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How to say ‘no’ and set boundaries as a carer

In our recent Mobilise Moment, a monthly check in with our community of carers, over 90% said they struggled with saying ‘no’ or setting boundaries.


With nearly half of that group sharing that they feel challenged either most, or every day. But, while it can be difficult to get into the habit, not having healthy boundaries in place can have a huge impact on our health.

Illustration of two people togeher

It’s hard to tell someone you love that you don't want to do something.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

As people caring we can end up feeling like we are always ‘on call’ or that our lives are no longer our own. It can also be just outright exhausting. While it can feel challenging and unaligned with how we see ourselves, learning to set healthy boundaries can massively help with both maintaining our health, and our sense of self.

If the daily tasks and responsibilities of caring for someone are starting to feel too much, it may be time to take a step back and think about setting reasonable rules and limits around our caring role. They can give us back some valuable time and energy. While helping to actually strengthen our relationships with the person we care for, and others in our lives.

Whether you feel at capacity, like the word ‘no’ is not part of your vocabulary, or aren’t sure exactly what setting boundaries means - there’s something here to take away. If we already have a good understanding of boundaries we can skip straight to the examples and seven top tips.


So set your first boundary now. Grab a cuppa, and pause for a moment while you find out how, and why, to start setting boundaries in your life. ☕ 

What do we mean by setting boundaries?
Examples of healthy boundaries 

Why is it important to set healthy boundaries?
Why can it feel so hard to set a boundary?

Seven ways to start setting boundaries
Books about setting boundaries

What do we mean by setting boundaries?

Writer, speaker, life coach, and unofficially crowned ‘Queen of boundaries’ Michelle Elman describes boundaries as “the way we teach others to treat us.” She goes on to say that “they are how we communicate what is acceptable and what is not.


They define where you end and another person begins. We need boundaries in order to protect ourselves from manipulation, gaslighting, disrespect and abuse.” 

Illustration of two people chatting on a bed

What healthy boundaries look like is unique to each of us. But the aim is that they are ways to help us protect our physical and emotional energy. And to make sure we keep our own passions, goals, and identities, alongside the things going on in our lives. Such as providing care for someone. 

RTE (the equivalent of BBC in Ireland) have an excellent video which describes setting boundaries as building a fence for our garden. To make sure that the beautiful flowers we’ve grown don’t get trampled. We might also think of boundaries as the doors for our house. A way of controlling who we let in, and when. We wouldn’t allow someone into our home in the middle of the night, who stomped around with muddy boots and decided to help themselves to our things. So why do we allow just anyone to come in and take our physical and emotional energy?

Not having boundaries in place with the person we care for, or others in our lives, can look like a number of things: Never saying ‘no’. The need to put others first. Feeling exhausted but still prioritising doing something for someone over our own rest. Agreeing to do something that makes us feel actually quite uncomfortable. These small automatic decisions and ingrained ways of thinking (sometimes known as people pleasing) can all add up to chip away at our sense of self and our health.

While it can feel weird and unnatural at first, the more we practise saying ‘no’, or setting boundaries around our time and energy, the easier it will become. And the benefits can make such a difference to how we feel, and to our relationships with the people in our lives.

Examples of healthy boundaries 

Here are some examples of the types of boundaries we might want to set with the person we care for: 

  • Agreeing what support we can provide and what we can’t. For example, I can drive you to the GP and to do your weekly shop, but I can’t be your taxi for social occasions.

  • For those of us who work, we could make sure the one we care for has an alternative point of contact if they need anything urgently during our working hours. Or, an agreement to not come into the room where we work between certain hours if we live together.

  • Similarly, if we have children or a relationship outside of our caring role we might want to set certain times where they are our priority, and the person we care for needs to contact someone else if they need something urgently.

  • Outlining half an hour each day which is just for us for reading, gardening, exercise, a cup of tea, stepping outside. And making others know when that is. 

  • A non negotiable activity we do for ourselves each week, like a fitness class or meal with friends.

  • Having external support for the person we care for, for something we do not feel comfortable with doing ourselves. Such as personal care, like bathing.

  • Clear guidelines of what counts as an emergency, and what can wait until we are next with the person we care for. 

  • Clear rules around money. Such as, ‘I can help you do your food shop, but I will not be able to pay for it.’

  • Boundaries to protect ourselves, such as ‘If you raise your voice or are rude to me I will leave.’

