well and how I came to some of this work and this research. So as you said, my name’s Vanessa Loder, and I have been an overachiever my entire life. I graduated from an Ivy League school, Psi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, top of my class, while playing Division 1 varsity soccer because it wasn’t good enough to be smart or athletic; I had to do both. And then when I graduated I took the most intense job I could find, which at the time was investment banking on Wall Street. And I would work these 80, 100-hour weeks, and I would come home so drained and exhausted from work that I would just collapse on the couch and zone out in front of the television or drink a little too much wine because I was so drained from my job. Those were really the only coping mechanisms I had to deal with my stress.

And that theme of achievement went on for many years. I went on to work in private equity and got my MBA from Stanford. And basically got to this point in my career where I was on track to be a partner at this firm, financially very successful. Everything on paper looked great, and yet I was exhausted and overwhelmed and still busy. And I would lie in bed at night with my mind just racing with all the things I had to do the next day. And I felt like there had to be a better way to be successful without feeling so overwhelmed all the time. So I ended up hiring an executive coach and then started to do all this … I had what Brené Brown likes to call a spiritual awakening. I started to do all this soul searching and got really into mindfulness and meditation and actually found all these amazing alternative healing modalities – ways you could reprogram your neurology to change your response to stress. And I got really into studying the research that could create real change for women. And long story short, I ended up changing myself so much that I quit my job in finance and decided to dedicate my life to bringing these tools to other women and particularly women in the business world. So that’s what I’ve been doing for five years now. And my business partner, Lisa, and I – as you mentioned – co-founded Mindfulness Based Achievement, the new MBA, two years ago to teach women how to lean in without burning out. And we have an online program and a free 30-day meditation challenge, which I’ll give you more info about those towards the end of this call, so stay tuned.

And that’s really become my life’s work is teaching women how to create sustainable success. And one of the things that comes up time and time again is this theme of how busy women feel that they are. And I’ve had so many women say to me, “I know it’s so important to take time for myself, but when I do I feel self-indulgent, and I feel guilty.” And another women recently asked me, “Well how can I feel less guilty having ‘me’ time? I know I want to take this ‘me’ time, but I just feel so guilty.” So how can we do this? How can we take time for ourselves without feeling guilty or self-indulgent?

Well I have some fascinating research to share with you today. There’s a PhD researcher named Lise Vesterlund who did some work at … she’s a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh. And she recently found that – whether it’s volunteering for a committee or agreeing to pick up the slack for a sick colleague at work – she found that women are more likely than men to do three things: number one, to volunteer to do non-promotable tasks; number two, to be asked to do non-promotable tasks; and number three, to say yes when asked to do these mundane tasks. So women are overcommitted in a lot of ways. And what her research showed was exactly what I had found in this workshop that I was leading with women – is that women tend to feel more of a psychological burden when they’re asked to do someone a favor. So her research actually showed that while considering how to respond to a request 31 percent of women felt worn out; they were worried; they had a difficult time saying no; and they were afraid of being perceived as someone who is not helpful. In comparison, less than 10 percent of the men felt this way. So a third of the women and less than 10 percent of the men. Men, in contrast, were concerned with whether or not it was a good use of their time; would it help their career; and would the person owe them a favor in the future.

So in other words, the men were much more focused on their own self-interests and how things were going to promote and develop their own careers versus the women were more worried about being perceived as someone who’s not helpful. Or they were worried that people wouldn’t like them.

So what can we, as women, do to change this pattern? Well first of all, the good news is by simply joining this call with me today you’re actually starting to change the pattern for yourself because part of it is just having a mindset shift around boundaries and saying no. And so just by becoming aware of the research that I just shared with you is going to help you have more confidence in your ability to say no. So that’s the good news. Just by taking this time to get some new tools you’re going to see a shift with this. And today I want to share seven tips to help you learn how to set boundaries and say no with ease.

