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#947: I never learned how to say “No.”

Hi, Captain!

I’m really suffering for my inability to say no. I’m pathologically afraid of refusing people or hurting them or letting them down, and so I keep ending up in situations where rather than being able to say ‘I am very uncomfortable with the direction this is going’ I pretend to be just as into it as they are. Actually, quite often I end up leading the way into something I know I don’t want to do, just because I can tell that’s the kind of person someone wants me to be (and I’m pretty much always right about their wants, afaict, but it does mean it’s definitely on me not them). I keep reminding myself it’s a problem and I need to stand my ground, but it’s like I’m trapped in my body while it goes through the motions. So by the time I manage to admit that I’m not ok with doing X, the person I was doing X with is almost always upset and confused because I seem super into it right up until I’m super not.

How do I break this habit, and learn to be true to what I want and am comfortable with, rather than dragging myself through this bullshit? The only advice I ever get boils down to ‘just don’t do it’ which is not the most helpful. How do you force yourself to stop something like this (which I’m 99% sure is a preemptive defence mechanism, like, ‘DON’T HURT ME, I’M SO NICE’)?

Thanks,
Suffering From Advanced Cool Girl Syndrome (pronouns she/her)

Dear Advanced Cool Girl,

Work on this in therapy. You didn’t develop these habits overnight and you won’t shed them overnight either. Therapy is good for 1) working through the fears you have about others’ reactions to your ‘no’ – are the fears reasonable, what are they based on, even if the fears are reasonable is it worth saying ‘no’ anyway –  and 2) giving you a safe place to practice saying no and sort out any fallout that happens over time. If you don’t know how to find a therapist try asking trusted friends for recommendations, or your primary care doctor if you have one. Buzzfeed did a very cool series of posts on mental health a couple years back and this is a decent primer on what a therapist does and how to find one.

Practice asserting yourself in lower-stakes situations. “I would like a table near the window, thanks.” “I don’t want mayo on my sandwich, please.”I prefer the green hat, if it’s available.” The sandwich artist isn’t gonna be mad that you want your sandwich a certain way, I promise.

Practice asserting yourself with “yes.” “No” is too scary right now, but you could start saying enthusiastic “yes” to things you do want to do and to people you do want in your life and to things you enjoy. “Your party sounds awesome, can’t wait!” “You look great today!” “I really loved your comments on my paper in class, they helped me shape my argument better!” “Thanks for making me lunch, Mom, it’s delicious!”

Delay giving an answer to give yourself more time to decide. Thanks for the invitation. Can I check my schedule and let you know?” “I’m not sure – can I get back to you tomorrow?” “I want to but I’m not sure I can. Let me think about it.” Removing the expectation of an immediate answer from the situation gives you more space to figure out what you want. Give the person a timeframe for when you’ll let them know what you’ve decided.

Give yourself permission to change your mind. I know I said I could take on your project, but looking at my schedule I really don’t have time to do it justice. Sorry – I wanted to let you know right away so you can make a good decision.” “I know I said I’d go on that date but after thinking about it more I’d rather not.” If you look at those scripts and die inside a little because it would be easier to just say ‘no’ in the first place, you’re not wrong, but that’s okay! It’s not “easier” for you right now, and that’s okay. It’s also okay to change your mind! It’s okay to communicate that to other people! Consent (of all kinds, not just in sexual situations) is an ongoing negotiation and both sides have an obligation to check in and make sure it’s still present and freely given.

It’s already awkward. You’re suffering for your lack of ability to say no. Your interactions with other people are already fraught and stressful because of your fear of disappointing them. Trying a new way of interacting won’t make things non-awkward, it will just make them differently awkward (in the short-term) and less awkward for you (in the long-term).

There is a textbook. Manuel J. Smith’s When I Say No, I Feel Guilty is the classic text on assertiveness. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read it so I can’t tell you if 100% if it’s aged well with the times, but there is a high chance your local library has a copy and “I totally hated this book” is an opinion you could practice telling me if you want to. I won’t be mad!

Fundamentally, I believe that assertiveness is a habit and a skill that can be learned. I believe that female-identifying and -presenting people have a harder time learning it because we are so socialized to go along to get along. I believe it takes practice and sustained effort to get good at it. I believe that often we are punished in small ways and big for flexing those muscles. I believe that it’s worth doing anyway, and that the ability to say “No thanks” without apology or justification carries power. You are far from alone in wanting to develop this skill a bit later in life, so, jump in.

Readers, how did you first start learning to assert yourself with other people?

 

 

 

 

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277 comments
  1. DropTable~DropsMic said:

    I haven’t definitely learned to Say No but I will say I’ve learned one thing that helps: don’t make excuses with pushy people.

    This is tough because there’s a whole social etiquette around saying no kindly, especially to invitations. You’re supposed to say something like “thanks, but I’m busy that day.” It can be tough though because some boundary challenged people will take this as an opportunity to negotiate. So I think it’s important to have a fallback excuse that is inflexible–“I’m sorry but I don’t think I’m going to have time in the near future.” Then if they try to push past that, you can come out with “I’m not interested.”

    Maybe think of a few situations lately where you have had trouble saying no, and writing out “soft,” “medium,” and “hard” no responses–then think about which is appropriate to start with, and practice saying all of them out loud.

    • Jill said:

      Yes! “No” is a complete sentence. No further details needed. If they press, “Because my answer is no” is also an appropriate response. As is, “Because my answer is no. Now why are we still talking about this?”

      • sayevet said:

        “No” is a complete sentence, and “I don’t want to” is a complete reason.

        No one asks “But whyyy?” after someone says yes…

        • B. said:

          “No one asks “But whyyy?” after someone says yes…”
          Well, actually…

          If that yes is “yes, I’m doing this thing that I want to do, which is not what you want”, it seems to qualify for a “But whyyy?”.

          • “yes, I’m doing this thing that I want to do, which is not what you want”, it seems to qualify for a “But whyyy?”

            Needs a [like] button.

      • DropTable~DropsMic said:

        This is good to keep in mind when people are really pushing your boundaries, but I do think it’s important to be aware of the etiquette around soft “no”.

        I’ve noticed an issue where when feminist/social justice types (of which I am one) talk about communication, it can sometimes seem like they’re operating in an idealized universe where everyone is very direct all the time and there are no social consequences to being so directly. I think it is useful to be fluent in the more common forms of indirect communication.

        It’s sort of analogous to lying; obviously you shouldn’t lie all the time, and problems can arise from lying in situations where knowing the truth matters. But it’s also pretty clear that you shouldn’t go around telling people you hate their new haircut or disclosing things you were told in confidence. So it’s important to know how to lie in the situations where lying is socially necessary, without committing the underlying error of deceiving people on important matters.

        Similarly it’s important to be able to say “no” indirectly *while still meaning and maintaining that it is a no.* Which is why I brought up practicing indirect forms of “no” and planning and practicing them.

        I’m not criticizing anyone on this comment thread and I’ll probably make a longer post in the forums later to explore this issue. But I wanted to note that there are benign reasons why someone might want to give a soft “no” and I think it’s helpful to distinguish between directness and sincerity here.

        • Koffee82 said:

          This is a good point. It’s important to be comfortable in culturally acceptable forms of indirect communication, of which body language is one. And yes, sincerity is sometimes not the most effective way to handle certain situations, and it’s important to be able to read a situation clearly and respond effectively. I also agree that the feminist/SJ types can project an idealized version of the world and people. Sometimes that can be downright harmful to some.

        • Pizkies said:

          This is a good point.

          I will also add that there is definite value in giving reasons and soft “no”s to reasonable people. A reasonable person will hear your “no, sorry, I’m not super good with this sort of thing” and not ask you for help with this specific thing but may ask you for something else in the future, or they will hear “no, this is not a good time” and they will wait a while before asking you -anything- again. Reasonable people will take your reasons as useful information on how to interact positively with you in the future, and you will both benefit from being able to collectively figure out how to human around you.

          “No is a complete sentence” is good and true, but it is mostly for unreasonable people who will not accept your reasons in good faith.

          • Emma9 said:

            This is very well put. I always go with ‘soft no because reason’ as the default with someone new; this being met with endless but-whyyying means switch to Making The Dogs Pay Attention (firm tone, omit unnecessary words) Mode.

        • Emma said:

          Given how much LW has learned not to say no, I think it’s highly unlikely that she is not aware of the etiquette of a soft no.

          I also don’t think any of us are living in a parallel universe where soft nos don’t exist: we’re trying to CREATE that world, by encouraging people of all stripes to be clear and direct in communication. Because etiquette rules which differentially impose upon people the responsibility of muffling and minimising their needs and wants perpetuate all sorts of inequality – the obvious one is that they prop up rape culture, but they also worsen health inequalities, they fuck up equal access to justice, encourage workplace discrimination, and intersect with racism in particularly nasty ways that leave black women, in particular, having to tiptoe around on eggshells in order to say something as bland as “please don’t allow me to be murdered with impunity”.

          There’s always a balance in social justice, between “I want to change the rules by living according to better ones” and “I need to get by in the fucked up social environment that currently exists”, for sure. Those are survival skills. But I don’t think we should be recommending them, except as an “if there is no other way for you to look after yourself” kind of option.

          • Indoor Cat said:

            Um, okay, but if I work up the courage to ask for something from someone, and that person is just like, “No,” without a reason, I’m going to assume a reason, and it’s probably going to be, “they don’t like me,” or “they’re mad at me,” or, in order to be generous to myself, “they’re generally sort of callous or self-centered, and it has nothing to do with me as a person.” And then I’m probably going to avoid that person, honestly, or at least not open up to them or ask them for anything. There are people whom I keep at arms length.

            I’m a firm believer in trust being earned, and asking for help or opening up to someone, for me, feels like an act of vulnerability, albeit a comparatively small one. If my vulnerability is respected–whether by an offer to help, or someone saying no but kindly, hopefully in a way that points me toward someone who *can* help–then I know I can trust them, at least to that extent. But if it’s not respected, if my needs or wants are just dismissed, that hurts, and I don’t really want to be around people who hurt me, even if that isn’t technically a “wrong” thing to do.

            For the record, nowadays I’m pretty good at saying “no,” and being assertive, and asking for what I need or want without waiting too long. I don’t feel guilty much any more asking for help because I feel pretty good about where I’m at with my friends and community, and I figure I give about as much as I get. But that doesn’t mean that when I say no or yes or “I need to think about it,” it’s suddenly okay for me to be blunt and callous because I’m more confident than I used to be. I try pretty hard to empathize with people and be compassionate, because who knows how difficult asking for help is for this person? Are they like me, or like me five years ago?

            And even when it’s not asking for help, even when it’s asking me out on a date, or asking me to publish their work back when I worked on a student magazine, if it was at all possible I’ve always tried to reject with a bit of encouragement to try again somewhere else (or with someone else). I got my first professional magazine publication because I was rejected by Mallory Ortberg (editor of The Toast, a beloved but defunct site) but she liked my writing enough to recommend I send it to Brianna Anders at B*TCH, where it was accepted. You know what a difference that made in my life? Phenomenal difference. Huge. It’s why I work where I work today.

            Point being–sure. A person doesn’t *have* to be kind or generous when they say no or reject someone. It doesn’t make them A Bad Person. But kindness and generosity? It helps. It’s a good thing to do if one can. Mallory Ortberg didn’t have to send me anything besides a form rejection email, yet her “no” came with a generous gift. I don’t think that makes her less feminist or a bad role model.

          • DropTable~DropsMic said:

            I have similar problems asserting myself, and I struggle with finding the happy medium between “so direct I alienate people” and “so indirect no one knows what I mean.” So I am not suggesting this as a form of condescension or to imply OP is oblivious to the fact that soft nos exist. I myself am trying to figure out the most effective ways to use more nuanced forms of communication.

            I understand the many problems that indirect communication can cause but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to understand and be able to use it.

          • Nanani said:

            *APPLAUSE*

          • DropTable~DropsMic said:

            Ran out of nesting but I’m realizing the second part of my previous comment is getting into derail territory, and I’m going to refrain from making any more comments on this letter about the pros and cons of indirect communication.

          • Clarry said:

            My rule is: One Soft No.
            How about xyz?
            Gosh, sorry, I’m busy and can’t.
            Then you can X!Y!Z! another time. I’ve gone around all your objections so XYZ is happening!
            No. Absolutely not. No explanation. I am not going to xyz.
            I’ve been told I go from too soft to too hard too quickly. I no longer care.

        • johann7 said:

          I’ve noticed an issue where when feminist/social justice types (of which I am one) talk about communication, it can sometimes seem like they’re operating in an idealized universe where everyone is very direct all the time and there are no social consequences to being so directly. I think it is useful to be fluent in the more common forms of indirect communication.

          That’s possible; I also know from experience that a lot of us see norms of indirect communication as extremely problematic, in various ways, and are thus actively seeking to disrupt and replace those norms with ones that promote clear, direct communication. The biggest issue is that indirect communication is, by definition, coded, and thus specific to a particular subculture (region, neighborhood, social sphere, etc.); being able to understand indirect implications requires not only a working knowledge of the base language, but additional knowledge of a lot of contextual cues that are specific to a particular hyper-local region. Given that this is a large country with an even larger anglophone region globally, direct communication that relies only on denotation is going to be the most accessible, clear way to communicate meaning (even then, it’s far from perfect – just look at how the meaning of poor “literally” has now been changed to its opposite in so many cases). Direct communication also tells the person setting the boundary more about others based on their responses: someone violating a clearly stated boundary tells you that the person is unsafe, while someone violating an indirect boundary may be unsafe, from somewhere with different norms of indirect communication, legitimately confused, autistic, etc.

          I agree that knowing the particular, local linguistic norms of one’s area is very useful, and also that there are situations where a soft no is a useful delay or deflection tactic; I would still advise not being clear and direct ONLY when one fears (with good reason) that it will be unsafe to be clear and direct. I also think that what you’re reading as social costs to direct communication could be social costs to setting/enforcing boundaries, period, and that at least some of this is only mitigated specifically becasue indirect communication of boundaries doesn’t always work that well, so people don’t notice, ignore, or feel that they have cover to violate the boundary. I’m not you, so your experience could be very, very different than mine, but I can think of WAY more cases where tone-policing HOW a boundary is stated (directly, not “nicely”) has been an objection to setting boundaries at all than I can think of cases where someone objected to the direct statement of a boundary but not the boundary itself.

          • Jackalope said:

            Here’s the thing. That’s a very European way of dealing with things. In a lot of cultures – including US subcultures and other countries – that is a disrespectful and uncomfortable way to say no. Part of rejecting someone is doing it in a face-saving way and that can have long-term implications for your relationships and standing in a particular community. So while some people may see the super direct method as best, for others it’s inappropriate.

          • twomoogles said:

            I think there might also be some different ideas of what “direct” and “indirect” actually are. For instance, I agree with Indoor Cat above — if I were to put myself out there and ask a friend for a favor and they were to just say a flat “No” with no reason or softening, yeah, I’d be pretty taken aback and quite possibly hurt, would feel like I overstepped etc. And I am totally in favor of direct communication! I do personally think “I’m sorry, I can’t drive you to the hospital that day”, “I really like you but I’m not interested in you romantically” or even giving a reason is still direct, so long as the “no” or “can’t” is there.

            “No” is a complete sentence, but in many situations, I really don’t think there’s a downside to adding a little bit more.

          • B. said:

            “That’s a very European way of dealing with things”.
            That’s not actually true. Europe is a diverse place, and the preference for direct vs. indirect communication depends on the country, region and subculture where you are. It’s more akin to a scale with different poles (“blunt/implied” “saving face very important/not” “group > individual/individual > group” and so on) and each culture scores differently on each axis. For example, both in Japan and Egypt letting the other person save face is extremely important, but they differ on other axis. Someone from Germany can seem rude and pushy to someone from Austria, because the latter employs more indirect ways of stating wishes and questions.

            What I mean to say with this is that I agree that the use of indirect vs. direct nos does depend on the culture, and they are both valid ways of communication, though soft nos can be more difficult to hear for people who lack the contextual implied clues to correctly read the situation in that culture. But someone who’s trying to ignore your wishes is going to ignore them no matter how directly you state them.

        • Inca said:

          As for the softening of ‘no’s, I think it can be done in two ways. The one way is not really saying no but being unenthousiastic instead, or have vague reasons why you can’t. That may easily leave it open for people trying to argue you into things or engage you – sometimes because they want to overstep boundaries, more times because they interpret it as indecision and try to swing the balance – which is a normal social interaction. Sometimes when you are indecisive you actually want support from others to convince you it’ll be nice, they’ll like you being there, that issues can be overcome.

          But you can also soften it other ways: ‘I’m very sorry but no, but I appreciate you thinking of me’, ‘thanks for the offer, it’s not for me I’m afraid, but please do enjoy’ , ‘I can’t do it but I hope it works out / tell me how it went’, ‘I wish I could say yes but at this moment it is not possible for me so it’s a no from me.’

          So you emphasize the relationship / engagement and soften it with soften-phrases if you like, and you’re not shutting the person off, but at the same time you leave no doubt about your decision where an ‘I’m not sure I can make it’ is not as definitive.

      • This reminds me of a funny Buzzfeed video: https://youtu.be/bdwQntqI-ts

        Note to LW: NO ONE is going to act like these guys in real life. If they do, they are being Not Okay.

      • Turquoise Dragon said:

        My therapist lists 4 stages of refusal.
        1. Say “No.”
        2. Say “I said no. Please respect that.”
        3. Issue ultimatum if your No is not respected.
        4. Carry through on ultimatum.
        She recommends never getting to stage 3 if you aren’t willing to get to stage 4.

  2. I have struggled with saying “no” for pretty much my entire life. At one point, a few years ago, I told a friend that when asked to do something my response process was:
    Step 1: say yes
    Step 2: think about whether I can or want to do it
    Putting my thought process into words made the issue a lot clearer all of a sudden, and while I knew it was a problem I hadn’t quite realized it was that bad at times!

