I used to struggle with saying “no”. If someone would ask me to do something I didn’t want to do I would say yes. For instance I used to babysit a lot, when asked, I would always say yes. It did not matter that I had plans to go to the beach or to take my kids to the park or to go to a movie, if someone asked me to babysit, I would say yes. I didn’t want to babysit. I would have to cancel my plans, reschedule my day, and sometimes babysitting for someone else bordered on taking advantage of me. It felt especially undermining when the person would ask me what I was doing first, then after I admitted to “nothing” they would ask if I would babysit. I felt that because I had confessed to having no plans and I wasn’t doing anything anyway, that I was obligated to watch their kids for the day. I always left the conversation feeling set up. I just didn’t know how to say no. I didn’t want the person to be angry with me. I didn’t want them to feel hurt or be upset, I didn’t want them to not like me anymore. It may seem weird but I truly struggled with saying no. It wasn’t just with babysitting it was with a lot of things. I didn’t want to let people down.
Not being able to say no put me in a very difficult place. I was often left feeling taken advantage of, or resentful. I often blamed the other person for putting me in the situation. I just didn’t have the confidence in myself to tell them it was not ok. So I didn’t. I eventually came to a place where I was so tired of feeling taken advantage of that I knew I had to start being firm. When I finally did get the courage to say no, I felt incredibly guilty afterwards. Often I would call the person back and recant my “no” and do it anyway, even though I still didn’t want to. When I got better at it, I began saying no with a plethora of excuses for why I couldn’t do it that day.
It took years of feeling taking advantage of, feeling guilty, running out of excuses and then feeling resentment before I finally decided to seek out and learn the skills I needed to end the cycle.
One of the best pieces of advice I got in this was to NOT make a decision in the moment. In other words when someone asked me if I was doing anything on Saturday, instead of saying “no”, I would say, “I’m not sure, why?” If they proceeded to ask me to babysit, I would say, “let me think about it.” Of course there is always that person, usually the one who is taking advantage, that asks “What is there to think about?” I learned to be firm. “I haven’t officially decided what I’m doing Saturday, when do you need to know by?” In those cases if they are going to be angry, they are angry because they cannot get you to do what they want. They are using anger as a form of manipulation to motivate you to do it anyway. This used to be a very effective form of manipulation in my life. If someone was angry at me about something I would change what I was doing just so they wouldn’t be angry anymore, even when their anger wasn’t reasonable. That was before I recognized it for what it is, it’s a covert form of bullying.
Luckily, I’ve learned there is something you can do to protect yourself from this. It’s called setting boundaries.
Marina Abramovic is a well-known performance artist. In 1974 she conducted what she called a performance, it was more like a social experiment. She announced that she would stand in a room as an object for 6 hours, where she would allow people to do what they wanted to her and she would take full responsibility. On a table nearby there were seventy-two objects along with instructions allowing anyone deciding to participate to use the object in any way they felt. When the experiment began people at first chose acts like giving her a rose from the table. Or lifting her arms in the air and posing her in different positions. However as the experiment continued people began to be more cruel, they poured stuff on her head, cut her with a razorblade, had her point a loaded gun at herself, they cut her clothing from her and one man groped her. She stood allowing the participants to continue. When the experiment ended she began to walk amongst the crowd and as she reports the crowd quickly dissipated as if they could not or did not want to face the person they had treated so cruelly and without provocation. I thought about this for some time. I tried to understand what was wrong with this group of people that would cause them to take the experiment to such extremes. They had been mean just because they could, and for no other reason or purpose. Then it hit me. It wasn’t about them, it was about her. She had ALLOWED this. She had essentially given them permission. When she gave her instructions she did not say, you cannot hurt me, she allowed them to hurt and humiliate her. And so they did.
In this same way, when we do not set up rules, or a better word would be boundaries, we allow others to do what they want. Usually that results in being taken advantage of. The Bible says people inherently struggle with the desires to do evil things. In Mark 7:23 it says “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” In society there are laws that protect us from certain things such as murder and rape. We are lucky to have those laws in our society. However there are no laws necessarily on how we are to treat one another on a daily basis. There are no laws that say you have to be nice. There are no laws that say you shouldn’t manipulate people. So it is up to us to create those boundaries for ourselves. Christians follow the Bible, citing the Ten Commandments and The Sermon on the Mount. Essentially we are setting up boundaries for how we will live and treat others. Living by these boundaries is twofold, we are showing respect and love to our neighbors and by showing respect and love to our neighbors we are obeying the commandments and following Jesus. John 13:35 says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Boundary setting can be a real challenge at times. We rely on the laws of our government and states to provide us with a certain level of security. For the most part those laws are maintained and enforced. So how do we set up boundaries around respect of our beliefs, respect for our ideas, respect for our lifestyles, and in general respect for our personhood?
One way to set boundaries is to be clear on what is right and what is wrong in your own life. Be careful that you are not getting angry at someone else because they do not agree with you. Setting boundaries is more like building a fence around your yard. You place the fence around your own land, giving yourself room to maintain the fence from the other side while still not stepping on the property of your neighbor. Boundaries help you see what you are responsible for and also what you are not. If you are respectful to build a decent fence that is not offensive, and perhaps discuss with your neighbor your need for the fence (so as to keep your dog from running free or using their lawn as his rest room), you will most likely succeed at gaining the proper respect from your neighbors. In return they will respect the boundaries you have established. Just like a fence, you will constantly have to maintain your boundaries. However, say you have an argument with your neighbor and you purposely place a fence in the wrong area on their property, or place the “ugly side” facing them for the purpose of offending, you are not likely to gain much respect. The boundary will always serve as an offensive reminder of the motivating event.
Setting your personal boundaries works the same way. Set your boundaries, be clear on what they are, explain why they are important to you, be respectful of their boundaries and more than likely things will be more peaceful in the future. Now when I’m asked to do something, if I say yes, it’s because I mean yes and I believe I should do it. When I say no, I don’t need an excuse or a reason. Brene Brown said it best, “I am not as sweet as I used to be but I am far more loving.”