  • Arranging to get the person we care for into respite, to give us a time where we know we don’t have to have our carer hat on. 

Illustration of person in garden

Here are some examples of boundaries we might want to set with others in our lives when we have a caring role: 

  • Outline times that we are not available when we know we will be focused on our caring role, or on a specific person in our life such as our partner or child.

  • An understanding that we might be slower to reply to messages during certain times when our priority is the person we care for. 

  • Pausing or stopping activities that drain rather than recharge us. Our time and energy is precious. 

  • Flexibility on what we do with friends, such as not being expected to travel too far for a social event if we need to be back to care later that day or early in the morning. 

  • Not being the go to person for emotional venting within our friendships when things are challenging in our own lives.

  • Time each week that is just for us. Where we can put ourselves first and do what we need to rest and recharge. 

  • If we are a parent, we could ask our partner or a family member to take on the parenting duties for a certain time each day or week while we focus on our caring role. 

  • If we have a sibling or other family member, asking them to take on certain responsibilities or time slots of caring to allow us to prioritise other areas of our lives. 


While sometimes we may need to be flexible with our boundaries, such as if an emergency arises, or someone else who supports our caring role is in crisis, they are good goals to aim for. We might feel the ick just thinking about stating some of these, but as we will explore below - setting boundaries is important not just for us, but for the others in our life too. 

Why is it important to set healthy boundaries? 

Caring for someone in our life can be a rewarding thing to do, but it should not come at the cost of our own health. Many carers find setting the right boundaries can make it easier for them to be there for their cared for, rather than it being quite as much of an emotional drain. 

What do we mean?
Why is it important?

[Setting boundaries] is all about prioritising. Joy over annoy. Choice over obligation.

- Sarah Knight, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck

There are a number of reasons why it is important to set boundaries.


Let’s explore some of the key ones.

1. Our health


As carers we often have more going on that drains us. From coping with the often overwhelming carer admin, draining carer interactions such as hospital visits or working with paid carers, or just having less time and space to ourselves.


This means we are more at risk of burnout, which has a big impact on our health. We might wish to read more about the 14 warning signs of carer burnout, and the impacts reaching burnout point can have.

Boundaries help to protect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. When we set and enforce healthy boundaries, we reduce the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed or run into the ground by others demands on us. This helps in managing stress and being able to maintain our mental health. Along with a more balanced, healthier lifestyle.

Ultimately if we don’t prioritise our own health we could end up trying to juggle caring alongside a condition of our own, such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, or another physical illness triggered by continued stress, such as heart disease.


Worse case scenario, ignoring our own needs could mean we are eventually too physically or mentally unwell to continue caring at all, or possibly even need someone to take on caring for us. 

You will not survive the course without learning to set boundaries. And it is a long long course

- Member of the Mobilise Community

2. Safeguarding

We are the ones responsible for trying to ensure our own safety where possible, and boundaries is one way to do this. This could be keeping ourselves safe from the person we care for if they are prone to anger or violence. This might look like setting a boundary to say we will leave if they raise their voice at us, to try to avoid situations escalating. Or, in more severe cases, making sure we are not alone with the person we care for if we do not feel safe to be so.

Setting boundaries to keep ourselves safe might also look like not putting ourselves in other situations we feel could be dangerous. Such as if we do not live with the person we care for, stating we either need to leave by a certain time, or spend the night. Rather than walking home alone.

If the person we care for has someone in their lives we do not feel safe around, we should feel empowered to make it clear that we will not be able to visit them when that other person is there.

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3. Healthier relationships


Having clear boundaries in any relationship can help to establish expectations, roles, and responsibilities. This can help to prevent misunderstandings, conflicts, and resentment. Allowing space for clear communication and understanding can actually improve our trust and connection with another person.

This can be particularly important when we are caring for someone. A situation that can in its very nature cause complex feelings of resentment and anger. Especially if we do not feel we are getting recognition or appreciation for what we do, or are not getting the time to rest. Or if we feel that we have had to sacrifice our goals and passions in life in order to take on that caring role. For those of us who feel like this, we might also benefit from reading the ‘Carer’s guide to making friends with our feelings’.

As professor and social worker Brené Brown said, When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.

Ultimately if left unaddressed, these feelings can amplify. Putting a strain on our relationship with the person we care for, and possibly resulting in us not being able to salvage that relationship at all. Or no longer feel that we can be the one to care for them. In severe situations this can also put the person we care for in danger, if we allow feelings of anger or resentment to build unchecked.