    I am more inclined to give a soft no than a clear and direct one, especially when I feel on the spot or am otherwise stressed, but since not everyone hears or respects a soft no it’s something I’m trying to do less often if I can manage it. I really like the tactic of delaying my answer and I use that fairly often. Even if I know my calendar’s empty for the next month, saying “that sounds great but I might have something that day; let me check and get back to you” gives me the time I need to evaluate a situation or invitation and figure out if I have the desire and ability to follow up and say yes. When I give myself space to say no to something, I do find that the yes feels more genuine as well.

    • Anisoptera said:

      I think there’s nothing wrong with a soft no as your opening move. Or at least a “no” kindly delivered with a smile and a “but thanks for asking”. I drop the smile and the thanks if I have to repeat myself much. I suppose that’s not exactly a soft no, since it still explicitly includes the word “no” and doesn’t imply that you want to do it but just can’t because of insert-excuse-here. I used to be deathly afraid of doing that but it turns out you can still be entirely polite and kind and friendly around the actual clear expression of “no”.

      The delaying tactic is perfect, and I think I should use it more when I feel put on the spot. I’m slightly surprised I don’t use it more in my personal life now that I think about it because I use it *all the time* in my professional life, where I usually do have to investigate things a bit before I give an answer.

  3. Sara said:

    I had/have this problem as well – the delay tactic helped me a lot. It gave me time to not say yes immediately and corner myself into an event or production. I also practiced saying “I’m sorry, but I can’t”, with no actual excuse. They don’t need to know that the reason I can’t is just that I’m exhausted by social commitments, or I just don’t want to do whatever it is. That way I don’t feel like I’m lying or covering myself. If they press me more, I might fold but a lot of people just want a firm yes or no so they move on.

    I still over commit myself sometime, but not as much as I used to.

    • That’s an excellent point. One thing I find helpful is pretending I am my own manager. Like, Beyonce has a manager whose job it is to make sure she has what she needs to be successful–someone who works to make sure she isn’t overcommitted, doesn’t take on projects for the sake of it, that sort of thing. I am EVERY BIT as deserving of that gatekeeper as Beyonce, so I have to do that for myself. Sometimes thinking about it in the third person helps: “I’m sorry, Marillenbaum doesn’t take on editing projects during midterms and finals”, “Marillenbaum really needs at least 48 hours notice if you want her to proofread something”, “Marillenbaum needs to get a full eight hours of sleep, so she doesn’t go to events after 7 PM during the work week”. It’s still challenging, but it’s less challenging when I see myself as advocating for someone who is Not Me.

      • I love that! I’ve been reaching a breaking point of overcommitment, and I need a manager to tell me I absolutely can not do the thing, even if I really want to, because I will be exhausted otherwise.

      • Diziet Sma said:

        I just love this idea and I will now be hiring myself as my manager!

      • cchrissyy said:

        love this!

  4. Jill said:

    I reached my breaking point. It completely stopped feeling good to do all the giving, all the compromising, all of the ensuring everyone else around me felt good even if I was miserable. So I tested the waters. When I’d say, “I don’t feel like burgers, let’s go for Italian instead” and the person was totally OK with it, I learned that it’s not a big deal to suggest alternatives that would make me happy. With another friend, I noticed that when I started saying, “Hey how about we go somewhere other than a bar tonight?” a few times, she quit calling. I realized this was a “friend” that only liked me if I was drinking. Since I don’t enjoy being the only sober person in a roomful of drunks, I realized this was a friend I could be happy cutting loose.

    Test the waters here and there, LW, on “piddly” issues like where to eat or whose car to take. You’ll learn which friends/family only like you when you conform to their wants and needs and which people still want to be around you when you want to do what would make you happy. Bonus tip for dating, I found that most people LIKE it when their dates suggest things from time to time or speak up about what they’d like to do. It actually gets exhausting (unless you’re a total narcissist) to always be the one deciding what to do and where to go.

    • Jenni Levy said:

      +1 to the last sentence. My husband hates making decisions, especially after a day or week at work. For years I was the one who made all the suggestions about where we ate and what we did and who we saw. I felt responsible for his enjoyment, which made it much harder for me to enjoy myself. After a long time (a really long time, because apparently I’m a slow learner) I started distinguishing between things I want to do whether he’s there or not, and times when I want to be with him and don’t have a preference about what we do. I still initiate most of our social life, but now I will say “I’m really want to see that new Star Wars movie. Want to go with me, or should I plan to go when you’re working?” and “How about we got out on Friday? What would you like do do?” it’s a huge relief when he makes a suggestion and I LOVE it when he actually plans something. Love it.

    • Re. the last sentence, Richard Grannon of http://spartanlifecoach.com/ suggests using minor “nos” to test for narcissistic tendencies. If someone throws their toys out of the pram every time you disagree with them or don’t oblige them, that’s a great big huge neon sign with a clanging alarm and bells.

      Plus if a date can’t deal with you wanting chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream, or no ice cream at all, how well are they going to deal with nos down the line that may impact on their more intimate plans for you?

      • Anothermous said:

        Yuuup. I coached a few of my friends in doing exactly that in the context of dating men–how to use minor “no’s” to gauge how receptive a man is to hearing no from a woman, and therefore evaluating his dateability. A guy who pressures you into having that drink when you don’t want it/going to that concert when you don’t want to/getting a ride home when you’d rather take the bus/etc = nope.

        • Wow, that really clarifies a red flag I’ve been getting from someone in my life; thank you.

          • Anothermous said:

            *hugs*

            I hope things work out well for you.

          • Thank you! Everything’s fine, it just feels good to put words to a bad vibe, you know?

        • johann7 said:

          I want to reiterate that someone who has an issue with you clearly stating preferences, however minor they may seem, is waving a giant red flag. This is one of those that a lot of people seem to miss because coercion is normalized in so many societies. The very BEST CASE when someone doesn’t take an unambiguous “no” seriously right away is that ze is a narcissist who cannot fathom other people having different likes/desires (as opposed to someone who has internalized and is replicating toxic social norms, which is worse becasue it’s a harder pattern to break, or someone who is an actively predatory danger who realizes ze is not taking someone’s preferences and boundaries seriously and simply doesn’t care, or actively gets off on the violation). I come from a place where there are norms that dictate refusals and cajoling (White middle class community in the Upper Midwest of the USA): these are unequivocally toxic social norms that should be entirely eliminated; just becasue it’s a part of one’s culture doesn’t mean it’s at all okay.

          • hummingbear said:

            I come from that same culture, and when I first started having conversations with my more direct and straightforward friends about it, I was really unhappy hearing judgey statements that the way I was raised to negotiate was “unequivocally toxic social norms that should be entirely eliminated.” Actually IF both parties to the conversation understand and are trained in those same conventions, and are good and decent people, it works fine. It’s only when you start interacting with people from other cultures that problems arise. Example: I spent years feeling inwardly peeved and pressured at my East Coast friend asking me for BIG favors that I felt I had to say yes to, because Back Where I Come From you would *never* ask to borrow someone’s car at a time you knew they needed it or turn up at a terribly inconvenient location or help someone move unless you *really, desperately* needed the help and had exhausted all possible independent alternatives before finally asking the Big Favor – which the person was, therefore, duty bound to grant. You’d think through, on their behalf, “oh, Suzy uses her car Tuesdays so I won’t ask her then.” A good person simply wouldn’t directly ask a favor that they knew, or suspected, would highly inconvenience someone. They might drop lots of hints 🙂 – but a direct ask was next door to an order, you only got so many, and you called them in sparingly.

            But Where My Friend Came From, it was fine to ask for the moon on the off chance someone wasn’t using their car on this particular Tuesday and, if they were, you expected they’d – blithely! without a care in the world! – say no. I’ve eventually come around more to the local Just Ask culture, but that doesn’t mean the culture I was raised in didn’t work for us, or created a city full of pushy, inconsiderate monsters. It only failed when it came to interacting with others with different raising.

            tl;dr I’ve come around to the idea that maximum directness is the best way to handle living in a community of people with different backgrounds, but high-context cultures aren’t all full of horrible jerks.

          • Replying to hummingbear – the Ask Culture versus Guess Culture is a useful concept there: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/05/askers-vs-guessers/340891/

            Basically, as you say, in Ask cultures it’s ok to ask for anything because it’s a genuine question and ‘no’ is a perfectly acceptable answer; in Guess cultures it’s an issue to say ‘no’, so it’s bad manners to ask for something unless you really need it and are really sure it’s not a problem. They’re both ok ways to live as long as everyone is on the same page and doesn’t take advantage, and Askers and Guessers can get along as long as each understands that the other has different norms, but each can rattle the other when they cross signals.

        • human said:

          Oooh yes, I do this with men on dating sites and soooo many of them fail the initial pre-meet screen, but I haven’t felt unsafe on a date yet!

          • Excellent way to save time and money! Who wants to waste their valuable time, not to mention transportation money, on a date with some creep?

          • Rant:
            The easiest boundary setting test I found on dating sites back in the day was to ask people not to contact me during certain hours. There are actual practical sleep- and work-related reasons for me to set those limits, which I used to explain to the people I was conversing with.
            You’d think that “pls do not contact me between 9pm and 9am for X reasons” would be a simple guideline to follow, wouldn’t you… and you’d be grossly, grossly disappointed. The vast majority would either try to argue over them, or ignore them.And then they’d have a go when I blocked their number. It was fascinating. Not much use for dating purposes, but as a study in human behaviour, definitely interesting.

        • The Accidental Onion said:

          Oh, I cringe at seeing behaviors I have run on others. I learned them when they were run on me, but how is it I never saw that the rest of the world (the nice people) didn’t work that way? And when I did it, it felt sooo right and natural.
          And when it was done to me, I’d just bend right into it.

      • VERY VERY GOOD ADVICE. My narcissist mom made/makes it extremely unpleasant (and was/is punitive) when I don’t say “yes” or I fail to go along 100% with her ideas / plans. This made it extremely difficult to learn how to set boundaries, say “no” and so on. I managed to, barely, but not without a lot of agonizing over my RIGHT to say no (even to, e.g., reasonable requests that I just didn’t WANT to do), and whether it made me a “bad person” (nope!). See, my time and energy and attention are mine to dole out or spend on stuff *I* want, not what someone else demands, unless I have agreed to exchange my time or labor for a salary or fee, etc., though I do make a point to try to push MYSELF to be more social so my friends aren’t carrying all the weight WRT making plans or chauffeuring or being the designated driver or coming up with ideas (all of which I have had friends do to me, which just ate up my socializing energy “spoons” tally faster).

        Your first task may be to practice saying “no” to people you’ll never see again, like strangers. Low risk (unless strangers alone make you anxious, in which case you’ll need to determine what’s low risk for YOU). Your second task may be asserting an opinion (also very difficult for people raised by narcissists or bullies or “women/girls should be quiet and obedient” or overbearing personality types).

        Try spending some time with yourself figuring out what you like, and don’t feel that you are forced to ALWAYS like best the thing you like best now forever.

      • TootsNYC said:

        Why not, right?

        After all, manipulators / abusers are using that exact same minor “yeses” to test YOU for pushover-ness.

    • goddessoftransitory said:

      Suggestions for the win!

      When the decision is over what to do (rather than whether to do it in the first place), and you don’t want to do X, having Y ready to hand is good both for you and the other person. As in the above suggestion, if you don’t want burgers, don’t just stop at that and make the other person play a guessing game over what food you do want. And if the other person isn’t into Italian, be prepared with a few backup ideas or openness to their offers of Thai, Indian, whatever.

      This gives you room to move without feeling either like a monolith in the desert or squishy. borderless bog. It also makes for an entertaining project–The Project Of You. Cynthia Heimel, a fab writer from the eighties and nineties, wrote about his in her collection of humor essays entitled If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet? She points out that the best way to not lose yourself in relationships is to know yourself–your actual tastes in music, food, projects, sex, whatever. “Do this with affection,” she cautions, “Or you’ll blow the whole thing. Think of yourself as a terrifically intriguing mystery novel.”

      It’s actually fun to get to know yourself, and the clearer you are on that, the easier it is to say no, or yes.

      • Jackalope said:

        Yes, totally this! I had a hard time making suggestions about dinner with some of my friends so I got into the habit of thinking of three or so possible restaurants or types of food so that when dinner came I could give a few options, all of which I was okay with, and then they could pick the one that they were in the mood for. So far that’s been my best strategy yet.

      • Lurker in the light said:

        A mentor once wisely told me, “I can tell you a lot of things, but what you want to eat isn’t one of them.”

        Know what you like, in general (e.g., I don’t eat cheese, so I don’t go out to fondue restaurants with my friends. No matter how nice the salads may be.) When you are not feeling strongly about it, own that. “I don’t have a strong opinion about what is like to eat tonight. I’m happy to grab whatever’s closest.” Is okay. So is “I’m feeling like Asian food tonight. How do Thai, Chinese, or Korean sound to you?”

        Remember, as much as you want to please others, good people will want you to be happy, too.

    • sometimeswhy said:

      OMG yes that last bit. On days when I am particularly drained, I have responded to the question of what I want for a meal with, “To not have to decide what we’re having/where we’re going for [meal]. I am a decision-free zone.” Sometimes I’ll append with, “I’ll make the food but I’m not making any decisions.”

    • Laurel said:

      This is such a great point about the friends who will drop away. Sometimes people only like you because you say yes.

      I (girl) had a platonic (male) friend for years. We took a vacation together, I helped him through his cat passing away, we hung out with a few other folks almost every weekend, we were really tight. Years pass. I was inviting him to come over to my new house, a five minute walk from his apartment. He was looking up my new roommate on Facebook, and noticed she had a friend he might’ve gone to middle school with. He asked me to ask her if the guy went to his middle school. I said no. Because in my mind, he’s about to come over, roommate is snuggling with her boyfriend in her room, he can just Facebook message her, this will be a lengthy back-and-forth of me running to her room and back, etc.
      He EXPLODES. He called me a bitch, a word I’d never heard him use, repeatedly. He yelled at me. The notifications kept popping up. It wasn’t even making any sense what he was saying. And this was a very low-stakes request. An idle question. I never talked to him again.

      Years later, I’m working at the Grand Canyon national park and I sit down to lunch in the cafeteria. A boy greets me and remarks that it looks like I like anime. (I mean… okay.) We talk for about a minute, then he points to something on my plate and says “that looks good”. I agree that it is. “Get me one.” “No.”
      Never talks to me again.

      • Thanksforallthefish said:

        wow!

  5. Shadowknows said:

    Long time reader, first time commenter!

    I’ve been through this many times, culminating in a two year abusive relationship where my bf started intimating that he wanted to kill me. That’s where my go along to get along (which was mostly voluntary and *not* from low self esteem) attitude landed me.

    A dear friend of mine reminded me that I didn’t need to make other people’s problems my own. He was right. So that’s where I started. I watched for that line where I went from being a listening ear to being dragged into drama. I started using kind but noncommital phrases like “oh, that’s too bad, I hope you get that figured out!” Once dramatic people saw I wasn’t going to get involved they went away on their own.

    I also set a rule that I was going to do what was right for me and let others manage their own feelings about it, and I started finding ways to say no at the beginning of the relationship, not later down the line when I was feeling trapped. Because if someone is going to get unreasonably upset that I have my own limits and preferences I want to know that right away.

    Nothing bad happened as a result of these changes. On the contrary–my work performance improved, I have more money in the bank, my health has dramatically improved, and I have many, many genuine friends. The few people who have issues with me at work look *really* bad because they are being so dramatic over literally nothing.

    I hope this helps–it’s scary at first but it soon becomes fun!

  6. ASJ said:

    For me, saying no – especially with my family – is really hard. I almost always make up an excuse. I have a very vivid memory of being on summer break one year, and my mother asked me to spend all day, every day, with my grandmother (I can’t remember exactly why, it must have been a period where she wasn’t good with being alone). I said no (because I was a teenager and I wanted my time to myself), and she read me the riot act for about twenty minutes about what a horrible, selfish excuse for a human being I was, and how I never wanted to do anything for anyone, and how my grandmother had done plenty for me but I didn’t want to give back to her or my family, etc… she must’ve called me selfish about fifteen times. And yeah I probably was being selfish, but I like to think (or hope, anyway) that reaction wasn’t warranted.

    So sometimes a little white lie can go a long way if you find that saying “no” flat-out isn’t possible.

    • Anon said:

      That was absolutely uncalled for on your mom’s part, and that was an enormous burden to place on an adult’s shoulders, let alone a teenager’s. Your mom was absolutely in the wrong here, and none of the fault lies with you. You probably know that, but I thought I’d remind you in case you doubted.

      • Debby said:

        This reminds me that the things we say can last for decades, an entire life sometimes.

        • THIS.

          My mother only told me once that my best wasn’t good enough (verbatim – I said “I’m doing my best!” protesting about some family drama, and she said, “well, your best isn’t good enough!” and ordered me to do better), but that was more than enough.

      • ASJ said:

        Thanks. It wasn’t the only time she called me selfish – I remember another time, I accidentally broke her change purse without realizing. She flipped out, I cried, she told me she knew I was lying because I was crying, and then proceeded to tell me how selfish I was – and it’s funny how things stick with you when you don’t even realize. To this day I still think myself of as a pretty selfish person.

        • Thanksforallthefish said:

          Also affirming that your mother’s comments were unwarranted. As a fellow “selfish” person so labeled by my mother, I found it helpful to re-frame selfish as a good thing. My relationship with my abusive ex started to crumble when I decided to be “selfish” and focus on my studies my senior year of college to get good grades and land that great job and become the breadwinner he kept telling me I would be. Selfish means taking care of me.

    • Nanani said:

      My mom liked to use “independent” as an insult, similar to how it sounds “selfish” was used for you.

      You were absolutely in the right to say no to unreasonable imposition. Feathers for past you.

      • storyranger said:

        “Unconventional” was my mom’s insult, though a healthy dose of selfish was tossed in for flavour.

      • My father’s version of this was “contrary”. It worked until I was about 12, when I recognised it for the manipulation tactic it was. Then I really did get contrary. 🙂

    • Lala said:

      OMG, is your mom my mom? Because that’s pretty much the same reaction I got (and still sometimes get) if I just said no to something when I was growing up. I actually don’t have much of a problem saying no to everyone else in my life, but with my mother and sometimes my brother (though he and I are getting much better at using our words with each other), I have to make up an excuse or accept a guilt trip. I’m really good at coming up with reasons why I can’t do something on the fly.