So the first step is to start small. To begin with I suggest that you pick something small that you would like to say no to. And then see how it feels to get that one thing off your plate. Once you refuse to do something small you might actually see that people don’t hate you. Life goes on, and the world continues turning. It’s okay. And then the next time it will be even easier to say no to a bigger request. So take a moment – and even just right now while you’re on this call – see if you can think of an example of something small that you would like to say no to. And it could be a social engagement like going to a party or an event that you’re really not looking forward to attending or you’re just feeling tired and you’d rather stay home and read a good book. Or it could be a small project at work or someone’s asked you to spend some extra time doing something for them, a small favor and you’re really feeling a little bit burdened by that and don’t feel like you have the time. So pick something small and say no to that first. That’s step number one.

So the second step is to really trust your body. So if something feels heavy in your body or just feels wrong inside of you then you should say no to the request. And if you feel really light and free and good when you’re considering it, then definitely say yes. So the key is to learn how to recognize your own internal signals and ignore the pressure that other people put on you. So we all have this wonderful ability to access our intuition, and our intuition can really guide us in what’s going to give us energy and fulfil us versus the “shoulds” in our life, the things we’re doing because we think we should. You know those times when you override your intuition because you think you should do something? Tuning into your body will help you avoid that. I have an example where one day my daughter … I had dropped her off with our nanny. And the nanny called me and said, “Your daughter said her tummy hurts a little bit.” And my intuition said it really wasn’t a serious issue or a big deal. And the nanny was a little bit nervous because I think she wanted to make sure that my daughter was safe and protected. And so she said, “Well maybe you should take her to the doctor.” And deep down I thought I should probably wait and see if this gets worse or she has a fever. We checked her temperature. She didn’t have a fever. So I ended up calling the doctor’s office, talking to the nurse, and the nurse said, “It’s up to you. Maybe on the safe side bring her in.”

Long story short, I ended up taking the morning off work to drive my daughter to the doctor’s office and to be totally honest, and a little bit vulnerable here, I actually did it mostly because I was scared of my nanny judging me and thinking I was a bad mother and not because I was actually worried about my daughter being sick. And so we got to the doctor, and daughter was like, “My stomach feels fine,” and she started eating and had a big appetite. And there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. And then I drove her home and I realized, wow, I just blew up my whole day and kind of overreacted to this situation. And deep down my body knew the answer. My intuition knew that my daughter was safe and fine. And yet I sort of let fear and this belief that I should err on the side of caution cause me to do this activity that I really didn’t believe in. So that’s step number two is to trust your body and to really tune into your intuition.

The third step is to practice awareness and compassion – so just to recognize that it’s normal if you’re feeling worried about someone not liking you if you refuse a request. Feeling guilty or afraid that people will not trust you or value your opinion is also normal. And many times, these are the reasons why we keep saying yes – even when we’re exhausted and simply don’t have the time because we’re afraid people won’t like us. We don’t want to feel guilty. So these fears and beliefs – they’re actually not going to go away. I’m here to tell you today that part of the secret to saying no is to learn to get comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling that it involves. And I know that can be a difficult pill to swallow, but in some ways it’s good news to know you’re not alone. It’s perfectly normal to feel this way and especially if you’re a woman, compared to men. The research shows you’re more likely to feel this way. So hopefully that will help you get over the hump and say, “All right, even though this feels uncomfortable to me, I’m still going to say no – even though it feels scary.” So step three is to practice awareness and compassion for yourself. So just know that it normal to feel scared or to feel worried about someone not liking you and say no anyway.

Step number four is don’t apologize. Don’t apologize when you say no. So there’s no need to say, “I’m sorry,” when your answer is no. You haven’t done anything wrong. Instead, what I recommend doing is something called an appreciation sandwich. What an appreciation sandwich is is you start with an appreciation. You say no and then end with an appreciation. It’s actually one of the best ways to give someone kind of a kind rejection when they make a request of you. So it’s one of my most effective pieces of advice for saying no. So tell the other person what you appreciate about him or her and then say no and then maybe end with an appreciation. So for example, you might say, “I appreciate you for reaching out, and I can see that it’s important for you to find support as you build this business; however, I won’t be able to get together in person at this time.” And then if you want you can layer on a second appreciation at the end depending on whether that feels authentic or not. But the good news is when you appreciate someone when they make a request, while standing firm in your no, they receive it in a much more gentle way. And so that can also ease some of the burden that women might feel around having difficulty something no and wanting to be liked.