I've tried saying no but it never works so to keep the piece I just end up going along with whatever. I feel like I'm letting them down otherwise. I think this is why I have very little time to myself or other members of my family.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

4. Encourage the independence of the person we care for

We might actually find that having healthy boundaries in place not only improves our relationship with the person we care for, but could actually help them. Some people can find it really difficult to ask for help, and the person we care for might find it a relief to have a clear understanding of what we are or aren’t willing to support them with, and when.

Even though the person we care for may not realise it, healthy boundaries will be the very best thing for them too.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

We might be caring for someone who has no problem with expecting help. But being transparent around what we are there for could help to empower them to do more for themselves, or to complete a care needs assessment and receive additional support.

Believe it or not, it’s not our job to make everyone feel happy all the time. And it can be so hard to separate what is us actually enabling others to take less control of their own happiness and independence, or a caring task we genuinely do need to do for them.


For example, visiting someone every day because they say they are lonely might be preventing them from making other connections. Or doing things for them that they could do for themselves might be reducing their sense of independence.

There are a number of improvements we can get for the home to help encourage the independence of the person we care for. Such as toilet raisers, jar openers, reaching tools or

pill organisers. There are mobility tools, such as canes, electric wheelchairs, or walkers. Or digital tools such as setting alarms for medication, or voice controlled technology such as Alexa.

Setting up and reminding them to use even some of these can give the person we care for a real boost of their own sense of self, as well as giving us some time and energy back to focus on ours.

5. Improved satisfaction in life, and our caring role

While being in a demanding caring role can make us feel powerless, establishing boundaries empowers us to take more control of our lives. And what we want from it. It allows us to make choices that better align with our values and priorities, rather than feeling obligated to always say yes, or meet others’ expectations.

While it can feel hard to put ourselves first, we should try to remember that it is when our own needs are met, that we can be at our best for the people we love.

Illustration of person in deep thought

Why can it feel so hard to set a boundary? 

Carers often have a lot of empathy and a caring nature, qualities which probably helped us to take on and continue with our caring role. This can sometimes go hand in hand with ‘people pleasing’, or feeling the need to put other people's needs and emotions before our own.


It might even feel counterintuitive to how we see ourselves as people to say no. But as we’ve explored above it can be detrimental to our physical and emotional health if we don’t.

When I was caring for my Mum it was the first time I had ever set boundaries with my friends. I’ve always been the one to offload to in my friendship group and I realised I had to try and control what other emotions I was taken on – that emotional sponge metaphor. I gave myself the time to ring out the sponge without keeping on dipping it back into the water. It felt hard and not at all natural, but I’m so proud of myself and really would urge others to do the same.

- Member of the Mobilise Community


There are a number of psychological reasons that we might struggle to set boundaries. It can be to do with how we were raised, or tied to our own personal insecurities. We might feel by doing something for others we are proving our worth. Or have a fear of being rejected, or desire to be liked.


But the people in our lives love us for who we are, not what we do for them. And if they don’t, we might want to question if they should be in our lives at all. If it feels like there might be an underlying issue for us making it difficult to set healthy boundaries we might want to consider speaking to a friend or (even better) a professional about it. 


I'm a yes person, it feels wrong saying no.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

Setting boundaries or saying no can not only feel out of character for many of us, but also bring about complicated feelings of guilt. Guilt can motivate us to say ‘yes’ when we should be saying ‘no’. Guilt is actually often ego in disguise.


We might be telling ourselves that ‘no one can do this as well as me’. Or subconsciously have labelled ourselves as the ‘hero’, and feel we are failing when we don’t meet that high internal expectation. It can feel incredibly hard to change something that is so ingrained with our habits and how we see ourselves. 


I know I should set more boundaries, but it's a big change.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

It can also often just feel easier to get on with someone ourselves, rather than asking someone else to do it. Especially if we feel it will be more of a challenge to them. But this not only adds a lot of pressure on us, but could be taking away their independence.

It's easier to do it myself, but I think I am setting myself up to make my life harder.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

We might feel more pressure if we are the only one providing care, and feel guilty that we aren’t doing more, or spending longer with them - even if we are already taking on as much as we can handle.

Managing the guilt that comes with saying no is so hard. I feel like I'll regret not doing more later down the line. 