      It’s really annoying and also kinda sad, because I would spend more time with her if I could just say “no, I don’t want to” about some things and leave it at that. And excuses are easier now that I live in another state.

      Ironically, she’s really good at saying no to other people about stuff she doesn’t want to do, so she modeled it really well for me growing up (which I’m sure is why I’m good at saying no to other people). She just can’t handle having it said to her.

      • My wedding was in Vegas. My mother was supposed to be in charge of my daughter while I was on my honeymoon. Instead, I got called “selfish” for not including my mother in the stuff we did, all week, every day, in Vegas ON MY HONEYMOON.

        • Jay said:

          OMG. My aunt did that – we stayed at a house my grandparents owned and she lived nearby. She was just SO offended that I asked her not to walk in without calling first, and turned down her invitations to drinks and dinner and afternoon card games. She called my mother to complain about how SELFISH I was. My mother, thank God, thought my aunt was being ridiculous and intrusive and told her so.

      • efmather2006 said:

        Ha, quite a few of us have the same mom! Mine isn’t a villain, but she is one of those parents that assumes children are there to give her what she wants. Now that she’s elderly and not so healthy, I’m working on the various “nos” around caregiving. It finally got ridiculous last Christmas when she threw a fit about me not helping another caregiver with my mom’s shower. That is, there would 2 people in a tiny bathroom, waiting on a woman who can walk with a walker. I finally started laughing (rather inappropriately) at her vision of wanting to live in a Downton Abbey world with multiple servants. Now she’s improving and my “no” is also.

        • Nancy McClure said:

          Boy, do I understand the “servant” thing. My widowed, independent mom — who had no dementia at 81 — was persuaded to go into hospice by well-meaning people at the hospital who told her it was time to “pamper” herself. She became demanding in a whole new way. Fortunately, she’d taught my brother and me to give a direct “no” without excuses. And since we’d each become emotionally healthy by learning to armor ourself against her judgmentalism, it didn’t really bother us when she pronounced us selfish.

          • I’m sorry that happened to you, Nancy McClure. Why would the hospital persuade someone who was not terminally ill to go into hospice? That sounds really, really creepy.

    • twomoogles said:

      And a dad just to round it out here! I remember mine asked me to go with my mom to my brother’s school performance of something, at probably around age 11 or so, and I was noncommittal/hesitant, because what kid wants to go sit and watch her younger brother in a play (OK, some kids, better kids than I was) and he screamed at me that I “told him to fuck off” and hated him, berating me right up till it was time to go . . . that was fun! But yeah, he took anything other than cheerful smiling happiness at any request as a major insult.

    • I got called “selfish” (and, once, “money-motivated” when I literally was living on ramen and tap water) as a manipulative tactic, too.

      OF NOTE: Not one of my friends or other family members thinks I am remotely selfish. I just said “no” to a narcissist, who was projecting her own deep selfishness on me because she was butthurt I said “no” to her. (Later she upped the ante by just showing up without calling first and nagging me to do things to please her, also known as impromptu torture sessions, because she resented that I dared to ask her to call first before just walking in the front door. That wasn’t rude enough, so she started volunteering my time without asking me first, to do things like, e.g., load 75% of my belongings into a storage unit early on a Saturday–which she told me about via email on Friday morning, and when a friend and I had planned to be out of town that weekend.)

      You’re not “bad” to say no. Getting in the habit of saying “no” firmly now will prevent others from trampling your boundaries later on when you are unable or less able (for whatever reason, like if you are sick or grieving or too busy to deal with bullshit or depressed or whatever) to insist they be respected.

    • TootsNYC said:

      “I almost always make up an excuse.”

      Actually, that’s just another way to say no!

  7. LHP said:

    I’ve always wanted to be more assertive in-the-moment while staying respectful and mostly polite/within social bounds, but somewhere along the way I learned to say yes to everything until it killed me inside a little and I would just run away (definitely not good times.) It came to a head last year when I took on too many work projects and responsibilities to the point where I was literally making myself sick. I actually did what the captain said and talked to therapists about it. Turns out there is literally a CBT handbook for this with some awesome exercises that help un-do some of my bad habits/feelings/selftalk. Obviously still a work in progress, but I am so glad I went to see someone. One great resource a Counselor pointed me at was an Australian public mental health service website http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/consumers.cfm (apparently it’s hard to find free workbooks in the US, so hurray Australian brothers.)

    • totchipanda said:

      Thanks for that link. I just started seeing a therapist for anxiety and a lot of the stuff in the anxiety pages is what we’re working on. I think it’s useful to have the pages in addition to a person, I organize my thoughts better when I can read something and think about them.

  8. policychick said:

    I remember the first time it became clear to me that I needed to learn to say No, and that I had no training to do so.

    I grew up in PoDunk Texas, where women were accommodating and a straight-out ‘No’ was rude (not from men, of course.)

    My brother invited/mandatorily issued a demand I attend his first born’s Catholic baptism. I did not like his wife, I do not like Catholicism, no one would truly care if I was there, I was in the middle of finals, it was a two-hour flight, etc., but I said Yes. Flight taken, and no one at the airport to pick me up. Since this was before cell phones or Uber, etc., I took an 180 dollar/2 hour cab ride to my brother’s house. I was effing furious. Once I got there, my mom and grandmother were all, “Well you’re here now! That’s all that matters!”
    “NO IT’S NOT! FUCK YOU PEOPLE! I DID NOT WANT TO BE HERE AND I DID THIS FOR YOU AND YOU DIDN’T PICK ME UP!”

    So. It took me a long time to learn HOW to say No, even after that. (Wish I had the Captain back then!) but believe me it is worth it. I’m 51 years old and I happily say No almost every day. “No thanks – I have other plans!” Those other plans being, not what you want me to do.

    Take the Captain’s advice.

    • Nanani said:

      I’ve been in a similar (but smaller scale! holy geez that’s one expensive cab) situation and got “I bet you don’t even WANT to be here” thrown out as if it made me a bad person. It doesn’t.
      I prefer to think taking me for granted and messing with my travel plans and holiday time made THEM a bad person.

      May our fucks to give ever decrease,

      • If there’s one behavior I really can’t stand in people, it’s when they coerce you into doing something and then get angry that you have a bad attitude about it. I remember a while back there was an LW who wanted to break up with their boyfriend, but the boyfriend claimed that the LW had a responsibility to stay while he finished grad school. Then he complained that the LW wasn’t affectionate enough. Grraaaah.

        • Jay said:

          Or the synagogue board member who pushed and pushed for us to make a commitment to something that we didn’t have the time or energy to do, and finally got exasperated agreement that he could do it if it was so important, and then complained for weeks that he had to do it. Oy.

        • Part of my learning to refuse requests came from my deeply held belief that I should do favors happily, with no strings attached.

          When I’d realize that a particular request was something I resented, I started saying No. When I’d get pushback typically “Aw, c’mon, this isn’t a big deal,” I’d let myself say “It’s a big deal to me

          Gosh that was liberating.

  9. Margo Win said:

    For me my trouble maintaining boundaries and saying no was directly tied to my feelings of self-worth and value. Deep down I felt other people’s feelings and opinions were more important than mine, so it was tough to assert myself because it felt selfish. In hindsight, I also had a lot of anxiety around the thought of people not responding well to it or me coming across as some grumpy or arrogant bitch. Therapy was so, so important in helping me sort all that out.

    I’m still working my way through it, but the progress I’ve made so far feels so good. I’ve been able to tell people what I want and what I need in situations large and small, and every time I do that the next time is a little easier. The first time I had to set a tough emotional boundary with a friend, I was so nervous prior to the conversation. But I practiced what I wanted to say and how I could acknowledge her feelings and needs while still asserting my own. The conversation was still hard, but the practice helped so much. Both because it helped me not cave on my boundaries, but also because it helped me be less emotional and impulsive during the conversation which in turn made it feel less confrontational and “mean” – another’s one of my fears about asserting myself.

    It also really helped to reframe it in my head as being a helpful thing to the other person. I wouldn’t want someone to pretend to agree with me because they were afraid of saying no. Other people don’t want that either.

    Also – while I’m certain this wouldn’t work for everyone, another thing that helped me was being with a partner who supported me in asserting myself and pushed me a little to do so. “Want something to drink?” “Yes, sure.” “What do you want? I got water, milk, or juice.” “Oh, whatever is fine.” Stop, direct stare, “Babe, water, milk, or juice?” Smile. “Juice, thanks.” Grin and a wink. “Coming right up.” God, I love that man so much.

  10. scrappyjoe said:

    For me, there was a breakthrough when I just got to the point of “hell no” with my mom. I said it without thinking, overthinking or anything. It literally just came out on its own. And lo, the world did not end. A few years on I’m getting pretty good at the no, and I owe a lot of that to the good captain and commentariat here. Good luck, LW!

  11. Anothermous said:

    Hi LW. I’m not sure I have great advice for you on how to say no specifically, but I have some tangential advice that I hope can help, which is: as you progress along the Learn to Say No journey, you might need to seek out new acquaintances/social groups. The reason for that is twofold: a) people who are upfront and straightforward about what they want/don’t want and expect others to be as well tend to drift away from people who have trouble saying no, and b) people who are manipulative/abusive tend to seek out people who have difficulty saying no. I sincerely hope that your social group is not full of shady people, but you may very well find that as your confidence improves and you get better at being assertive about saying no, that some of your acquaintances get more aggressive in trying to coerce you into saying yes. You may discover that one of the reasons you have anxiety around saying no is because you subconsciously understand that you’re not “allowed” to say it to the people around you. This SUCKS to go through, and this is one of the many areas in which access to a therapist can be really beneficial, because you can use them as a sanity check of “it’s completely reasonable for me to have boundaries, and enforce them, right?” and if they are a good therapist they say “Right! That’s totally reasonable!”

    Good luck, LW. Saying no and not feeling guilty about it is an important life skill, especially, imo, for women and female-identified people. I hope you can get to a point where you are comfortable asserting your own desires and are surrounded by people who genuinely want you to, as well.

    • Farther and Happier said:

      I want to jump on this comment and agree that it might not only be the LW who has a problem saying no, but also that people the LW is with that make it harder to say no to. You are not wrong that people cultivate friends who can’t say no.

      Ex: I have a dear friend who often invites herself over. I can say “No, now is not a good time.” And she shows up at my door anyway and I am forced to entertain. It isn’t meant to be mean or uncomfortable, but it is manipulative. Even if my friend doesn’t realize it. I totally changed the way I talked to my friend and it changed our interactions. We have very few times when I say no and she does what she wants anyway since I changed the way I speak to her. Now it is a no as a full sentence. No explanations. No reasons. I do make sure that for every 2 times I say no I offer to do something with her instead that does fit my schedule. She either takes me up on it or not, And I am not sad either way. I needed to reinforce my boundaries, and she needed to stop working around my excuses. And now we do things both of us want to do instead of her showing up at my doorstep, or demanding I show up at hers. (We live very close, which is why this was a problem.)

    • Guava said:

      Yes, so much this! I think that people settle into roles in friendships. When I started asserting myself and saying “no” to people, I realized that there were many relationships in my life where people just took my accommodating nature completely for granted, so much so that they were visibly offended when I’d say even the most polite “no”s.

      I was under the mistaken assumption that there was some sort of fairness baseline, where, because I’d said “yes” and put my needs second – or last – so many other times, others would realize that if I said “no” once in a while, maybe it was my turn to have things go my way.

      I was wrong. I got so much blowback for saying “no” – and it was weird to see the same people who were punishing me for saying “no” just blithely accepting it when more assertive people said “no” because they were more used to hearing it from them.

      I ended up realizing that if people totally and completely lose their shit when I say “no”, that’s a sign about their character, and not a very good one.

      • Kitty said:

        This hits home so much. I’m currently trying to be more assertive with my mother, and it’s like she takes any ‘no’ as a personal insult. It’s like she feels entitled to get what she wants and the more I stand up for my needs and desires, the more aggressively she pushes back with manipulation to get me to go back to just doing what she wants because it’s ‘easier’.

        • Guava said:

          Ugh, I’m sorry. This is my mom to a T as well! I had no idea just how invested she was in me being “the easy one” until I started trying to enforce a boundary once in a while. And – surprise – she was the one who trained me to have trouble saying no in the first place.

          • Drew said:

            As the saying goes, our parents are experts at pushing our buttons because they installed them.

    • Jane said:

      I was looking for a comment like this one. When I think about what has changed that has let me be better at saying “no,” (and mark my words, I’m *better* but not *good*) the big thing that strikes me is that I’ve changed who I hang out around — that is, I mostly hang out with people I feel really, really safe with, so that if something goes pear-shaped I’m not going to feel bad about rescheduling with them or worry that they’ll think I don’t like them if I can’t do something *right now.*

      My addendum to this, though, is that I also have been taking into account my own propensities and weak spots when dealing with other people. What I mean is: there are some people who, through no fault of their own, trigger my “can’t say no” response. Mostly these people are men, because I absorbed really young that getting a dude’s approval is what gives ladyfolk their value as humans. And . . . to be honest, this means that I limit certain kinds of interactions with men, because I can’t trust myself to protect myself around men I want to impress. (The other part of that is that many (most-ish?) men in my environment aren’t socialized to monitor other people’s emotions, so my female friends are much more likely to pick up on it if I am actually unwilling to do something that I can’t bring myself to say no to.)

      It’s not a foolproof method — I suspect that if I weren’t somewhere on the ace spectrum, this would be a much more painful coping method for a hetero-ish woman-ish person — but figuring out what kind of person really exacerbates your tendencies to self-abnegate, even if it’s not their fault, can be a useful step to protecting yourself.

      Jedi fist bumps, LW.

      • bat lord said:

        [F]iguring out what kind of person really exacerbates your tendencies to self-abnegate, even if it’s not their fault, can be a useful step to protecting yourself.

        Wow, yes. I had to end a long and important friendship because my ex-friend brought out the self-abnegation. I’m not entirely sure how much of that was me and my issues, and how much of that was the ex-friend’s manipulative tendencies, but in the end I had to walk away regardless of why it was happening.

        Now I know to avoid Sad Charismatic Jerks.

    • TheDreadVampy said:

      LW here! It’s interesting you brought this up, because in a recent discussion with a very dear friend about a recent Bad Thing, she said something very similar, if a little more detached. She mentioned that I (and many other people, including herself, who are predisposed to take on a lot of people’s emotional baggage and are drawn to other damaged people) not only suffer from manipulative people picking up on our ‘please pick on me’ vibes, but also from the fact that our friends and loved ones also tend to be sending out those vibes. So, for example, my girlfriend has a lot of friends and family members who are quite manipulative or predatory towards me. It has a sort of snowball effect, I guess.

      My concern is that I’m very dependent on having a number of close friends, and since leaving university and moving towns I’ve forgotten how to make new friends, I think (I’m on a masters course and have a lot of…acquaintances? half-friends? but am too nervous to make serious actual friends). Cutting ties with anyone, even toxic/draining people, is super hard and scary.

      • paperkingdoms said:

        You don’t have to actively cut the ties, though, at least not right now. Cultivating some of those almost kinda maybe could be friendships can/will take up space in your life, and there can, if you choose for it to work that way, just be less space in your life for people who are draining. (And you don’t just, like, catapault to best-friend-ness. But you see if they want to study together, or if they want to get beverage-of-choice after that class on Tuesday, and you spend some time together. And that asking if they want to? Is a way to practice the yes side of things.)

        Or by practicing being with other people, you could come back to those relationships with new skills, and see how those play out there.

        • Zweisatz said:

          +1 Shedding shitty people usually happens more like: You put more effort into relationships with people who are good for you and hopefully, these relationships grow somewhat. It’s shifting of your priorities, as paperingdoms said, not cut-and-run.

          I usually got rid of shitty people only when the dread/annoyance/discomfort when having to meet them had finally grown so much that I reached the point where figuring out how to disconnect was less painful than being in contact regularly.

          • Guava said:

            Also, the upside of shedding the people who don’t respect your “no” or expect you to always put your needs second is that it frees up a LOT more time for you to a) do what you like on your own terms; b) spend time with new friends who treat you with more respect.

          • TootsNYC said:

            This is pretty important–finding new friends takes time and energy. You may need to free up some so you can spend it in places where you might find some people to enjoy.

      • Thanksforallthefish said:

        Hello LW! Hugs if you want them!
        I had a few thoughts: Does your girlfriend help defend you from her friends and family? It might be helpful to get a team effort on that front. For the cutting ties part, you don’t necessarily have to cut ties….you could find a low-stakes way to say no, Toxic badfriend: “Come get coffee with me” DreadVampy “no, I have plans” If you become irritating to them in small ways where you stop being so accessible, they might get annoyed and tired of you and go away on their own. For the making “actual” friends part, school is hard, Grad school doubly so, a new city on top of that? really hard. I also know I didn’t really make lasting friendships in college and if you don’t that’s ok… don’t pressure yourself to make any kind of friends. But if you do want to make new friends, maybe join a meet-up group in the city that isn’t tied to the masters program so you can meet new people. Start asking yourself what you want to do with your free time such as it is and slowly take actions toward getting to them. If you can fill your time with things you’re excited about, then you really won’t have time to hang with toxic folks and it will be easier to say “No I couldn’t possibly”
        Best of luck!

  12. sayevet said:

    “I keep reminding myself it’s a problem and I need to stand my ground, but it’s like I’m trapped in my body while it goes through the motions.”

    LW, just want you to know that I feel this too ❤

    • Jingo said:

      Same. I don’t have any advice because I’m still entrenched in this. It’s like I have a traitor tongue that will say whatever it takes to make sure things go “smoothly” no matter how much I’m sitting on the inside going “no no no no no”. It sucks and I’m sorry other people have to struggle with that too.

  13. neutral good bard said:

    I’m practicing saying no by turning down tabletop RPG campaigns right now. I love D&D and other games of its ilk, but at one point earlier this year I was committed to six a week and I was stressed out all the time… some of them overlapped in time because I didn’t know how to explain that I already had that timeslot filled. I managed to say that I wasn’t able to play a few of them (rather than just ghosting and never interacting with the people involved again, which is my usual tactic) and I’ve been much happier since then.