I actually got a rejection from someone where they did an appreciation sandwich to me, and it was one of the best rejections I’ve ever gotten – where they said, “Sorry, we don’t have time for this.” I was actually going to interview someone for a “Forbes” article I was writing. And the person was too busy. And they sent me the most kind rejection email – the kindest rejection email I’ve ever gotten. And it honestly made me what to work with her even more. So if you use an appreciation sandwich and you don’t apologize you’ll find that people respect you even more when you say no. So that’s the fourth step – don’t apologize and use an appreciation sandwich.

The fifth step to saying no without feeling guilty is to be short and confident in your no. So here’s the deal. When you feel bad or uncertain about saying no, it actually makes the situation more awkward. People respond to your guilt, and they’re actually more likely to push back and try to convince you to change your mind if you are hemming and hawing and your guilt is really coming across in the way in which you’re saying no. A lot of people don’t really say no. They actually kind of say, “Maybe, I don’t really have time. I’m not sure.” And they don’t actually say a firm no. And that kind of leaves the door open for someone to come in and push back and really try to get you to say yes. So they’re more likely to try to convince you to change your mind if you’re not being confident in your no. So you want to be clear, concise and confident when saying no. So for example, you would say, “I’m not going to be able to meet you for coffee this week.” Thank you for the invitation. Boom – done. You don’t need to explain why you’re saying no. You don’t need to pretend like you might try to reschedule another time if you really have no intention of doing that. Simply say no and let it be. So that’s the fifth step is to be short and confident in your no.

Now the sixth step is to start a no club. This is a really helpful tool, and I’ve had a lot of women who’ve had a lot of fun with this one. So peer support is incredibly powerful, and what you can do is get together with a group of friends and actually discuss what everyone wished that she’d said no to in the last month. This is a really fun exercise. I highly recommend doing it over maybe a glass of wine. So you go around in a circle and you say, “What do you wish you said no to in the last month?” And you each go around and think of that and share it with the group. And then you think of something that you want to say no to in the next month. And you ask the group to hold each other accountable going forward. So you check in every month, or you could even do it every week in the beginning. But at least once a month you would check in with your no club and say, “So how’s it going?” Did you say no to that thing that you said you were going to say no to last month?” And it can be kind of a fun way to get some support around saying no because you sort of turn it into a game, which takes some of the pressure and the guilt away. It also really helps with feeling guilty because when you have other people around you who are also having the strength to say no to things it can help you feel less guilty because you think, oh, I’m not the only one saying no to this activity so that I can go get a pedicure or take a bath or go to yoga or workout or do something for me or have times with my kids. And it really can encourage you to say no more because you hear other people’s stories of saying no and it really inspires you. So that’s the sixth step is to start a no club.

And the seventh and final step, which is a really fun one, is to focus on your yes. So it’s a lot easier to say no when you have a clear picture of what you want to say yes to instead. For example, if you’re invited to an event over the weekend that you feel like you “should” attend, but you’d really rather stay home and read your favorite book, well picture yourself doing that when you go to tell the person no. So it’s easier to be confident and clear with your no if you envision what you want to say yes to instead. And one way to do that, to really focus on your yes, is to get clear on your values, to get clear on your values and what’s most important to you. And that can help you figure out what it is that you really want to say yes to. And we actually have a free tool on our website that’s a values assessment tool that can help you get clear on your values. I don’t know if they can post a link but I’ll read it out loud. If you go to there’s a free values tool that you can access there. And I found that that can really help women get clear on what it is that they want to be saying yes to and what they want to say no to. So getting clear on your values and focusing on your yes is the seventh and final step.