- Member of the Mobilise Community

If we do feel guilt when saying ‘no’, or even ‘not now’, we could try reframing our thoughts. No one person can do everything, for everyone. Rather than thinking ‘I should be doing this’. We could try thinking, ‘It’s understandable that I can’t.’

For example, if we need to collect our child from school, but the person we care for wants to go to the shops. Rather than feeling guilty that we can’t take them, we can try reminding ourselves that it is physically impossible for us to be in two places at once. A boundary here could be helpful. We can gently explain to them that between 3.30pm and 4.30pm each day we will not be available, but that we are more than happy to help in the morning.

I'm in the habit of responding quickly. I feel guilty. I feel I’m not doing my job well if I say no. I have conflicting feelings - I want to help but I'm extremely tired. 

- Member of the Mobilise Community

Feelings of guilt and challenges with setting boundaries can be particularly hard if we are caring for a child. For those of us in this situation it might be beneficial to read ‘Seven things a parent carer needs to know’, and ‘Recognising trauma, healing and growth in parent carers’.

I'm a mum. My child's needs come before mine. 

- Member of the Mobilise Community


Feelings of guilt can also be more likely for those of us from different cultures, where it might be more of an expectation for us to care for a parent or sibling if the need arises. We can read some experiences of how carers have coped with those feelings of expectation and guilt in ‘Cultural expectations to caring’.

Similarly, if there is a power dynamic at play in our caring role it can make setting boundaries feel extra tricky. Such as those of us who are caring for a parent.


I care for my Mum and she can be quite controlling, she has been all my life. I find it so hard to be the 'dominant ' one.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

Seven ways to start setting boundaries

Now that Mobi has perfected saying the two-letter word every carer needs, it's your turn to try with these seven tips to get you started!

1. Start with a self check in 

In order to start setting boundaries we need to work out what it is that we want. What would help us to feel more in control. We should focus on the things that will protect our core needs. Opportunities for rest. Making sure we get enough sleep. The time to feed ourselves properly. Healthy connections with others. Our own personal care.


And also the things that nurture our sense of self, such as time for a hobby, exercise, or doing our hair or makeup in the morning. Write them all down and try saying them out loud to see how it feels.

Once we know what changes would help us to better meet our own needs, we can think about who we need to set these boundaries with. Is it the person we care for, or other people in our lives?

It might be helpful to create a schedule for an ideal week, making sure we include time with loved ones, our hobbies, relaxation, as well as the tasks we know we need to do. What boundaries do we need in place to achieve this ideal week? Or who do we need to bring in to help to make it happen.  

Illustration of a woman on her laptop

2. Communicate our boundaries clearly and calmly

We might want to start with explaining what boundaries are, and why they are important to us, and to then start small. If we want our boundaries to be well received it probably isn’t the best idea to go straight in with one that we know will have a huge impact on the person we care for. Or to list them all out in one go. This can be a gradual process.

“Explaining to the person you care for your reason for saying no can make it easier for them to understand.” - Member of the Mobilise Community

For example, we could start with telling them we will no longer be able to answer the phone/ visit after 10pm, unless it is a crisis. We can explain we have been feeling really exhausted and need that time to rest so we can help them more effectively in the day time.

We should aim to be specific. What is it that we want, when will it start from, and for how long. Not all boundaries need to last forever - such as if we are unwell or injured and need some time to recover.

When setting boundaries we should aim to use kind, but assertive language. We want to make sure we sound confident in what we say, while also making sure there is no sense of blame. Or a boundary being seen as a punishment.

We can use phrases such as “I need”, or “I will be”. And where possible, explain how this won’t result in the person we care for being left in a bad situation. For example, ‘I will no longer be available from 3.30 to 4.30, but if you do need anything urgently your neighbour has agreed to be available for that hour’.

We can find more guidance on how to be assertive here.

Sometimes you have to be tough. Sit them down and tell them how you’re feeling. That you're willing to help and support them but they have to look at getting support as well as you can’t do it all. It’s so hard, I know from experience, but they need to see the problem.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

3. Be willing to discuss

We should be prepared for push back. Especially if we have always been readily available until this point. It is likely that our boundaries will be met with negative emotions. People tend to dislike change. But we should try to remind ourselves that once in place, they will really help all involved.

If we are being met with a lot of resistance we should try to consider their feelings. Are they reacting from a place of fear, such as being left alone more. If so, what can we do to put those feelings at ease?