    In other areas it’s still hard. A friend told me just the other day that ‘it seems like I like being uncomfortable’- he was apparently poking around trying to find my limits in talking about sexual stuff last year and I was terribly, terribly uncomfortable but felt awkward telling him to stop, so he didn’t until I was like OKAY I HAVE TO GO TO BED GOOD NIGHT and left the car we were in. I really, really didn’t like it and it sent me into a spiral of depression for way longer than it should have. I did manage to set some boundaries in our more recent conversation but if I’d been able to do it during the earlier conversation I could have saved myself some grief.

  14. SingHallelujah said:

    This has been a long slow process for me. My tendency is to look back on things and think, “I wish I didn’t do that,” and the next time to assert myself because wishing I didn’t do that is worse than the momentary awkwardness of, say, refusing a hug from someone I’d rather not hug. The past couple years my thing has been correcting people consistently when they mispronounce my name, something I used to just let go but always really hated. But also I think I’ve just gotten older and started to give fewer fucks.

  15. Sketchee said:

    Give yourself permission to change your mind. That’s wise advice. This stood out to me in the letter as well. The idea that if you didn’t make the “right” decision in the moment, that confusing others is someone how a negative reflection on you. Others may feel confused or disappointed and it’s kind that you want to avoid that. Still it happens sometimes. Acknowledge any inconvenience. Also show recognition that it’s a fact of life that we don’t always have it figured it out.

    Also, other people’s feelings are usually reasonable. It’s okay if other feel disappointed. It’s not the worst thing in the world. Most reasonable people don’t think it is. They might express disappointment, but it doesn’t mean you’re any less cool.

    Being ourselves means that we won’t be doing what others want of us. I mean sure, it’s fun sometimes to think of an imaginary world other people would be perfect right away so we wouldn’t have to communicate. Communication is awkward

    Take baby steps! Therapy helps in figuring out what baby steps look like when you’re not sure.

  16. stentord said:

    “So by the time I manage to admit that I’m not ok with doing X, the person I was doing X with is almost always upset and confused because I seem super into it right up until I’m super not.”

    I think it’s important to give yourself permission not to feel bad or beat yourself up if a person gets upset that you gave them a late no. First, on a practical level, fearing that you’ll hurt or upset someone — and feeling responsible for assuaging their bruised feelings — inhibits you from saying no before you hit the breaking point. And second, on a moral level, you really aren’t doing anything wrong. If you are doing something with someone, and you aren’t actually into it, then they are in the wrong for getting you to do it. Period. It doesn’t matter how much it might have *seemed* like you were into it. The people who seem upset and confused when you finally give them an explicit “no” need to go do a little soul-searching themselves.

    • Anothermous said:

      Yeah so I am going to push back against this a bit. You’re not inherently wrong, and I agree that it’s important that the LW not feel bad about doing this because feeling bad isn’t helpful, but assuming that people must be “getting the LW to do [something]” because the LW (or anyone) won’t say no is a false assumption.

      I am a super straightforward person and I have zero trouble saying no to things, even to my boss at work. If I ask someone “Hey do you want to do X with me” and they say “yes” I take that at face value. If halfway through X thing my invitee turned to me and said “Actually I don’t want to do this and I never wanted to do this in the first place and I need to go right now” yeah, I would be confused and upset, and the reason I would be confused and upset is because *I had been lied to*. Saying yes when you want no is actually a lie.

      This is why I mention in my above comment that people who say what they want and expect others to as well distance themselves from people who can’t say no. At this point in my life I have pretty much eliminated people from my social circle who will say yes when they want to say no, because I am not interested in navigating someone else’s insecurity. I want to be confident that I can level with the people around me and that they, in turn, will level with me. I’m ten thousand percent done with doing the dance of “Do you actually mean what you say?” with pretty much anybody.

      Again, it is 100% possible that the LW has people in her life who are coercive and expect her to say yes and will not take well to hearing no. In fact, at this point, I think it’s probable, because again, manipulative people seek out those who have trouble setting boundaries. But it’s not inherently wrong to be confused or upset when someone tells you something that turns out to not be the truth.

      • JenniferP said:

        This is where “I know I said I could do that but it turns out I can’t, sorry!” works better than “Let me tell you all the history & reasons that saying no is hard for me and do a giant shame-dance about it so not only do you have to deal with the disappointment of our plans falling through, it comes with an extra side-helping of MY FEELINGS!”

        • Anothermous said:

          Yup, I totally agree. I don’t mind if people make plans and then back out because they change their minds or whatever. I DO mind if someone says, “yes I’ll do that thing with you” then keep saying/implying yes, then shows up, and then halfway through the thing they’re like “actually no, this was never okay” which, to be clear, is different then showing up to the thing and then halfway through going “crap, I have to leave now because something has come up that I have to take care of right now”.

          To be fair, sometimes the scenario where you show up to [thing] and it turns out not to be okay can’t be avoided. Sometimes you think you’re up for things and then it turns out you’re not. Shit happens. Life is complicated. But if you know in your heart that the answer is no, and has always been no, but you’re saying yes, and this is a pattern of behavior that repeats… someone who’s not trying to manipulate you, someone who actually wants you to be happy, will probably not find that relationship tenable.

          • Yeah, I have to agree with this. People who won’t accept a soft no are very different from people who go along with an enthusiastic yes. True story: An acquaintance invited my boyfriend to a party, told him he could bring me along, and then spent a few days seething with rage because he came to the party and brought me. Eventually, while she was a guest in his house, she decided to tell him how she felt, which turned into her basically reaming him out because she didn’t even like him, she had only invited him because a mutual friend had said, “Hey, is Boyfriend coming too?” and she had just felt so pressured in the moment that she felt like she HAD to, and that had ruined, RUINED the whole thing.
            I’m sympathetic to people who don’t like conflict, but I really don’t like suggesting that that makes people around them villains.

          • twomoogles said:

            Agree with you, Anothermous, and whingedrinking. There’s this idea that can sometimes come up that people need to do soul-searching or have been coercive because they didn’t pick up on certain signals — and I have also read that yesmeansyes articles about people ignoring soft nos but understanding them. I still don’t think every occurrence of “but…i legitimately thought you were into this thing because you told me you were!” is deliberately ignoring soft nos. Sometimes it really *is* just a miscommunication with no bad guy.

          • johann7 said:

            Further, trying to have any kind of relationship with people who FREQUENTLY commit to something and then back out later is exhausting and means one can never be sure of one’s own plans. Certainly things happen sometimes to change one’s mind, and I’d generally still rather have people back out of something they don’t want to do than go through with something they don’t want to do. But if this happens with half of the plans I try to make with someone, I’m going to adapt by not seeking that person out as much and avoiding making plans that are farther in the future than right now.

        • Agreed though — *since* LW is clear that this is her more than it’s the people around her, _and_ *this is a thing to handle with care because telling the world you’re bad at saying ‘no’ can paint a target on your ass* —

          It may be worth confiding the history and reasons to a *few* good friends — or even just one — who LW is comfortable trusting to love her and want her to be well and happy and asking for backup. Having a friend who is willing to say “okay, tell me again in five minutes that you want to do that and we’re good to go” or “would you want to do that if I weren’t along?” or whatever, or being willing to support you and be flexible when you say “I don’t even know why I suggested this. It’s -40 and I don’t even like pistachio ice cream” or whatever, can be REALLY helpful.

          You don’t want to make them responsible for your decisions, it’s more about asking them to actively support and help you model and practice how you want things to go in the future. A sort of travelling laboratory, if you will.

          You don’t have to do the shame-dance, unless it’s a way of getting it out of your system and friend is one of those people who is good at validating and puncturing at the same time. (I feel like I may have mentioned before how useful I find the phrase “sounds fake but okay” when dealing withh mental helath issues and struggling with things I intellectually know to be true but find hard to accept, such as “I have every right to say Yes OR No to things and not only would I have this right regardless of whether other people liked it or not, actually most people will actively prefer it and the rest are quite possibly shitweasels.”

          Which, I have to say, still sounds fake to me at times. But, okay?)

          Finally, dear LW, I wish I could say that all you have to do (“all”) is let your yea be yea and your nay be nay, but sadly, there are shitweasels. It’s a work in process and not just a personal one.

          But I will say that being able to be upfront about Yes and No won’t make anything about that worse, and it will make a number of things better. Like, if you freely say No to people you get better at identifying people who respect boundaries and can be trusted with them.

          The worst aspect of my “I can’t say no, I’m not allowed” years is that there are probably truly wonderful people out there I still think of with distaste and fear, because _I never gave them a chance to behave differently from the shitweasels so I never found out which were which_.

          Finally: dear LW, would you like a Jedi hug?

          • The Dread Vampy said:

            LW here! This comment made me do a bit of a sniffle, mostly because I was raised Quaker and ‘let your yea be yea and your nay be nay’ is a phrase I’m VERY familiar with but only just connected with my own life thanks to this comment. Which is a weird thing to say, it’s not like it’s a particularly oblique phrase, I think it’s just one of those phrases that you hear so often they lose all meaning. So thanks for that!

          • Thank you for this:

            “But I will say that being able to be upfront about Yes and No won’t make anything about that worse, and it will make a number of things better. Like, if you freely say No to people you get better at identifying people who respect boundaries and can be trusted with them.”

            That’s perfect – I’ve never seen it articulated better.

          • apricity said:

            I was going to say the same! One of my friends had this problem and she recruited me as an “was saying No okay?” sounding board, or a “how would you say no” sounding board, and I provided positive feedback about saying No (she was right every time) or helped come up with scripts to respond. She got a lot better at it over a few months 🙂
            A therapist is obviously even better trained to unpick these habits, and address the underlying cause, but your friends can probably help too.

      • I totally understand where you are coming from as regards being done with people who don’t mean what they say. But if something is happening to us a lot we need to consider our role in the social transaction.

        Is it at all possible that you issue invitations in such a way that people don’t feel at all comfortable saying no? I’ve known plenty of people that I’ve found myself lying to and going along with *one more time* because I knew there would be blowback.

        I’m not saying you are doing this on purpose or at all, but all the people I’ve known who complain about being flaked on a lot have been tone deaf about soft nos.

        • Anothermous said:

          I don’t get flaked on a lot. I have no idea what in my answer makes you think I do.

          In case it wasn’t clear: I don’t pursue friendships with people who have trouble asserting boundaries, because I don’t have the energy or inclination to navigate that dynamic. I’m a pretty strong personality and I don’t want to be friends with people who will feel steamrollered by me, both because I don’t want to hurt them and because I don’t want to end up the bad guy. If I get the sense that someone I’m getting to know is just going along to get along (and I’m pretty good at picking up on that at this point), then I will withdraw from that relationship as kindly and firmly as I can.

          It’s not a moral failing to have difficulty saying no. I don’t think less of people who struggle with this, it’s a common thing to struggle with and I struggle with plenty of things that are easy for other people. It’s just not something that I can deal with in my relationships at this point in my life (and this is me knowing my own boundaries, and asserting them without apology).

          • Just FYI?

            All my Darths have blamed their rudeness and abuse squarely on me. As in, I didn’t pay you back the money because you didn’t chase me for it. I didn’t share because you didn’t say you wanted any. I steamrollered you because you didn’t say no loud enough and clearly enough and frequently enough.

            We scream bloody murder when a woman is raped and she is asked if she said no. We are trying to change the zeitgeist to not raping.

            I’m absolutely not saying you are rising to this level, but it is incumbent on absolutely nobody to have to continually speak out and set boundaries because you can’t be bothered to operate any other way. Per your own statement “I don’t have time…”

          • Anothermous said:

            I do hear you, and I agree, and I absolutely promise I am not asking my acquaintances to come have lunch with me (or insert activity of your choice here) every 20 minutes until they capitulate just to shut me up. I’ve been taking the approach that I have because I’m working on the assumption that Marna Nightengale has outlined above: the LW has framed this clearly as a *her* problem–as in “I can’t say no and then I pretend I am okay with things until I absolutely cannot anymore and then things get really messy/awkward.” That is a different problem than “I am giving soft no’s and this person/these people aren’t hearing them” or “I want to say no but I feel unsafe doing so.” Those problems can and do often overlap, hence my earlier comment that LW might sadly find that people in her current social group turn out to be people she can no longer be around once she gets more comfortable telling them no, because they may well turn out to be the people who won’t hear or accept no, soft or otherwise.

            But also for the record, all MY Darths have blamed their unhappiness and misery on my inability to read their minds and get at what they ~really~ wanted when they had told me one thing but secretly expected another. That person is every bit as toxic as the browbeater who blames you for their bad behavior. There have been MANY letters to CA over the years about how to deal with the “won’t say what I want and then act passive-aggressive and sulky when my social group/family guesses wrong” crowd. Refusal to say no can be just as big a problem as refusal to hear no, and both tactics are used by abusers and manipulaters to abuse and manipulate.

            Just to be clear, I DO NOT think the LW is being sulky or passive-aggressive. (LW, I think you are taking a very necessary and healthy step and I hope you can find techniques and approaches that work for you.) I’m just saying that unhealthy extremes exist in more than one direction.

          • WT said:

            Polkadotkitty, I think this comment is really unfair to Anothermous. I feel like you’re projecting a layer of “well they should just learn to say no” onto their comments that is absolutely not there. They have repeatedly stated that their issue is not with soft nos, it’s with enthusiastic yeses that are lies. They have repeatedly stated that they do their best to distance themselves from people that are easily steamrollered because they DO NOT WANT to steamroller them. “It’s not on other people to set boundaries so that you don’t steamroller them” isn’t applicable advice in a discussion about people that *actively mislead* others on where their boundaries lie. (Due to their discomfort, which I’m very sympathetic to! I’ve been that person as well.) But projecting that Anothermous must be a steamroller who trounces over the boundaries of people around them *because* they explicitly said that they don’t keep people around who they could do that to is both odd, and yeah, unfair.

          • Okay, so, this is what I think you’re saying: “being unable or unwilling to say no is frequently thought of as bad for that person but convenient and pleasant for the people around them and actually that’s not true of most decent people most of the time and actually is hard on them as well.”

            (implied: so, LW, if you feel horrible and selfish saying no it may help you to remember that actually everyone, not just you, will benefit.”)

            Do I have it right? Because if so, yes, I agree.

            My very wise wife observed some years ago that having many forms of insecurity and anxiety tend, if you take your fears to their logical conclusion, to require you to assume that you’re surrounded by malignant assholes.

            “They don’t really like me, they’re all just pretending to” — okay, but who DOES this? As adults, I mean. Shitweasels, yes?
            “If I say or do one thing wrong everyone at this party will hate me” — okay, but who does THAT? Again: shitweasels do that.
            “If I say no, they’ll all be angry and hate me” — you see the theme?

            This is not in ANY WAY to blame LW – it’s a potentially useful way of thinking about the problem, not a reason to feel guilty or mean, because you in fact KNOW you’re not surrounded by shitweasels. At least, it’s possible you are but in this case it sounds as if LW has a pretty good grip on what her circle is like. There may be some, but this doesn’t sound like a “help my “friends” are actually all terrible people” problem.

            I mean, Anothermous, you may not be personally compatible with people whose ‘no’s are super-soft, but I don’t think that’s your point here anymore than it matters that immersion in hardcore “ask” culture makes me feel battered, bruised, and raw very quickly.

            At the moment it’s not about hard vs soft, it’s about “saying no at all” vs “not saying no at all.”

            Working out what kind of crowd one is in, and making adjustments to suit, is both a problem for later and a very different and easier problem than the current one.

          • Anothermous said:

            @Marna Nightengale, I mean, I mostly agree with your first paragraph but that’s actually not what I was trying to say. WT actually hit the nail on the head (and thank you WT for being able to state my feelings better than I could myself): soft nos aren’t an issue. Enthusiastic yeses that are lies are an issue. I originally wanted to make that clarification because of the part of stenton’s comment that says “If you are doing something with someone, and you aren’t actually into it, then they are in the wrong for getting you to do it.” That is… not a statement I 100% agree with. It assumes that the LW has always been coerced into doing anything, when by her own admission she says that she will feign excitement or enthusiasm about something she was never interested in until she can’t take it anymore.

            To me, that implies that she is giving enthusiastic yeses that are lies. That is a different problem than people around the LW not hearing soft no. If the LW never says any kind of no, and in fact says “Sure that sounds great I’d love to!” with a big smile on her face when inside she is thinking “Oh god no that sounds terrible I’d hate to” that is not actually a dynamic that getting better at respecting a soft no will improve, because there is no statement of no to acknowledge at all.

          • Anothermous said:

            Oh my goodness, Marna Nightengale, I totally misread your comment and I’m so sorry. It’s been a long day for me in more ways than one. A+, I’m with you heartily, my reading comprehension is shot, I think it’s time for me to go play Stardew Valley and grow amaranth and collect Large Chicken Eggs. 😉

          • Sss said:

            Anothermous, I completely understand where you are coming from.

            I too have a strong character, and I feel that I’m quite self-aware of that, so whenever I give out an invite, I’ll tack on a, “let me know if you are up for it!” or similar. Or I would suggest options and also get the invitee to suggest options. All my friends (old and new), when they do feel that they are not up for anything at the moment, would tell me a direct no, or give their options.

            Recently a (former) good friend of mine, flaked out on me on a high tea that was booked two weeks beforehand. That high tea was in voucher form and would only work till the end of February. On the day itself, she messaged and said she didn’t feel very well and felt like she had binged too much over the week (we are runners; we constantly have to restrain ourselves wahahha), she wasn’t going, perhaps we should reschedule or I should ask my boyfriend.

            Remember that this was one of my very good friends. We hung out always, did our runs together every weekend, and recently we both felt we haven’t had much time to hang out. That was why I invited her to this high tea, and she was very enthusiastic when I first asked her. So I thought alright, did she want to reschedule since we had a few weeks left to Feb? She said yes (again, enthusiastically), and we rescheduled to the last week of February.

            The day before the high tea, she again told me that she felt she had eaten too much that week, and that I should ask someone else. At this point, I felt a few things: (1) I wanted to reconnect with her, she did not (2) She could have saved me some trouble by telling me NO to rescheduling. (3) The excuse she gave was pathetic on the second try. Was it my mistake to take her at her word?