So that’s the research around how women are asked to do more non-promotable tasks, they volunteer to more non-promotable tasks, and they say yes more than men when they’re asked to do these mundane tasks. And the good news is that now that you know the research you can actually go to your manager and share this with him or her. And if you want one of the suggestions I have for a lot of my corporate clients is it’s a great idea to tell your manager, “Hey, this is the research, and if we want to be really gender neutral what we can do is when we have kind of a mundane task or some project that nobody really wants to do in the group, we can throw everybody’s name in a hat and literally pick one out rather than asking someone to volunteer or assigning it to someone. Because if ask for a volunteer or you assign it to someone, statistically it’s more likely to go to a woman. So instead, why don’t we put everyone’s names in a hat and pull one out and see who gets selected. And that’s more … it takes some of the bias out of the system when you do it that way. So that’s another suggestion you can take to your manager. Or you can actually implement with your team right away.

So those are the seven steps to really learning how to set boundaries without feeling guilty. And the other couple things I want to mention is meditation and mindfulness is a great way to start to tune into your body and recognize your own internal signals. And I know there is a link on this page for our 30-day meditation challenge. So the next one starts July 14th, and it’s free. You get a five minute meditation emailed to you for every day for 30 days. So if you go to our website,, or you can click on the link on this page you can register for it. And that’s a great way to start tuning into your intuition and also just taking five minutes for yourself every day to be still and quiet and calm before you start responding to everyone else’s demands and all the things that they’re going to be requesting of you throughout the day. That’s one of my other favorite kind of quick tools to shift gears and shift your mindset throughout the day.

So I hope the research and the stories were helpful. And I know that when you go out there and you say no to something you’re going to end up with so much more energy and time for the things that really matter to you. So I invite you to take this and run with it and start saying no right away.

Karen: Okay, Vanessa, thank you so much. I’m not going to say no. I’m going to say yes to a lot of questions that we have. And the first one is this: a lot of women seem to struggle between feelings of resentment when they say yes and feelings of guilt when they say no. How do you quiet those feelings and just make a rational decision without all that emotional static?

Vanessa: Such a good question. So if you feel any resentment that is a red flag that you’re not honoring your values and what matters to you and that you’re not getting your needs met. And so now for me what I’ve started to do is as soon as I start to feel resentment I go, okay, in what way am I not taking care of my needs right now? And I will immediately start to focus on what is it that I need to feel better in this situation? And for me I think … what I recommend is using the resentment as a flag to start to ask yourself how you’re not taking care of your needs. And then once you start to ask that question you can come up with a solution that works for you. In terms of how do you cope with resentment and guilt I actually find – especially for the guilt – that self-compassion is one of the most powerful tools out there, being kind to yourself. And there’s a lot of self-compassion practices and meditations available out there. We have some on our website. We do some during the 30-day meditation challenge.

But just be kind and gentle to yourself. For example, I’m an entrepreneur, and I have a three-year old daughter. And there’s times when I do wish I could clone myself and be in two places at once and run my business and be with my daughter. And so in those moments where I feel guilty, let’s say, if I’m not with her, I actually just take a moment and put my hands on my heart and say, “This is hard, and I’m not alone in this. Other parents have struggled with this too. And may I be kind to myself in this moment.” And that’s actually a self-compassion practice to acknowledge that it’s hard when you feel guilty, to acknowledge that there’s other people that feel the same way. You’re not alone in this – and then to just be kind and gentle to yourself in this moment. That’s a really helpful … just saying those three sentences really helps me cope with the guilt.

And for the resentment, I’ll tell a perfect story. I have a great story for this because I just went on a family vacation with my husband and his side of the family. It was called Loder-palooza, and we had 30 people in Park City. And all the men went golfing the first day. And all the women were staying home and watching the children. And many people had older kids, teenagers, middle-school. And my daughter’s three years old. So it was a little bit tiring, and at the end of the day I was ready for a break. And I noticed myself feeling resentful – starting to feel a little bit resentful about my husband going off and playing golf all day. And in the past what I used to do is complain and say, “I can’t believe you did that. This is my vacation too. This is not fair. Just because we’re with your family doesn’t mean you get to have all the fun.” It would have been bitter and resentful.

