“Hi, how are you today? Can I ask you a question?”
The charity collector steps in front of me and holds out his hand in an invitation to shake it, smiling widely. I ignore the hand and return his smile as I walk around him without breaking stride.
“No, but good luck, and I hope you have a lovely day!”
Whether he continues trying to address me after this is irrelevant. Without excuses, without irritation, and without ill will, I keep walking. After all, I’ve already given him my answer.
What not having boundaries looks like
Ten years ago I would have walked around the block to avoid him. If that wasn’t possible, I would have bristled, averted my eyes, and tried to rush past without getting attention. And if he had tried to talk to me, I would have become snappy and irritable, muttering true or invented excuses about how little money I had and feeling incredibly put out.
Ten years before that I would have given him money, even if the cause was something I didn’t particularly care about and I couldn’t afford it. More than once, I signed up for monthly contributions to things and then went home and cancelled them.
Why is it so hard to say no?
Most of were raised with specific doctrines of “manners,” and particularly for women of approximately my generation (I’m a Gen-Xer), to not cause a fuss and to be “polite.” When someone puts their hand out for you to shake, you shake it. When someone “just wants to ask you a question,” it’s rude to deny them such a simple request.
When I see that handshake and request for what it is, a bid to open a negotiation that will lead to me parting with my cash, I can say no that. It’s called the “foot in the door” technique: start with a request that people can’t say no to and pry the door open from there. It’s not only salespeople who use it.
But even if it’s NOT that, I can still say no to his overtures. I can say no to whatever I want, if it involves my time and my body. My first “no” will always be delivered in a clear and friendly way, without irritation and without excuses, and unless that request is seriously out of line, with pleasant good will.
People are allowed to ask
It’s easy to get irritated when people ask for things we don’t want to give, perhaps even indignant that they would make such an unreasonable request and leave us so uncomfortable. But the thing is… they’re allowed to ask.
It only really feels unreasonable if you don’t feel you can say no, either because you’re not good at saying it, or they’re not good at hearing it. If you say no and people keep pushing… that’s when your anger becomes justified and stronger communication may be warranted.
But for the most part, having good skills at asking for what we want, saying no to things we don’t want, and being gracious and receptive to hearing no from others are skills that should be practiced and celebrated.
A gift to yourself and others
I love when people engage in this kind of communication with me.
If I say “I’m not really up for a hug right now” and someone responds with “thank you for letting me know!” I am grateful, because they are respecting my needs, and supporting my self-care and ability to speak up for myself.
If I ask someone for help with something and they say “Today isn’t good for me,” I am grateful, because I know that I am not imposing or inconveniencing them, and that next time they say yes, they will truly mean yes.
If someone asks me for something I’m not willing or able to give, I’m grateful they feel able to ask, and that I have people in my life with good clear communication skills so I don’t have to guess at their needs.
Willingness to let go
One obstacle to having boundaries is the fear of outcomes. We often say yes when we don’t want to because we’re afraid of the (real or imagined) consequences if we don’t.
I used to work as a life model, and when you’re nude in a room of clothed people staring at you, boundaries become incredibly important. While most artists I worked with were delightful, there were a few who saw models as little more than bowls of fruit with annoying physiological limitations. I knew models who put up with poor treatment because they needed the pay, and boundaries don’t work if the other person in the exchange doesn’t respect you and senses they can call your bluff.
Only once did I ever have to stand up and put my robe on and start walking out. I didn’t need the pay badly enough to be bullied, and they could sense that when they backed down and stopped attempting to push unreasonable requests on me.
Likewise, if someone doesn’t respect your no and attempts to continue coercing, manipulating, or pushing you, you need to be prepared to walk away. If someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, they don’t respect you. Knowing that should make walking away easier.
The ultimate act of self-love
When someone wants something from me I’m not prepared to give, I conceptualise it as caring for my inner child. If they’re trying to get me to work on my day off, for example, I check in with little Larissa and if she’s frazzled and upset and tired, I’m going to let her nap or play. Because caring for her needs is how I show her love.
Don’t get me wrong, I think you should help others, and I think you should have abundant yeses for the right people and situations. That’s why you need to conserve your resources by saying no when you need to.
As the old mantra goes: Saying no to others is saying yes to yourself!
If you have trouble communicating, setting boundaries, or fostering respectful relationships in your life, reach out to us and we’ll help you find a supporter on your journey to good boundaries.