        • I often say things that are socially acceptable, regardless of their truth. I rationalize by telling myself that the other person is also using a script. Unfortunately, I cannot control my facial expressions and body language. I can say all the right things that a good, supportive, empathic woman is expected to say to display validation and support. However, oftentimes the real, inappropriate anger, selfishness, judgmental attitudes, and all the other nasty things are displayed in my tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. Cue the unfortunate person saying some variation of “WTF?” to me.

      • morgansd said:

        What if the person didn’t realize what they wanted until it was too late?

        I default to saying “yes” and usually don’t realize I wish I’d said “no” until I’m well into the situation and my discomfort has finally built to a high enough level that I become aware of it.

        I am a survivor of early childhood sexual assault, which is why I never learned to say “no”. It’s a very common symptom/unexamined coping mechanism for CSA victims. Many of us also learn to push down our discomfort until we stop noticing it, because constantly feeling hypervigilant and uncomfortable due to C-PTSD is too painful and exhausting to be consciously aware of all the time.

        Unless I am literally going to have a panic attack or breakdown that would inconvenience the other party, I will never cut plans I’ve realized I’m not enjoying short. Because, as per usual, I care much more about not hurting the feelings of the other person, rather than asserting my needs or protecting myself. Sometimes not extracting myself from those kinds of situations for the other person’s sake can take a toll on my mental health and energy for several days afterward. But receiving negative or punishing reactions for trying to cancel plans in the middle has taught me that most people will react as you say you do. To avoid that, I am put back in the same old position of deciding if soneone can handle my honesty, or if it’s safer for me to lie so I won’t be made to feel even worse for making a mistake I already feel shitty and ashamed about.

        Would you have more patience for someone with low/no boundaries if you knew they were absolutely not lying to you when they said yes? I strongly suspect that is rarely happening on the part of the people who agree to plans with you. And frankly, it’s quite a judgmental assumption on your part that they intentionally misled you.

        • Everyone gets to set their own tolerance for canceling out on plans. It is a two-yes-one-no deal — plans don’t go forward unless both continue in a state of “yes” all through. But everyone gets to decide how many late and problematic changes-of-mind are too many and the relationship is just too difficult.

          I hear you on the trauma, but the rest of us have our own problems too, like lack of spoons. If I commit to social plans with you, that means I plan way the hell ahead to make sure the spoons are there to make it happen. And if you back out at the last minute, I damn well will feel the sting of wasted effort and sacrificial spoon rearranging. If you do it too many times, you are too much work for me and my spoon supply.

          I get that it’s hard for you, and it may take a whole lot of work on yourself to be able to manage your yeses and no’s more proactively. It is hard for me and took a whole lot of work on myself to be able to commit social spoons and figure out how to make sure they’ll be there so I could manage my yeses and no’s proactively. These are the entry prices to certain levels of social relationships. Neither of us has to play — we can opt out. But we don’t get to dump all the burden on others and expect that any and all can put up with an infinite amount.

          • morgansd said:

            Thus my issue with this being framed as people with low/no boundaries as having lied when there is no clear evidence to suggest that’s the case. I have similar issue with this being framed as a situation where the person cancelled on is “made to feel like the bad guy”. By whom, except her own self? Has any blame been assigned by the person cancelling, or have they simply said, “Damn, I made an awful mistake. I have to bail, I just can’t handle this. I’m so sorry. I hope we can try again”?

            I have zero issue with someone who is clearly incomparable with me and unable to support me in the ways I need from a friend. But I take issue with the way this whole issue is being set up so that the person cancelling is apparently doing something actively or intentionally deceitful or hurtful. Why have ideas like lying and blame been brought into this on the part of the person without boundaries, especially when LW says nothing to imply she engages in behaviours like this?

            I get what you’re saying, but I really do feel that this particular thread has some underlying issues that are pretty unhealthy and judgmental. There’s nothing wrong with picking your friends selectively. But there’s something that makes me deeply uneasy about how much blame and burden of self-defence seems to be put on the person who cancelled at the last minute in this thread. I feel very uncomfortable at the idea of someone with serious boundary issues being called a liar for told they’re making someone into “the bad guy” simply for giving their “no” later than the more assertive party feels comfortable with.

          • Aris Merquoni said:

            morgansd, the LW literally says:

            … rather than being able to say ‘I am very uncomfortable with the direction this is going’ I pretend to be just as into it as they are. Actually, quite often I end up leading the way into something I know I don’t want to do…. So by the time I manage to admit that I’m not ok with doing X, the person I was doing X with is almost always upset and confused because I seem super into it right up until I’m super not. (emphasis added)

            Look, that’s super upsetting for everyone. That’s super upsetting for the LW (and anyone else who has faked being excited about plans they’re not into for the sake of harmony) because it means doing things they’re not into and feeling uncomfortable with it. But it is ALSO upsetting for people who think that their friend is just as excited as they are about mutual plans, when in fact they’ve been unhappy all the time.

            That’s also different than saying yes to plans and then canceling, or getting to something and going “Look, I’m changing my mind, I’m actually having a bad time,” or getting midway through an activity and going “This wasn’t as good an idea as I thought.” That’s a mismatch problem but not the entirety of what the LW describes.

            Faking that you’re really into something that you’re not isn’t the biggest sin in the world, but it is misleading. It is untrue. Even if the circumstance is “Well, I said yes, so I’m going to pretend I’m fine to smooth things over.”

            If you’re into enthusiastic consent, for life as well as sex, it’s really disconcerting to realize that even when you’ve raised your standards to require a “Yes, absolutely!” from someone before you embark on a thing, you can still be wrong about what they really want. Putting the onus on someone to be totally okay with that switch is not okay. I am not going to be completely okay with being told “Actually, my enthusiastic consent was not real.” I’m not going to be okay because I don’t want to hurt people, because I’m trying my best not to hurt people, and being told I have been hurting someone despite my best efforts is awful.

            And if on top of this I’m being told that “No, the guidelines that we all agreed to play by aren’t good enough, you should have done more work to keep from hurting someone”… well, no. If someone tells me that I can’t trust their enthusiastic yes, I have no way to tell if they actually want to say yes to something. And if they tell me that’s just the way they are and I need to deal with it, I’m going to keep away.

            There are other alternatives to this! Even being told “You know what, I’m working on this thing where I have a hard time saying no to things, can you help me work on that” is fine. I don’t mind doing the work to help a friend who is having trouble communicating their boundaries! But I am not going to deal well with the implication that the communication problems are all on my end.

            So please, LW, if you’re wading into this thread: Your friends want you to be happy above all, or they’re bad friends. Learning to say no to things you don’t want to do is good for that! I hope that things work out so you can untangle that because it sounds really rough.

          • morgansd said:

            All of which apparently justfies a long subthread of people without boundary issues derailing to discuss how it’s SO HARD to be friend with people who do. By implying that most or all people with boundary issues are intentionally misleading you when we say yes too soon, and making you “the bad guy” when we say “hey, I fucked up, my bad.”

            I’m deeply confused as to how levelling accusatory language at people without boundaries and assuming that we are all intentionally deceitful and blame others for our boundary issues is supportive of LW, or anyone else with low/no boundaries. Why are we discussing how people with boundaries feel about people without them at all on this post? How is this helpful to LW, rather than just shaming?

            I feel like there are better forums to discuss how people with boundaries have trouble interacting with people who have few or none. LW did not ask for other people’s thoughts on how other people must feel when she has to cancel at the last minute. She asked for advice on how to say no. I can’t figure out how telling her that saying no at the last minute (or later) will definitely upset and alienate people with boundaries is a helpful method of teaching her to say no when she needs or wants to.

            Why are people pointing out to LW that people with boundaries will have hurt feelings if she says no at the “wrong” time? Why do the feelings of people with boundaries matter in a conversation about how people without boundaries can learn to say no? Why are we talking about what’s “upsetting for everyone” when the OP struggles with saying no, instead of the ways in which her lack of boundaries is upsetting to her? I don’t get it.

            “If you’re into enthusiastic consent, for life as well as sex, it’s really disconcerting to realize that even when you’ve raised your standards to require a “Yes, absolutely!” from someone before you embark on a thing, you can still be wrong about what they really want.”

            Yes. But your feelings of discomfort are on you to deal with. The person with no boundaries has not hurt you by being honest with you. It is not our job to deal with you negative reactions to our coping mechanisms or personal struggles. And it’s supremely unhelpful to suggest that your feelings of discomfort at a late “no” are as important as the person without boundaries saying “no” to you at all.

            Also, for the record? If you think it’s disconcerting to realize someone might have told you they were enthusiastically consent to something that they later realized they never wanted, please try to understand how incredibly painful it is to be the person who couldn’t say no. To have to try to explain to someone that no, they didn’t violate your consent, but no, you also weren’t okay with what happened. To have to handhold someone with boundaries through the guilt and shame they say they’re feeling, no matter how gently and blamelessly you tried to broach the topic. To have to ask someone who says they care for you to check in with you repeatedly before believing your “yes” on certain things, knowing that most people will decide you’re just too high-maintenance (or crazy, or broken, or pick your term) to bother behaving differently with. And of course all the while remembering that you are at fault for both your own pain and your friend’s, because if you could just say no, this never would have happened. And putting their feelings first, because you hurt them by not being able to stand up for your own needs, and that’s what matters. Not that you hurt yourself too. They don’t seem to care about that, so why should you? You have no boundaries, after all.

            I have seen this dynamic play out repeatedly between people I know with low/no boundaries and people with boundaries who assume everyone else can say “no” as easily as they can. I find it endlessly frustrating that the any attempt at discussing this seems to inevitably come back around to people with boundaries suggesting that if only people without boundaries need to change how we act (yes, we know), while defensively pointing out how much work it would be for then to stop assuming that everyone they meet has solid, sturdy boundaries just like theirs. Instead of learning to look out for signs that you’re interacting with someone who has boundary issues, or assuming that a stranger can’t say “no” easily until you have strong evidence to the contrary–that’s hard work, right? Checking in several times with someone you don’t know well to try to ensure the “yes” you assumed was enthusiastic actually was–well, that might feel awkward, especially if it turns out the person does have good boundaries and didn’t need the check-in. Much easier not to bother. If they tell you otherwise later, well, they shouldn’t have lied to you in the first place if they didn’t want to upset you. Lying is hurtful and wrong, after all. They should know how

            This whole subthread feels extremely victim-blaming of people without boundaries. We didnt choose to lack boundaries. It is extremely difficult to create them as an adult when you have few or none. We are struggling with enough just trying to learn to protect ourselves from actual predators. If you can’t be friends with us, don’t. But please also don’t jump into threads about our issues with justifications for why it’s okay to drop us from your lives for having learned behaviours that are incalculably more harmful to ourselves than they could ever be to you. This isn’t about you, and telling us how hard we are to deal with is neither relevant nor helpful. We dont need to hear it. Especially since most of us have heard that narrative from people with boundaries many times already.

            Perhaps if you have strong boundaries, a thread about how to deal with having few/none is not an appropriate place to complain about people with few/no boundaries. Just a thought.

          • JenniferP said:

            It’s time to close this subthread. For lots of reasons. Please move on from responding to Anothermous and morgansd. That includes Anothermous and morgansd. When people have a hard time saying no, misunderstandings occur. It is known.

            If you have a comment FOR THE LETTER writer, great. If you’re jumping in on a back-and-forth with another poster, skip it.

    • saddesklunch said:

      I don’t think this is entirely fair… If I ask my friend and they give me an enthusiastic yes it’s not actually my job to be a detective and find out if they really truly want to do it – I’m allowed to take someone’s yes at face value. If they later come back and say “actually I hate x and don’t want to do it,” that’s fine, but it also might be hurtful and confusing since I previously thought we were both enjoying our time together and now I’m having to reframe how I think about the experience and wonder if I was secretly being an asshole or something. That doesn’t mean I get to guilt my friend or try to convince them that they actually love x because they acted like they did, but having confused or hurt feelings about a situation like that doesn’t make me a bad person, just like my friend changing their mind (or finally deciding to stop pretending and speak it) doesn’t make them a bad person

      • I agree somewhat. If you get a yes and you are sure you are not being coercive or bossy, then you should be able to take that at face value.

        But if something keeps happening to us, it’s us. And if you are my friend I do expect you to pick up on nuances after a while. If every interaction with a person feels like they are not even remotely attempting to get to know me I *will* peace out.

        • As someone who has also heard a Yes! turn into a No and I don’t know why you even thought I would like it! it only has to happen a few times for it to a) be memorable and b) make you decide that those are people you don’t want to be around.

          It has happened to me once; it is enough that if I think someone is going to struggle with saying “no,” soft or hard, I’m going to choose not to be around them. I am also a “strong personality” and I also had to learn soft nos – but when I was learning about soft nos, lots of different interactions began to make sense to me.
          The Yes! to No! transition only left me feeling confused and like I couldn’t trust that person – in part, because they made me feel really, really bad about myself for something I had no control over (their honesty about their enthusiasm.) I spent a few days feeling really awful about myself and trying to figure out what I had misinterpreted – and honestly, I hadn’t. And then I felt really bad, because how could I trust anybody, if apparently I was such a hurricane of a force that nobody could say no to me and it was incumbent upon me to make sure I never suggested anything disagreeable ever?

          Now, that is not me – my friends say no in a variety of ways all the time and I respect that – but I do make sure to be around people who can and do say no. Because I do not want to spend my time worrying about every suggestion coming out of my mouth, especially if I don’t really care where we spend dinner, I’m only suggesting something because you asked for a suggestion.

          • Anothermous said:

            I could hug you for this comment. This is exactly how I feel.

          • rrr said:

            Reading this comment and Anothermous’ was such a balm for me. A few years ago a girlfriend whom I had been happily (I believed) dating for 4+ years suddenly left me, citing, amongst other totally-new-to-me complaints, that certain things we did together that she had not only enthusiastically consented to but actively encouraged me to enact with her on many occasions throughout the years (including a few days earlier), had “always made her uncomfortable”. It broke me for a long time. These were things that had required a lot of trust and vulnerability before I was even willing to admit to wanting to try with her, let alone enact, and that we only started to explore after much discussion. Her implication was that I had coerced her into doing them, and was wrapped up in a broader claim that I had always expected to get my own way in the relationship. That accusation hurt me deeply. After much reflection both by myself and with a therapist, I don’t believe it is a fair characterization of events. But I’m left not knowing what parts, if any, of that 4+ year relationship were real at all.

      • Emma9 said:

        That’s why it might be more helpful to frame it in terms of ‘I don’t want to do/am not enjoying X *anymore*’ – doesn’t open up the wormcan about making the friend wonder what *else* you just went along with, up to and including the entire friendship, but still communicates a boundary. A reasonable person might offer help or suggestions *once* at this point (has something changed, is there something specific about X that bothers you now), but if you repeat ‘Thanks, but I’d just rather not anymore’, anything beyond that is them being pushy.

        • Yup! I don’t have a problem with friends saying they have a headache or aren’t feeling well or are worn out from the week or need to reschedule. If you do it frequently, I will only make plans with you that I’m okay with labeling as “tentative” but I won’t be annoyed about it.

      • I can see both sides of this. If we look at it in terms of say, sexual consent (which I’m sure is the Worst Case Scenario Familiar To Many Female-Shaped Persons™ and is where a lot of our minds went), we all know there are many people who won’t accept a soft or even a firm no when it comes to sex. But imagine if you asked Lovely Sex Partner to do a thing, and LSP said yes to the thing in a way that made you believe they were into it, and then halfway through they told you they weren’t into it, had never been into it and had only said yes to appease you. A rapist wouldn’t care; I like to think most of us here would be horrified and sickened to think they may have behaved even coercive-adjacent. It’s important to pick up cues that someone is Extremely Not Okay With The Thing. But a lot of people who have been conditioned not to say no are also really good at hiding those cues. So I get where LW is coming from and also the comments from Ask Culture people (like me) who hate to be on the other side of it.

        • saddesklunch said:

          I totally agree — honestly I think in a lot of situations there’s not necessarily one person at fault. As someone who has a strong personality and strong opinions in some respects, but who also has trouble identifying my needs and speaking up and asserting boundaries in other situations, I really feel for everyone involved in these situations, providing that they are acting in good faith.

          I want to have respectful, secure relationships with the people who I’m close to, which I think means both listening for and respecting no’s (soft and hard) and also clearly communicating my needs as much as possible so that other people don’t have to put a lot of work into guessing what I *really* mean or being suspicious that I’m doing things that I hate or that make me uncomfortable when I say I’m enjoying myself. I think that’s what the OP was getting at, and it can be really hard to do!

        • A guy I was dating once tried on me the “you control all the access to all the sex!” argument that I have since then learned way too many guys try. How that argument goes is that the poor wounded guy is all controlled because the SHE in question always decides when sex won’t happen and when it will happen. “She decides when it’s yes! She decides when it’s no! I don’t get any say!”

          Obviously, if that actually is true, the guy is being sexually abused. But I’m talking about cases where the guy makes that argument and claims he is being abused just because he doesn’t like having to care about his female partner’s consent. The giveaway on which they’re talking about comes when you ask them what change they would like, and they say THEY want to be able “to be the one to decide sometimes”…the ONE who decides. Yeah, ick. There can’t be “the one who decides” that sex is happening because consent has to come from both.

          So when that now-ex tried that on me, I sat up and took notice, and immediately said we had to stop all sexual contact. Because obviously if he felt like I decided all the no’s AND all the yeses for him, that meant he was saying he wasn’t consenting. And that at times past he wasn’t consenting when it certainly looked and sounded like he was. So clearly, we couldn’t be having sex since his consent couldn’t be presumed to be clear and no way was I taking that kind of risk.

          “What? Wait! No! That’s not what I meant!”

    • Marthooh said:

      Interpersonal relationships can be really really screwy without anyone being at fault.

  17. Nanani said:

    It definitely takes practice!
    On the other side, I can tell you saying “NO” comes to feel wonderful. Prioritizing yourself, doing what you really want to do and NOT doing what you don’t want to do, is just awesome. Let that freedom motivate you to practice.

    You will get there too! Follow the captain’s advice and take it at your own pace.

    Go team NOPE!

  18. B. said:

    Hi, LW! Like you, I think I’m sometimes too nice (in my detriment) as a defence mechanism/result from socialization. Jedi hugs and solidarity fist bumps if you want them!