Well instead what I did is I noticed my resentment and I paused and I said, okay, I’m not getting my needs met. All right, what can I do to get my needs met? And I actually turned to my sister-in-law and said, “Hey, the guys are getting back from golf around noon. Why don’t we book massages for this afternoon around 2 P.M.?” And she said, “That’s a great idea.” So we called the spa, got in, booked some massages, and I have to be honest, as soon as I booked that appointment I was literally no longer resentful about my husband playing golf all morning. It was game changing for me. And she and I went off and had a great time and chatted and connected and got massages and came back rejuvenated and ready to spend more time with the family.

And so that’s an example of how you can take your resentment and turn it around and find a way to get your needs met.

Karen: Great. Now here’s a question about being short and confident in your no, which I think was your step five. And I’m reminded of that famous “New Yorker” cartoon, “How about never? Is never good for you?” How do you avoid saying, “I’m not going to be able to meet you for coffee this week. Thank you for the invitation,” period, instead of, “Thank you for the invitation. Maybe we can try for another time,” and opening that door that you said you don’t want to get into. So many women are afraid of hurting people’s feelings.

Vanessa: Yeah, that’s a really great point. So here’s the deal. Here’s what I’ve noticed is what we do is because we feel guilty we give them an out. We give them another opportunity to come in. So we don’t fully shut the door. Actually the key to that is just notice … to really ask yourself, “Do I ever want to do this?” And maybe even think of the “New Yorker” cartoon. No, I never do. Is this something that, okay, I’m really busy but maybe in a few weeks or a month I can make time for this? Or is this something that I genuinely never want to do? And if it’s the latter, then recognizing that you’re going to have a hard time saying no to the person and that you’re going to be tempted to leave it open for that to circle back around. And so it’s important to just be really clear in the no and shut the door firmly. One thing I’ve done sometimes when I do that is sometimes I’ll give them some other resources.

So that, for me, makes it feel a little bit easier – even though it still takes maybe five more minutes out of my day to put some links an email or something like that, but I might say, “You know I’m really focused on doing this right now, and I don’t see this happening any time in the near future. But here are some resources that I would recommend for you.” And you don’t even say, “In the meanwhile here are some resources,” which implies maybe after you go through these we can have another conversation. So it’s actually taking a step back and reading the email before you send it or just thinking the words before you say them so that you make sure that you don’t backpedal and give them any other opportunity to circle back around if your answer really is never.

Karen: What if people don’t listen and keep making requests of me?

Vanessa: Yeah, that can happen. So if that continues to happen one question I start to ask myself is how am I contributing to this? So if people are coming back at me multiple times, chances are it’s because my no was not clear and confident. So the first step is to make sure that you really have been clear and confident with your no. Now if you have then there is that percentage of the population – I don’t know what percentage it is, maybe 10 percent or seven – that don’t really get it. They don’t seem to hear the no even when you’re being clear and confident. So in that case you need to take a really firm stance and say, “Look, I’ve said no a few times, and I don’t see this changing.” And again, I would do this with the appreciation sandwich. “I appreciate why you’re requesting this at this time, and my answer is still no.” And if they continue to come at you … if you’ve been very clear with your no several times you can actually … I will stop responding to emails, for example. And even just saying that as advice I feel a little scared. Are people going to get mad at me for suggesting this? And just notice the reaction that it might have in you to not respond to someone. I think we’re also trained to be responsive and to be helpful. And just see if you can actually swing the pendulum a little bit more the other way and allow yourself to not be so responsive and to not be so helpful.

Karen: Right. Well that’s all we have time for today. If you’d like to connect with Vanessa on Twitter you can reach her at Vanessa Loder. A reminder that if you registered for today’s class through Eventbrite you’re going to receive an email telling you when the podcast is available. Thank you so much, Vanessa Loder, and thank you to our audience for listening to today’s teleclass.