“Put yourself in the person you are caring for’s position and see if it seems a reasonable request.”

It might also be an initial shock, and suggesting that we trial the new boundary for two weeks and see how it goes might give them time to realise it isn’t going to make as big of a difference as they are expecting. 

Illustration of supportive friends

4. Have back up

It can be really helpful to involve friends or family in the process. We might wish to have someone with us when setting our new boundaries to help us feel more confident and able to stick to what we need in the event of being challenged.

Sometimes it really helps having someone backing you up and reassuring you.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

We can also ask someone to check in with us that we are sticking to our new boundary. Having an accountability buddy can make all the difference while we are getting used to being firmer with our time and energy. 

Speaking to others about what led to us needing to create these boundaries could also help us to get more support. Whether that is others helping out with providing the care - widening our circle of care, or speaking to our local council to get a care needs assessment or carer’s assessment to unlock additional support.

I found this extremely difficult. I looked for a wide network of support: friends as sounding boards; some free counselling from Mind, and I also spoke to a nurse about my challenges which was so helpful.

- Member of the Mobilise Community

Setting boundaries is the other side of the coin to asking for help. If we can learn to do both - that’s the sweet spot!

5. Think before we say yes

This can mean giving ourselves some time. If we know we are likely to automatically say ‘yes’, we can try using filler sentences like - ‘Sounds good, but let me get back to you’. Or, ‘I might be available, but I need to check my diary.’ Then we can think about if it is something we actually should do. If we find saying ‘no’ hard, this can also take some of the pressure off in the moment.

Just because someone asks us to do something, it doesn't mean that we should do it. Or that we are even the right person to be doing it.

If we don’t feel comfortable with just saying ‘no’, or ‘I can’t’ - which is totally within our right, we could try framing our reply around - I am unable to do that, but here is what I can do instead. For example, we could say “I am unable to come over tomorrow, but I will give you a phone call in the morning to see how you are doing.”


Or we could try, “On this occasion I can’t, but do ask again next time you need help.” This can help us avoid feeling like we are letting someone down, while also reducing the chance of them reacting as negatively.

Illustration of a list

6. Checking in on boundaries we set

When we first set our boundaries we might want to have a plan to check in with them on a weekly or monthly basis to see if they are working the way that we want. We might not get it right first time, and that is totally ok. It is always an option to go back and adjust our boundaries. As long as we communicate changes clearly.

We might also realise we have not been sticking with the boundaries that we set. It is easy to slip back into old habits while we are getting used to it. So writing down the boundaries we have put in place and checking in on them to see if we have allowed them to be ignored or reduced can be helpful.

Things can also change over time which will mean reassessing our boundaries. We should try not to see these as rules that we live by forever, but guidelines we want to meet to help us to stay healthy and happy. And like many things in life, our needs and circumstances often change with time.  

7. Step away when we need to

If setting boundaries feels impossible, or just isn’t helping, we might need to step away from our caring role. Be it for a short time, or perhaps permanently.

One carer in our community shared that they put their phone on aeroplane mode for a set period of time each time. This gives them a small chunk of protected time to have a break and do something for them, rather than getting sucked into the needs and requests of others.

If we are having a challenging conversation or situation we might need to just take half an hour, and then go back to it. This in itself is setting a boundary. We can find tips on how to step away and feel better here.

It might be a temporary situation, such as an illness, injury, birth of our child, or even just creating the time for us to have a much needed holiday. In these cases it is helpful to have an emergency plan set up and ready to use. This helps to reduce the number of questions we might be asked in an event where we are unable to provide care. But also, in creating the plan, it can help us to realise that we are not the only option for support for the person we care for.

Deciding we are no longer able to provide care at all can be an incredibly difficult decision, but by law we have the right to do so. If we are at a point where we have chosen to no longer continue with our caring role we can find some support here

Why can it feel hard?
Seven ways

What's next?

If you have found this interesting and want to learn more, carers in our community have recommended these books which cover tips and tricks which help with setting healthy boundaries.

The selfish pig’s guide to caring, by Hugh Marriott
The joy of being selfish, by Michelle Elman
The life changing magic of not giving a f*ck, by Sarah Knight

If you have further tips to share, or need advice on setting boundaries from others in a similar position, head on over to our Mobilise Hub - a community of unpaid carers just like you.

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