    The suggestion to practice assertiveness with positive answers has worked really well for me. I read it some years ago in one of the Captain’s older posts and decided to put it into practice. My chosen branch was complimenting people’s clothes or accesories; as in, if I saw someone I knew wearing a t-shirt I liked, I told them “That’s a really cool t-shirt!”. If it was someone I didn’t know, I consciously thought it instead. Results: it brightened my mood to say something positive, it brightened the other person’s mood to be paid a sincere compliment, and after around 6-8 months, I’d became much more comfortable saying enthusiastic yeses and graceful noes. Success! 😀

    Some other thoughts if you decide to go this route:
    – Better not to verbally compliment strangers, people who hold positions of power over you (bosses, professors), and people whom you hold a position of power over (students, staff people at restaurants or shops). In those cases you can think the compliment instead.
    – Friends, family, peers, and coworkers are usually okay with receiving this kind of compliments.
    – Better not to comment on someone’s physical characteristics that they cannot change (body shape, height, eye color, hair, and so on), since they may feel self-conscious or even threatened, if they associate your words to past bad experiences. Unless you know for a fact because they said it to you that they’re okay with it. Again, you can think the things you cannot say out loud: “that man’s hair looks super soft!”; “my, that person has really gorgeous eyes!”.
    – Conscious, personal choices like clothes, jewelry, a new hair style or make up are usually ok to comment on, as long as the comment is nice. If you don’t like something, you can always articulate it to yourself in the privacy of your thoughts: “I really don’t like those shoes, though she does”.
    – It’s not as difficult as it looks. It’s just putting what you like into words. It’s a way to redirect your niceness into helping you become more assertive, and then putting what you don’t like into words is much easier to reach for.

    Good luck! 🙂

    • I compliment strangers all the time, but only on very specific things; I don’t comment on their body, just things like their hair, their outfit, that sort of thing.

      • B. said:

        In my culture, complimenting a stranger unless you are a) at a night club trying to pick them up or b) an elderly person who gives out a parental vibe, is creepy and invasive. There’s actually a recurring problem of verbal street harassment that takes the form of “compliments” being shouted at women by men.

        In other cultures, like you say, paying a nice compliment to a stranger is not creepy. I think the LW should use her own judgement and what her good sense is telling her about the culture she lives in to decide which route is most appropiate for each situation 🙂

        • I hate when men on the street comment that I’m pretty, but I like when they say, “Cool shoes!” They’re right, I *do* have cool shoes. And it feels like they’re complimenting my personality rather than my appearance.

          • The Dread Vampy said:

            Yeah, like, I live in a very friendly city and strange men quite often shout things to me in the street, but the reason I say it’s a FRIENDLY place not a creepy one is the compliments they call are things like ‘Cool hair!’ or, like, a joke about a slogan on my t-shirt (one time I was very disconcerted when I left my flat and a very beardy man with a thick Scottish accent yelled ‘YEAH, FUCK EM’, until I realised I was wearing a t-shirt I’d made saying ‘FUCK FUCKING BIGOTS’. Made me happy all day) whereas in my last city it was likely to be a comment on my body/attractiveness/smiliness or lack thereof. I think it’s easy to identify a genuine compliment over a creep a lot of the time, and a non-creepy compliment can make the whole day feel brighter

        • Right, I was just saying that if I’m out at Target or something and someone has an awesome shirt or their hair is a great color, I’ll mention it really quickly, just a, “Hey, I love that shirt/those shoes/your hair” and keep walking. I’m also a woman, so that probably helps it be less creepy.

  19. Penelope Widdowson-Bonefat said:

    If you have access to children and are comfortable taking care of them, babysitting may be a way to practice saying no — kids need to be told no when they’re trying to do something unsafe, for example, and it may be a way to short-circuit the “must please others!” loop in your brain if you let the “must protect tiny human!” loop launch. Even just practicing with a pre-verbal infant may help: “No, my glasses are not for chewing on, no, bathtime is now, ‘never’ is not an option, no, hitting yourself in the eye is not allowed.” Etc.

    • Jill said:

      This is a super suggestion. I found that now that I have to set boundaries constantly for my two toddlers, it’s a hell of a lot easier to “give no f*cks” in terms of setting boundaries with other adults. It’s like…when I’m around my toddlers I *have* to be the one that knows best. ABout everything. So if I know what’s best for them, surely I know what’s best for ME.

    • Serin said:

      If you spend much time being responsible for small children, you also find that you’re doing a lot of boundary-setting for adults, too.

      Things I have actually said to people that I would previously have dreaded a fight with:

      To my mother-in-law: “Please don’t let the 4-year-old go behind the bakery counter with a Kroger employee that you don’t know.”
      To waiters: “Wait, hang on, budget issues — that’s a yes on the kiddie meal but a no on the hot tea.”
      To my father: “The kidlet’s weight is the kidlet’s weight. Please don’t keep bringing it up.”
      To strangers: “That’s kind of you, but it’s really not all right; we’re working on learning not to pet doggies until their humans say it’s OK.”

      • Emma9 said:

        Your last point – hah, I sometimes have to scold myself in the opposite direction; once I have requested and acquired someone’s permission to interact with their dog, I’m perfectly happy to allow said dog to jump up on me, lick my face, etc, but I’m working on training myself to remember the owners might be trying to train this habit *out* of Fido, in which case I’m not helping.

        • I am that person also, Emma. I will happily squeal at a dog, encourage him to give me kisses, etc.

    • Ash said:

      I think that’s a great idea…for me, I think one thing that helped me get better at saying no was dealing with clients at work. Basically a situation where it’s just socially expected that you’ll sometimes be saying no, and you can get used to using a matter of fact script of “No that isn’t doable, end of story.” (In my case, my boss would be advising or backing me which made it easier.) Can’t say if it would work for everyone, but smth to consider.

  20. mf said:

    Fellow people pleaser here. One thing that helps me is reminding myself that I DESERVE to voice my feelings, needs, and desires. I DESERVE to have my “no” respected. And anyone who does not respect my “no” is someone who doesn’t love and care for me in a healthy way. (In other words, if someone reacts badly to my “no,” that’s due to their own flaws and baggage. It’s NOT because something I did.)

    The word DESERVE is particularly important because I am a woman and the world is constantly tell female-presenting people about all the things they don’t deserve. Fuck that noise.

    Anyway, sometimes I give myself a pep talk along these lines when I have to say no. It helps me be brave when I assert my own worth. 🙂

    • B. said:

      “The word DESERVE is particularly important because I am a woman and the world is constantly tell female-presenting people about all the things they don’t deserve. Fuck that noise.”
      Quoted for truth and beauty.

  21. tuxbox said:

    I’ve had a lot of issues with saying no and setting boundaries in two areas: family and volunteer things that I’d committed to. The latter was especially bad when I was working with victims because I felt a guilty sense of obligation that I *had* to keep giving of myself since I was helping others and I felt like if I didn’t keep giving, they’d suffer, as would the organization (this wasn’t an overly entitled sense of importance, but I was one of the longest-term members of an organization I was a volunteer for, outside of original founder, and I carried about 75% of the cases most of the time).

    Burnout with one volunteer group is what made me learn to set the boundaries, plus a growing sense of apathy (which is actually a huge negative and not what I wanted, but wound up being a side-effect of the burnout). Family was a whole other different kettle of fish. For that, it was a lot of fighting, yelling, letting my mother push me around, sometimes giving in to her, other times ignoring her while pretending to give in, but still letting her get away with way too much garbage. Part of the way I solved it was moving further and further away until I finally wound up 2000 miles away. Was it the best solution? I wouldn’t say it was but it made it easier to say “no” and “you can’t talk to me that way” in phone conversations when she’d start being ridiculous. And it gave me better tools for holding my ground when I visited. This didn’t always work and I still had some fights I didn’t win (I visited a week after major surgery and my trip there involved a 6 hour flight that had a lot of sitting and not moving, and after the nearly 10 hours of travelling BS, I was in a lot of pain and really just wanted to get to her house and lay down, but during our 1.5-2 hour drive to her place from the airport, she wanted to stop at a store and pick up some things and spent an hour shopping… when I complained about the pain, she told me to just go sit in the truck and wait for her, so the commute home from the airport took an extra 1.5 hours, instead of just, you know… getting me the hell somewhere where I could relax and *not be travelling*, but I didn’t argue or fight with her about it, I just took the BS and sucked it up “since she was going out of her way to pick me up at the airport”).

    It’s hard to lay down boundaries and say no, especially with family but taking small steps and when I started thinking about *my* happiness and comfort levels first and foremost and saying “no, I matter more than you and I care about my well-being more than your party/comfort/enjoyment/happiness/whatever”***, then things started to change. Care about yourself first and stop worrying about other peoples’ hurt feelings.

    *** CAVEAT: And I’m not talking about being selfish and stomping all over people. Prioritizing your well-being doesn’t mean pooping on others necessarily. It means caring about yourself first, don’t sacrifice your health and happiness in the pursuit of pleasing others or making sure they’re not upset, especially if that “upset” is of their own making.

    • Kitty said:

      Thus resonates so much for me. I think my mother is very similar to yours. She just cannot accept a no to something that she wants, and acts like my feelings and decisions are invalid if they are not made or expressed in exactly the way she thinks they should. I’m sick of taking her feelings into account when she never respects mine. I’m working on being more assertive with her and yes, living by myself on the other side of the city helps.

      • tuxbox said:

        A lot of what my mom has a habit of doing is couching it in love or “because she cares”. This can go from over-mothering to fat-shaming or whatever else she thinks is necessary to “take care of you”. And if you disagree, a lot of the time it’s because you just didn’t see it right so she’ll keep arguing or pushing it at you because in her head if she pushes hard enough, you’ll eventually give in and see it her way. Unfortunately, my sister and I taught her for many years that this tactic would work because she’d wear us down and we’d give in (at least to her face, as we’d sometimes just go and do what we wanted behind her back). We’d learned that sometimes it was easier to give in than fight (ie, pick your battles). Of course, as we got older, this wound up biting us in the butt when we’d have larger issues to fight over and it was a battle we knew we had to fight and it was that much harder because she was so used to winning just from barreling us over for so many years.

        My sister had an easier time with setting boundaries, to some degree, despite me being the more rebellious one, but we’ve both had our struggles. Moving far away and dealing with a lot of it over the phone helped a lot. Having a sister who gave her grandkids also helped a lot and let her redirect a lot of her energies away from me. In comparison to some other parents, she wasn’t as bad as some, but it sometimes got really difficult and learning to set the boundaries did help our relationship in the long-run. I hope you can figure out how to make it work and it gets better!

        • Kitty said:

          “And if you disagree, a lot of the time it’s because you just didn’t see it right so she’ll keep arguing or pushing it at you because in her head if she pushes hard enough, you’ll eventually give in and see it her way.”

          Dear God, did we have the same mother? This is her exact thought process. She also claims it’s out of “caring”. She even talks about such instances later as it taking a while to “convince” me. Or if I decide to do something anyway for my own reasons and in spite of her bulldozing, she will still take credit for it.

          And the worst part is whenever I name her problematic and controlling behaviours, she will fling them right back at me with no self examination whatsoever.

          She talks about wanting us to have “an easy relationship” (which in itself is absurd because what relationship is easy), and I’ve now leaned to translate that as her wanting a relationship where she never has to compromise or examine her own behaviour and I agree with her all the time. Ugh.

          It’s exhausting, even from a distance. :-/

        • Kitty said:

          “And if you disagree, a lot of the time it’s because you just didn’t see it right so she’ll keep arguing or pushing it at you because in her head if she pushes hard enough, you’ll eventually give in and see it her way.”

          Dear God, did we have the same mother? This is her exact thought process. She also claims it’s out of “caring”. She even talks about such instances later as it taking a while to “convince” me. Or if I decide to do something anyway for my own reasons and in spite of her bulldozing, she will still take credit for it.

          And the worst part is whenever I name her problematic behaviours, she will fling them right back at me with no self examination whatsoever.

          She talks about wanting us to have “an easy relationship” (which in itself is absurd because what relationship is easy), and I’ve now leaned to translate that as her wanting a relationship where she never has to compromise or examine her own behaviour and I agree with her all the time. Ugh.

          It’s exhausting, even from a distance. :-/

        • Kitty said:

          “And if you disagree, a lot of the time it’s because you just didn’t see it right so she’ll keep arguing or pushing it at you because in her head if she pushes hard enough, you’ll eventually give in and see it her way.”

          Dear God, did we have the same mother? This is her exact thought process. She also claims it’s out of “caring”. She even talks about such instances later as it taking a while to “convince” me. Or if I decide to do something anyway for my own reasons and in spite of her bulldozing, she will still take credit for it.

          And the worst part is whenever I name her problematic behaviours, she will fling them right back at me with no self examination whatsoever.

          She talks about wanting us to have “an easy relationship” (which in itself is absurd because what relationship is easy), and I’ve now leaned to translate that as her wanting a relationship where she never has to compromise or examine her own behaviour and I agree with her all the time. Ugh.

          It’s exhausting, even from a distance. :-/

        • Thanksforallthefish said:

          I also had the same mother. “she’ll keep arguing or pushing it at you because in her head if she pushes hard enough, you’ll eventually give in and see it her way” and also, “her way” is actually the truth and THE way. She used to say she made all the mistakes so we wouldn’t have to. Also, she said her parenting style was just “using logic” which really means coercing, manipulating and wearing us down until we self-trained to leap to saying yes before she even had a chance to ask because we knew that got the best reaction.

          Ugggh and solidarity high fives if you want them.

          Moving out of state helped. Also I think I have done better with setting boundaries than my sister even though she was the rebellious one…interesting.

  22. Cora said:

    LW: Please go to therapy while you try baby steps in saying no. I say this from experience. Rooting out the cause of who taught you never to say no could work wonders for your ability to defuse it.

    What ASJ describes is my mom. Growing up, I got screamed at if I let my guard down and said no because I just didn’t want to do it, forgetting that I had to be Mother’s Perfect Daughter. (My copy of Karly McBrides’ “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” is well-thumbed.)

    So I went through my teens and twenties either saying yes or making up all kinds of lies so people would still like me, just like Mom did. Then Stuff Happened, and I went into therapy, telling my therapist about the way my mom treated me and finding out that that wasn’t normal. Like, at all. Nobody else got screamed at for an hour and a half when their mom found out they went ahead and lost their virginity, at the age of 21, to man they loved and trusted. Nobody else sat on the floor crying while Mom stood over them, purple-faced and shouting that they only reason she didn’t wait until the wedding night with a man that Mom had already approved and instead dictated her own sex life was because YOU THINK I’M FAT, AND STUPID, AND UGLY!!!

    See, I thought that was normal. When I learned it wasn’t, I started to see my mom as a separate person, not just The Authority Figure. Then I could look at her behavior — like how she lied all the time. She never said no; she never stuck up for herself. That’s what she taught me to do. I had to lie and lie and lie because otherwise, I’d have to say no and then nobody would like me anymore, because I wasn’t Perfect.

    Once I saw my mother’s behavior, with the help of my awesome therapist, I was able to say, “But I don’t fucking hate myself like she does.” From there I was able to begin the process of learning new behavior, like saying no.

    It might not be your mom, but I’ll bet someone in your life deliberately taught you this behavior. It’s very much worth the time and effort to get a professional to help you figure out who that was, so you can also see that you’re not them. You are you. You get to say no — even when it disappoints other people.

    • Emma9 said:

      (suicide tw)

      That is such a good point about normalizing. I’ll never forget the first time I learned (by reading a Cracked article, of all things) that threatening suicide at someone is actually a form of abuse. That it’s not normal. That my reacting to my mother making these threats by getting upset was not, in fact, an example of me being oversensitive. (She had lots of these examples.)

      Glad you’ve also been able to unlearn that version of normal, and jedi hugs if you want them.

    • Kitty said:

      Wow, that is horrible, I’m sorry you had to deal with a mother like that. I hope things are better for you now.

      My mother is similar, although with less screaming and more subtle manipulation that leaves me wondering why I wanted to defy her in the first place. I’m about to start counselling to help me unlearn the behaviours she trained into me and not automatically see her as The Authority, like you said.

      • Thanksforallthefish said:

        Hey that’s my mom too! why on earth would I want to watch that tv show that mom doesn’t like? BECAUSE I F’ING LIKE IT and we’re not the same person and she is not THE ALL-KNOWING

  23. thekatcameback said:

    SO MUCH DIFFICULTY in saying no. I learned it as a child, when saying yes made people proud of me and happy to be near me (like many girls) and fell into a series of toxic friendships. it sounds like you and I have a similar problem in enthusiasm. It feels SO GOOD to support people and start new things and help out, and then suddenly it hits and, if you’re me, you get seriously ill, nearly fail a year of university, cry every night for two years, and slowly mend with the help of friends and family and professionals.

    I own a copy of “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty” that has traveled with me through every move and sometimes when I feel sick about saying no, I just look at the title and it reminds me that OTHER PEOPLE FIND THIS HARD TOO. I think that’s a big step– part of the reason that I personally say yes is because I DO feel guilty (who else will do this task if not me/don’t they need my support/it’s been so difficult for them recently and if I just–) and also because I think other people will be angry with me. And when I see that book and know that other people struggle with it, it reminds me of the times I have managed to say no and people are like “okay, cool” or “maybe next time!” or, magically, “yeah, you know I had to ask you because it seemed like your think but you’ve looked pretty stressed right now, are you ok?”

    I one million percent agree with the Captain’s advice about therapy. I also suggest reading more widely on this website! (I refer to it a LOT in person, because it has really saved me from a lot of things I hated about myself and the way I interacted with people around me.) Part of my “saying no” problem was a “no boundaries” problem, where I really disliked myself and shaped myself through other people appreciating me. And it has taken YEARS of therapy to be a person I can sit alone with. What I did was read this page and took some of the big things I wanted to learn to say no on to my amazing therapist, and talked out the situations with her. It’s easy to catastrophy-spiral alone, but in a safe space you can talk about what you fear and have someone say “Okay, that could happen, but what good things do you think might happen?”

    I also notice that when you talk about these situations, you’re emphasizing how people are upset when you stop. That’s ok! They’re probably upset for the exact same reason you are in the moment– they think they’ve hurt you.

    My experience with no:

    1. definitely try it on people you don’t know first. That makes it not a friendship-defining moment, but just a quick thing. “No, I’m sorry, I can’t donate to your cause.” “Excuse me, but I ordered this without mustard.” “I don’t have room in my schedule for another activity this week.” “I’ve already got a partner for this project.”

    2. Find someone you trust and loop them in so that whenever you say no you can tell them. In the interim, this was a bridge between pleasing people because I knew even if I upset someone by saying no, someone else would say “Good job!”

    2b. Less ideal, but my supervisor offered to be the fallguy for me. She said, “You need to work on your thesis. If you have to turn down events by saying I said you couldn’t, I’m fine with that.” I don’t always use her, but sometimes with a big thing I really like I think of her and her support of what i’m here for and no I can’t do your survey, I’m writing my thesis. You can think of it like being goal-oriented: does this add to what I want and what makes me happy?

    3. Seriously be SO GENTLE with yourself wherever the no comes in the conversation. You don’t have to get it out perfectly or get the right response, and if you feel shitty after you say it THAT’S OK because that feeling will probably go away, and if it doesn’t then you can go back and say yes later!

    I started saying no, and it felt like a miracle that people still liked me and respected me and wanted me around. I could enjoy being around them, because I wasn’t constantly on the verge of burning out through stress and dispersing my energy. And eventually, I started figuring out what I actually like so that I can say yes to things and not regret it a few hours later!

    You can TOTALLY do this.

    • thekatcameback said:

      also apologies for apparently having seven million feelings on this subject.

    • Nic said:

      I second finding someone and looping them in. My roommate and I practice “no”, both by him giving me encouragement when I tell him about boundaries I’ve set, and by making requests of me that I should feel free to say no to. They range from the absolutely fantastic (and much easier to say no to) such as “give me $10 million” to easy stuff that is inconsequential such as “You want to drive?” when he knows I hate driving.

      Both sides of that, the practice and the support have been a huge help for me.

  24. Charmed Omega said:

    I disagree with the advice “Delay giving an answer to give yourself more time to decide.” – I did this for *years* and I think it makes it worse instead of better. It puts you in a state of saying yes when you mean no for a long time. You keep your friends hanging, keeping their schedule open for you only to cancel at the last minute. You are living in dread of having to tell them no for ages while you talk yourself into saying no, and when you finally manage it you have to be the one to bring up that you’re rejecting them. It’s sort of rough for everyone

    Some tips of my own:

    Practice on the internet and via email first
    This is why I choose things like doctor’s offices that make appointments online. When you get an email with a request you have the time to check in with yourself about what you want, write up the answer you’d like to be able to send, then press send really fast before you can talk yourself out of it. And you can make yourself tea afterwards and feel awful the first few times in the comfort of your own home if you need to.

    Allow yourself to apologize profusely if it makes you feel better (and then work on not feeling like you need to apologize)
    I also try to take note of which people make me feel like I have to apologize or explain myself.
    Another note: this will sometimes let you see how bizarre and surprising people think it is about how bad you feel turning them down, and you will learn that their party will not be ruined forever if you aren’t there.

    Check in with yourself before answering
    Even if you end up compelled to say yes, I think it’s good practice to recognize and acknowledge how you feel.

    Don’t feel like you have to answer vague or open invitations
    “Oh yeah, we can hang out some time” is an OK social nicety, you don’t need to twist yourself into knots when there’s not a real invitation. You don’t have to follow up with scheduling if you’re not into it. You can worry about turning down an invitation when there’s a real one to turn down.
    Someone invited you and 40 buddies to a big party? You don’t need to explain yourself on the facebook invite, you don’t even have to press the “no” button if that’s hard.

    Offer an alternative (only if it’s one that will make you happy)
    After checking in with yourself you hopefully have a sense of whether it’s the activity or the person you want to avoid. When a person invites you to something what they’re really saying is ‘I like you and want to hang out with you’ – so decide what your answer to *that* question is. If it’s yes, you can still say yes to their underlying question without having to do the activity you hate. “Sorry, I’m not really a movies person. Do you want to come over and bake cookies instead?” “Sorry I can’t* make it to your party, let me make it up to you by inviting you to come dancing with me some Thursday?” (*can’t, because it sounds awful)

    Check in with yourself at regular intervals during the event
    If I’m not sure about something, or I’ve said yes when I realize later I meant to say no I’ll usually give myself a timer. After an hour I can decide

    Check in with yourself after
    Are you glad you did the thing? What could have been different to make you happier? (same people different venue? same people less often? same event shorter time and not on a work night? not those people?)

    General self confidence and assertiveness work will make this better. Practice those things whichever way you can and it’ll get better.

    • flynnthecat1 said:

      ” It puts you in a state of saying yes when you mean no for a long time.”

      I think you’re imagining a very different type of delay; avoiding the decision until it’s too late and you’re forced to go along with things or finally refuse is very, very different from building in some time to process what you’re agreeing to. The delay isn’t ‘stretch it out to avoid making anyone sad’, it’s ‘give yourself a sensible amount of time to be sure you understand what you’re being asked for and don’t feel you have to rush to an answer immediately before you’re sure you’ve understood the question’.

      Sometimes that means a couple of sentences later, sometimes it’s later that evening or the next day, or maybe the following week – but the time frame depends on context. If you really need two weeks to figure out if you want to go to an event in 2 weeks and a day, then the answer you come back with after a couple of days is ‘I’m not sure, plan on me not being there if it affects anything at your end’, rather than saying yes/no immediately and regretting it, or avoiding an answer until the night before.

      • Vicki said:

        Yes: I envision that as the difference between “sure, I’d love to” or “yes, see you Friday” and “that sounds good, but I have to check my calendar” or “I might need to work, can I decide on Wednesday?” Yes, if I say that there’s a chance that the other person will tell me that they need an answer by Tuesday afternoon or will have to count me as a “no,” but I haven’t said “yes,” I’ve said “that sounds good, let me think about it.” The reason for that could be “I’m not sure I want to go bowling” rather than “I don’t know if I’m busy Friday,” but most people won’t interpret that sort of “maybe” as a yes, and it’s not a shape of “maybe” that encourages the other person to problem-solve. Yes, at some point you might need to tell someone “thanks for offering, but bowling really isn’t my thing,” but you can do that after you’ve figured out whether it is, if they keep inviting you to go bowling, rather than the next invitation being for board games or a hike.

      • Zweisatz said:

        +1 For me, the break is intended to avoid an automatic yes – it’s not a function of procrastination. If I have a moment to myself to get my wits together, it allows me to figure out 1) that I don’t want to do this 2) how to say that without being unnecessarily rude.

  25. S said:

    LW – Despite being a VERY assertive person, I also am very much a “people pleaser” in certain contexts. This has more often than not gotten me into some situations where I did things I would not normally do because the heat of the moment and wanting to make someone else happy. Your language reminded me a LOT of where I tend to go in certain situations (i.e. sex). I have had VERY similar issues to what you’re describing happen to me on multiple occasions in that context.

    For me this is harder than saying No to a social engagement because I feel guilty. There is an emotional state that I can get into where the idea of saying No to something just doesn’t really enter my head, it seems so much harder than just going a long, or even anticipating what the other person wants. The idea of them enjoying the situation seems so much more important to me, than my own desires in the moment. I know I will make them happy in the short term, and at the moment I do really want to do the thing. I’m not even really pretending, it’s difficult to explain.

    What has been really helpful for me is
    1. Having a very clear set of boundaries that I created for myself.
    2. Channeling this impulse in specific, negotiated directions.

    Not dissimilar to what others have suggested above, i have a set of rules for myself that I use all the time. Some of them are things like “I am always home before 8 on week days.” Because I know that this makes me happy. But some of them are also just preferences “I don’t go to concerts./I don’t care what bands you like.”

    The latter means that when someone drags me into a 10 minute conversation about how Muse is superior to [Insert a band name because what are bands] I can be like “You know, I don’t care about this, like, at all?” Sometimes just identifying how I feel about something is what I need to help me set a boundary around it. Then since I have practiced saying “I don’t care what bands you like” It is easier for me to say in the moment.

    However with anything where there is a chance I might get caught up in an emotional state (like a fun night out, or a night in the sack) I make sure to articulate my boundaries up front. Telling my friends that I have to be home by 8 on a week night means that, even if I end up home at 9:30, at least they knew they were asking me to stay out, what I consider to be late. (And maybe I am a little aggressive with my own boundaries so I can cave a bit if I need/want to.)

    I include 2 because, well, If this IS a sexual thing for you too, I don’t want you to think that there is something wrong with you for having this impulse.

    There is a whole range of kink built around people who are very motivated to please their partners, and partners who specifically want that. What is key about engaging in that sort of play is that there is advance discussion of likes/dislikes, there is negotiation of what you will do together in advance. That way you aren’t asked to make decisions in the heat of the moment, you can be clear and do your best to make sure both parties are happy, even if one is maybe not great at articulating at the “time.”

    Even if you aren’t interested in BDSM, you might find that reading up on how practitioners talk about and negotiate consent with each other can help give you some tools for your own life. I know it has made me more aware of what my boundaries are, and the times when I am more likely to cave on things that are important to me.

    • TheDreadVampy said:

      I’m in some level of BDSM stuff, tbh, but given my communication issues I find it another layer of stressful (for example, while I’m generally pretty submissive, so are my partners and for fairness’ sake I often find myself pressuring myself into Domme roles, which is fun but often uncomfortable for me as someone who doesn’t trust my opinions as much as others’) and to be honest if there’s a thing I’ve found interesting about kink it’s that it really brings to light just how bad I am at being honest. I had a Dom who was fairly actively trying to draw me into communicating more, and who got pretty good at telling when I was lying, but they found fairly quickly that when it comes to me holding an opinion counter to what I think I’m ‘supposed’ to feel (for example: I asked for bondage, the type of bondage wasn’t right for me but my partner clearly was really into it) there are two options: lying or complete shutdown. The number of conversations I had with them from under a duvet, between gritted teeth, while crying, over something that simple is honestly still a standing joke between us several years later.

      I was super lucky to have them in my life, and they got me to recognise the extent of the problem, which was great (we haven’t had any kind of Sex Stuff for a couple of years but they’re still one of my best friends partially because of how good they are with giving me the Flat Look when I say I’m ok and going ‘Really, LW? Are you?’) But I struggle with BDSM because of how structured it is a lot of the time: I think in kink circles I’ve often felt like there is a right way to feel about a thing and I almost unconsciously end up forcing myself into it?

      • S said:

        That’s why I think it is important to sortof define your boundaries and your interests and yourself independently of others. There are a lot of great questionaires for BDSM, which in some ways makes it easier to just go through a list and really write down what you like and don’t like. If you write it down before you have met anyone or before you are in a situation then you have that to really back check yourself as a reminder.

        I think in the broader scheme of life it is harder to really identify all of the possible things you could get kind of caught up in. It’s harder to create that kind of “Yes, No, Maybe in certain circumstances, only on the weekend” type rule for all the possible things in the world. But I think the more boundaries that you an actively set for yourself, and make permanent for yourself by recording them in some way, the better off you will be. (I love the suggestion below of analyzing which friends help or hurt this tendency)

        I think in any circle there are strong personalities that can tend to dominate. I know that I personally am one, and I work very hard at trying to listen and not push people. If it helps you to know, the last thing I ever want is for someone to feel like they can’t say no to me.

        There was a girl I used to work with, and we would both park on the same side street. Sometimes we would walk out together and walk down the street and we’d chat. Of course, us chatting was often me telling a story or rambling, because I talk too much. But on multiple occasions she walked nearly a block past her car because she did not want to interrupt me. I have never felt worse in my life, am I so domineering and talky that she didn’t feel like she could even point at her car or stop walking? My actual thought when I she told me this – “I am a MONSTER.”

        So if it helps you to remember, remind yourself that most people don’t want to be the person who railroads you into doing something you didn’t want to do. They don’t want you to go out of your way. They want to be mutually sharing an enjoyable moment with you, and by not respecting your own boundaries you’re actually doing the opposite of what they would want. I want people to agree with me or to agree to do things with me because that is what they actually think or want, not because they are placating me.

  26. Emma Hypatia said:

    I started at the meat counter in the local grocery store. Very deliberately, telling the guy (or gal) helping me: “I’d rather have the one behind/in front of/next to that one.” I’d follow it up with a heartfelt “Thank you!” I did this in many different stores until I was desensitized from caring what the other person thought of me. Then I graduated to higher stake situations until it became automatic.

    Buying yourself time is a great and powerful strategy. “No” is now my absolute favorite word, and I use it frequently to empower myself, and others, by coaching folks – usually women – on how to pleasantly decline … whatever. I frequently have to use it to the attorneys I work for, and they accept it, because I deliver it with aplomb and confidence. Learning to say “No” is the gift to oneself that keeps on giving!!

    • goddessoftransitory said:

      Thank you for doing this!!!

      I work in customer service, and nothing is more irritating than the Mind Reader Needers: They want this or that but won’t say so, then get all huffy and rolly eyed at you not catching on.

      No one worth their job is going to start railing at you if you want a certain cut of meat or sausage or light cheese or whatever! You’re paying for it! I want you to have what you want and be happy! I promise solemnly not to be offended if you say “the one on the right” or “can we make that a medium instead?”

      • vortexae said:

        And on the other hand, if you ask for precisely what you want and the customer service person does start railing at you, you know not to go to that customer service person (or to that business) any more if you an help it.

        When we had cats, I used to batch-prepare a homemade mix of food for them. One ingredient was one pound of chicken livers. I went to a grocery store I don’t usually go to, and asked at the butcher counter for this (as I always did in my usual store), and they directed me to the pre-wrapped portions on the cold shelf. They were all significantly larger amounts than I needed, like a pound and a half or more, and what was I going to do with leftover chicken livers? I don’t like them myself, and, look, I’m already making my own cat food, do I really need also to play “random portions of frozen chicken liver jigsaw puzzle” with the leftovers? Plus the matter of spending money on something I don’t want in the first place can be non-trivial. So I brought one of the packages over to the butcher counter and asked to have it separated so I could buy just the one pound. Such eye-rolling! Such exasperation! Such sarcasm! He did it for me, but with such an overt show of “humoring the picky princess” that I never went back to that grocery for meat again, ever.

        I imagine had I encountered that man in a dating scenario, he might have been one of those to send up red flags by reacting badly to a low-stakes “no,” and that, too, would have been useful information.

    • johann7 said:

      This is slightly tangential, but your comment just reminded me of something: most people like people better who ask for something and then thank them (this Lifehacker article pulls in a few sources, and the studies have been replicated in different contexts and with modified experimental designs that the very interested can peruse – http://lifehacker.com/don-t-be-afraid-to-ask-for-favors-it-actually-makes-yo-1789020650 ). Psychosocially, this is because people tend to not like to feel indebted to others and do like feeling useful and being appreciated for their contributions. So for things like the example at the meat counter, not only is one unlikely to get a really bad reaction to being assertive in that manner, one is more likely to get a more positive reaction (the thanking is important – people don’t like those who ask for favors and take them for granted).

  27. Aah. Yes. This is something I know well.

    I still suffer from that lovely little problem called Not Being Assertive, to be honest, but I used to be a lot worse about it, and I’d recommend you do not do what I did to make it less of a problem. You see, I translate things, and people would take great advantage of this (they still try to at times, but I have at least learnt to say “no I don’t want to/cannot do that” about this bugbear in particular.) This led to a mighty downward spiral in my health, culminating in a rather horrendous crash with me having daily panic attacks, frequent seizures and having lost nearly thirty pounds when I was already underweight to begin with, because the people I was trying to help with a translation project kept piling more work on me and by the time I was finally able to start saying no to them, it was too late. (“But you’re already helping us! You can’t back out now! Now do this, this, this and this, oh and that, and we need this RIGHT NOW YESTERDAY and you should be done with that already and WHY ARE YOU BEING SO TERRIBLE AT THIS OH MY GOD.”)

    It was only at this point that I was able to find what remained of my spine, shine it up a bit, reinforce it with the reassurances that I deserved far better than this, and back the fuck out of that snafu of a project.

    The project promptly folded, because I was the sole translator and they refused to consider anyone else. I admit I felt vindicated: they had overworked me, nearly to literal death, and fucked themselves over in the process.

    And that’s how I learnt I really do need to say no before I end up nearly dying of nonassertiveness.

    Don’t do that. Use the Captain and commenters’ lovely advice. It’s hard, I’m not gonna lie, but you can do it.

    • Nanani said:

      As I freelance translator, I have seen this dynamic and attempts at it before.
      Clients who don’t realize translation is WORK* are especially prone to this, and backing the fuck out of there was really the best possible thing to do.

      Second best thing is probably say yes, but charge a lot 🙂

      Your time and your labour are valuable, and “No” is key to protecting their value.
      You don’t do this to “help”, you do it because it is work that deserve compensation.

      *Seriously, what is up with people who think translating something is like ripping a CD with language selection? Fuck them forever

      • Yeah, the lady heading the project just…didn’t realize the amount of work that had to go into it I suppose. She (much later) began trying to learn the language herself, and I admit I might have laughed long and hard the first time she told me how *difficult* it was. At least she didn’t have to know I was laughing at her, because this was the internet and she couldn’t see me do it!

        I’d like to get to the point where I can charge for it but I keep running into a bit of a…strange problem. I’m entirely self taught and no one wants to compensate someone who doesn’t have the necessary degrees, class work, etcetera, to show them as “proof” of being able to translate the language. Apparently my prior work doesn’t count…? *shrugs*

        • Je ne parle pas francais said:

          I have previously engaged translators professionally, and we always wanted qualifications as a protection if someone queried the translation later. It’s just simpler. This is particularly true as (like with all writing) there can be some subjectivity to translation (two qualified people can disagree on a translation etc etc) and being able to say ‘they have X qualification’ means you can just end the conversation there. (Seriously, this happened more than once.)

          Also, sorry to say, there are people who just use Google translate and do a bad job, or who don’t realise the limits of their skills and get in over their heads, but as the client if you don’t speak the language it can be hard to tell, so qualifications are one of the ways you can try to cut that out (even if some of the people with no qualifications are fine, why take the risk?). I wouldn’t go off someone’s prior work because a) how do I evaluate it if I don’t speak the language and b) it’s faster to just get someone with a qualification and free up my time to do other work.

          I appreciate why you’re frustrated, just thought I’d give you some perspective from the other side of the fence!

          • Yeah, I understand that. I think there’s some cognitive discord going on with it all really – on the one hand I have people telling me my translations are on par with those of actual learned professionals (independently of one another; it’s not like one person was telling others to say it just to bolster my confidence) but then on the other…no actual credentials, nope, you clearly can’t do the thing without them! I guess that then makes me wonder who exactly I’m supposed to believe? *shrugs*

            I’d love to have the actual credentials, but literally the only language class offered anywhere within reasonable range of me (I don’t drive and can’t afford to move) is Spanish. That’s…really not helpful. 😛

        • Word Turner said:

          I’m a translator and you don’t have to put degrees or class work on your resume as proof. You list the things you’ve translated. You can put stuff you translated for free on your resume, but you shouldn’t say that you did it for free before.

          Language tests aren’t a good proof of translating ability anyway; all they show is that you can speak a language but translating is a much harder skill than just speaking a language. People think that anybody can do it because “hey I speak a little English I can translate the menu by myself and save some money” and then they write “worm string cream soup” for “warm cream of asparagus soup.” Experience matters a lot more than classes.

          Look up the going rate in your area and start charging it. In my country, we are payed by the letter. Practice saying “yes, I can do that. My rate is __ so I estimate this project will cost about ___.”

    • B. said:

      Another translator here, sending jedi hugs and respect for those hard-won skills!

      You deserve to take care of yourself! Mantaining your efficiency, the quality of your work and your professional pride is important, and so are you.

      • Jedi hugs gratefully accepted, fellow translator!

        I actually had a moment just yesterday when I was able to realize how MUCH better I’ve got at standing up for myself. There’s a translation request out in one of my fandoms – and it’s for a character I’m actually not interested in. I was able to say “No, I’m not going to do this” to myself without feeling guilty, and pass right on by the post without feeling guilty. That was a good feeling!

        • B. said:

          Wohoo, that’s great to hear! Go you! 😀

          • Thank you! 😀 It’s those little victories that really remind one why they try to do the tough thing in the first place.

  28. Zweisatz said:

    Hi OP, I’m currently reading Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and what you describe sounds totally like a result of a role self¹. That was (is) certainly the reason for my unassertive behavior. If you’d say that your parent(s)/caretaker(s) had trouble providing you with sufficient and adequate emotional support, this book might be relevant to you.

    Second, I can completely vouch for start small. This is what worked for me. Find the tiniest smallest way of saying No (or “I disagree” or “Maybe possibly not maybe I’m sorry”). Work up from there.
    My Nos looked more like this in the beginning: “May I have a tissue?” “Yes, I would like to have a glass of water.” “I would prefer no to, if it’s no trouble.”
    You will notice that most of that isn’t even a No. But it’s a way to practice assertiveness, something that says “I matter too.”, “I exist.”, “I am allowed to take up space.” You know what, if you’re a mantra kind of person, you can say something like that to yourself regularly.

    What I found when practicing my No/assertiveness was that confidence comes with treating yourself as if you mattered. If you accept a glass of water on three occasions, you learn that you are a person who deserves to get a glass of water. This might sound ridiculous, but it can be amazing when you didn’t get that message growing up. And so “May I have a tissue?” may grow into “I won’t be able to help you with that.”

    In the meantime, workarounds are allowed. If you notice that doing X often puts you in a position where you agree to Y, which you usually regret, it’s okay to avoid X in the first place. E.g. if I don’t feel like talking to my grandmother, I won’t pick up the phone because it’s easier to deal with her snide remarks about that in writing/by hear-say than it is to not get roped into more interaction than I’m comfortable with once I pick up

    Good luck. It’s a long, but very rewarding road.

    ¹ The role self is basically the person you (unknowingly) force yourself to become in hopes to get your emotional needs met by your caretaker(s). E.g. the perfect student who makes her narcissistic mama proud or the always emotionally available parentified child who won’t assert their needs because otherwise father will throw a tantrum.

    • B. said:

      This is really well put. Thank you for the comment and the rec!

      • Zweisatz said:

        Thanks 🙂 Glad it resonated.

  29. The thing that has worked best for me is the delay tactic.It also works if you have trouble with initially saying no and then regretting it later. I’ve done both, so now I give myself a sort of mandatory waiting period. “That sounds awesome, let me check and make sure.” Or, “I think I have something that day so I don’t think I can, let me check.”

    Thing is, I may be misreading the letter, but it sounds to me like some of this relates to sexual situations? Apologies if I’m wrong there, but when it comes right down to it, practicing saying no on small things or asking to delay an hour before you decide if you want to kiss more isn’t necessarily going to work.

    If that’s what’s happening here, it seems like the lowest stakes are going to be right at the beginning. It might help to have a line defined from the start. “Hey, I’m into you, but I only want to kiss tonight.” “I’m not up for making out right now, but I could totally go for snuggling on the couch with a movie.” Having an alternative may also help it feel less crummy.

    If you know you’re going into a situation where you will be at risk for getting in further than you want, can you ask someone to call you at a pre-determined time? It puts a natural break in there for everyone to catch their breath, and then you can use it as an escape if you need.

    None of this is on you, though I know that it doesn’t make it feel better. People may be disappointed if you call off something they’re really into, but they shouldn’t be giving you shit for it. They should also be checking and making sure you’re comfortable with everything going on.

    I totally second the therapy recommendation, because it sounds to me like there’s more going on here than it seems. I really, really hope that you get to a place where you’re comfortable with saying no.

  30. I am all about the “I don’t” tactic when stating a hard boundary and nonchalant redirecting honesty when stating a preference.

    With hard boundaries – I realized that, as the first commenter mentioned, a lot of pushy folks will take a soft no as a starting point for negotiation – “I can’t let you come over because my roommate is a pain” sounds a lot like “If you can pry into my schedule and identify a time when my roommate isn’t there, then re-propose your plan, the answer is yes.”

    Instead, try “I don’t invite people to my apartment until we’ve been out a few times.” And don’t chase it with “sorry.” For whatever reason, sounding apologetic invites all sorts of haranguing whereas nonchalantly stating your boundary as though it is the Most Natural Thing in the world and Not Personal, is usually fine with folks. Practice –

    “I’d love to meet you for happy hour, but I don’t skip my running group on Wednesdays.” vs. “I can’t, I have a group that meets until 7 and then I need to get home after …”

    People respect folks who are self-actualized, in general, plus these have the added benefit of not really being About Them, just something you do. That can be a lot easier because it neutralizes the anxiety of omg am I hurting their feelings, etc.

    For instances where you’re not stating a boundary but rather a preference, I like the “no, but” tactic, and be honest – not in the brutal way, but again in the no-big-deal way. So when someone proposes a Sailor Moon fan-dub marathon, and you’re not the anime type, just … say that. “Oh, wow – I never really got into that, so I’m not your best watch buddy. I’d like to spend time with you, though. Could we compromise on [thing we both like]?” It has the advantage of being true, it makes it non-personal and fully about your preferences, and it re-iterates that this isn’t some sort of value judgment or a repudiation of them as a person. You’re just not into it.

    It can be awkward to tell someone you aren’t into the thing they’re into, but it’s much easier to do it once, casually and kindly, than spend months pretending to like Thing and then drop the bombshell that actually you’ve been hating it all along.

    When all else fails, I imagine how I would feel if someone said ‘x’ to me. Would I be outrageously upset if someone shot down my movie suggestion? Probably not, right?

    I say all this as someone who needed a lot of work on this and found these to be profoundly helpful suggestions.

    • B. said:

      “It can be awkward to tell someone you aren’t into the thing they’re into, but it’s much easier to do it once, casually and kindly, than spend months pretending to like Thing and then drop the bombshell that actually you’ve been hating it all along.”

      Very true. And the awkwardness quotient only goes up and up and up the longer you go along with Thing. Better to rip it off in the beginning, when the awkwardness levels are at their lowest. Else you may end up spending two hours pretending you know all about a series you never even watched because you don’t want the super amazing girl that you’re trying to impress to think that you’re (shudder) uncool.

      • Yes! One awkward is, “awww, I guess you don’t like Thing” and another is “wow, you lied to me.”

        Sidenote that anyone who is genuinely bothered by you not liking the same things they like is not reacting fairly whereas someone who is bothered by you misrepresenting yourself is being very fair. Better to weed out the few jerks who will react poorly right away than miss out on great people who will be just genuinely puzzled.

    • flynnthecat1 said:

      For whatever reason, sounding apologetic invites all sorts of haranguing

      When I’m on the other end of that, even when I *know* the apologetic sounding person just tends to sound that way/have trouble saying no, it sounds to my brain like they are unhappy at not being able to do the thing and possibly unsure that they actually NEED to say no, therefore would be open to me finding a way to make it work.

      (What I then do with that depends on how much energy I have to tease out the Actual Yes Or No or invest in emotional labour to read their mind/subtle cues or how much I actually want to Do The Thing. If I have no energy for emotional labour, I may take their soft no at face value (even if I think they might actually want it to be a yes) because I have no spoons for that, or I might not even notice the soft no at all).

      • flynnthecat1 said:

        *and it triggers me ‘Oh no! MUST SOLVE THIS PROBLEM’ reaction. X is uncertainly turning down this offer of cookies? Clearly it is my job to figure out that they actually *are* hungry, but I offered them cookies they were allergic to! Which is totally different from the ‘actually I just don’t want cookies but I don’t want to say no’ reaction but can look the same from the outside.

        • And yes, that too – when I said haranguing, I think I probably could have found a more charitable word. The fact is, you’re right that folks who telegraph discomfort with their own choices are inviting all kinds of responses, from the helpful to the pushy.

        • johann7 said:

          Thank you – I just realized that as someone who likes to solve puzzles (problems are puzzles!), I do this all the time, and I’m probably often misreading discomfort as regret over not being able to do something wanted instead of being in a situation where asserting oneself is difficult. I’m never trying to be difficult – in fact, I’m trying to be helpful! But if the problem is an invented one that the person doesn’t actually want solved, becasue then the excuse (for me, for them, whatever) is gone, I’m not actually helping at all. :-/

          I think both your framing and scripts here are great!

  31. I had a lot of trouble directly way my the word”no”.

    One step that was helpful for me was “I don’t want to.”

    I know that for many people this statement is more difficult. For me it wasn’t. I don’t know why, maybe because I could just blurt it out, or maybe because it’s not actually a refusal.

    But yeah, it helped a lot.

    Special bonus: people who argue with your “I don’t want to” have shown you they don’t care about your desires.

    Bad:
    “How about doing X tonight.”
    “I don’t want to.”
    ” Yeah, but let’s do X tonight”

    Good:
    “How about doing X tonight”
    “I don’t want to ”
    “Ok, how about Y or Z?”

    These days, I say No. The “don’t want to” phase was desultory for a year or so in my 30s

    • Trouble directly SAYING

  32. srra said:

    Coming from the other side here.

    My husband had problems for years saying no to things or telling me his needs or preferences. I mean, I seriously didn’t have a clue that he was doing things he didn’t want to do because he just couldn’t tell me (or his manager, or his co-worker, etc). He was REALLY good at faking it. It has taken us working with marriage counselors and then him working with a good therapist for him to learn why he was so afraid (some serious childhood parental issues plus being on the autism spectrum). As a result we made major life decisions all the way along because I took him at his word that when he said yes, and we discussed things, that he really was telling me what he wanted and needed. We made decisions that probably weren’t the best to make. And the stress of doing things that weren’t good for him made him him physically ill.

    And it hurt me too. It makes me sad to think of all the years he was unhappy with even minor choices because he couldn’t tell me. And things I thought we were enjoying together, maybe not so much. And that doesn’t count the times when he would say yes, and then not follow through because he couldn’t. I would have MUCH preferred to hear the truth and make decisions based on that. It makes me doubt our years together. And it makes me doubt myself – was I too pushy? did I not listen? He says no, but that doubt is still there.

    So YAY to you for wanting to learn how to say no. Find that therapist, practice, and feel good that you are able to express you needs and preferences. And in addition to everybody here saying it has been personally helpful to learn how to say no, I am adding that current and future friends and partners will find it wonderful to know the authentic you and will really appreciate knowing what YOU want so you truly be in it together.

  33. wolf said:

    To be entirely honest I am Not exactly what you call the assertive type, which has more often then not lead me to becoming a very good liar To avoid rocking the boat. This is not a good thing but if you absolutely have to With a pushy person you pick the most plausible Reason why you can’t Do something and quickly disengage.”i am sooooo sorry But (vague reference to other person they will likely never meet) needs me to do X, Y, Z……Next time?”
    And ghost around that person to avoid said next time…..if possible.

    a good way I found to get myself out of the habit was to find a safe space (a club) where for a very short period of time people HAVE to listen to me and vice versa. it built up my confidence little by little.
    It didn’t happen overnight but now I feel comfortable saying light “no’s” and am working my way up to not making excuses and just flat out saying “I Don’t Want To”….and until the time I Can Say no Honestly and properly I can at least Say “Sorry Club stuff…maybe next time”

    Basically you need to find a safe space for YOU…..Even if its a knitting circle……it might help…
    Best of luck LW

  34. DonkeyCabbages said:

    I get the impression that the letter-writer isn’t exactly inquiring about specific requests, but rather than feeling of finding oneself caught up in something– some moment, some trajectory– that it seems like the cool girl would do. Sex, drinking, parties, something slightly dangerous, or even something tedious and dull. Where, looking back, there may have been a few moments to disentangle, but they weren’t clear because it wasn’t a specified thing in the first place. That, at least, was my experience of life through my teens and even a good portion of my twenties: I would find myself suddenly in a situation that I hadn’t exactly agreed to, and definitely no one had asked about.

    If that is the case, dear LW, then learning to say “no” to requests will be an incredibly useful skill, but maybe not the skill that will give you the greatest return right away. Because if you are what I was as a teenager, people are not requesting: you are anticipating ideas and preferences, and preemptively making them happen. So, here is advice that comes from the steps I took to stop waking up the next morning regretting everything from the day before.

    Make a list of the people in your life who tend to bring out this kind of feeling. Then, add a few notes about where you tend to find yourself in the situation you describe. Is it when you go out at night? In the middle of the day? At gatherings? At home? Wherever and whenever you remember yourself being uncomfortable, make a note of that.

    Are there people in that list that you don’t really actually like? If so, cross them off and practice giving them all a hard “no.” Just fade out if you need to– I stopped taking their calls, because that seemed easiest. I have no regrets about any of them.

    For the rest, think about the situations where you are actually enjoying yourself. What kinds of things do you do? Do you like some people better in the day, but prefer to disengage from their late-night personas? Those people will be fine daytime friends. Get in the habit of proactively inviting them to lunch, or to the park, or on a walk/hike, or to a cool clothing boutique that just opened up. Get coffee.

    Do you have friends that you like when you are all out somewhere, but make you feel like you’ll go too far if you are in private spaces? Meet them out (again, with a clear time boundary, that you introduce in advance) and then head home. Or conversely, friends who tend to go too wild when they are at the club? Invite them over for something in your house, and then send them away after.

    When you issue these invitations, mention that you have something to do after that gives you a firm breakaway point. I got a cat, and that helped me immensely: “I can’t stay out, kitten needs his dinner. But have fun, if you go out!” You probably have many things in your life that need doing– get in the habit of mentioning them early, and breaking away after a set time. If you are inviting them out, they cannot use the leverage of “but you always say no, and I never see you anymore!”

    And like others have said, save room in your life for people you can enjoy without doubting yourself after. You will find them, and they will enrich your life wonderfully.

    • TheDreadVampy said:

      Hit the nail on the head! And I’m really glad to hear I’m not alone in this.

  35. srra said:

    Coming from the other side here.

    My husband had problems for years saying no to things or telling me his needs or preferences. I mean, I seriously didn’t have a clue that he was doing things he didn’t want to do because he just couldn’t tell me (or his manager, or his co-worker, etc). He was REALLY good at faking it. It has taken us working with marriage counselors and then him working with a good therapist for him to learn why he was so afraid (some serious childhood parental issues plus being on the autism spectrum). As a result we made major life decisions all the way along because I took him at his word that when he said yes, that is what he wanted or needed. Decisions that probably weren’t the best to make. And the stress of doing things that weren’t good for him, made him him physically ill.

    And it hurt me too. I don’t like to think of all the years he was unhappy with even minor choices because he couldn’t tell me. And things I thought we were enjoying together, maybe not so much. And that doesn’t count the times when he would say yes, and then not follow through because he couldn’t. I would have MUCH preferred to hear the truth and make decisions based on that. It makes me doubt our years together. And it makes me doubt myself – was I too pushy? did I not listen? He says no, but that doubt is still there.

    So YAY to you for wanting to learn how to say no. Find that therapist, practice, and feel good that you are able to express you needs and preferences. And in addition to everybody here saying it has been personally helpful to learn how to say no, I am adding that current and future friends and partners will find it wonderful to know the authentic you and will really appreciate knowing what YOU want so you truly be in it together.

  36. Also a big people pleaser here, though that would make some friends of mine give me side-eye. It wasn’t really learning to say no that was a problem for me, but actually having permission to believe that what I actually wanted was valid. Like, I could say no without a problem if it was something I knew X person who was important to me wouldn’t want me to do, or wouldn’t want to do themselves. What I couldn’t do was say no when I didn’t really have a sense of what I wanted in the matter, or if I thought my wants were socially problematic. (Like not wanting to go out in groups of more than 5. That isn’t a popular perspective.)

    I’m still not free of it, and I identified the issue 20 years ago. So please, be REALLY kind to yourself. This is tough stuff. I can say I’m 85% better than I was, right now. Therapy – specifically with someone who was willing to bounce around my brain with me – was and is crucial. Spending a lot of time alone with myself and learning my real desires was also crucial. Writing it down wasn’t the same, somehow, because I could trick myself into thinking I liked something I really did not. Being able to say “I can do whatever the heck it is I want, *right now,* and observe it” was the best thing for me. You don’t have to live alone to do it, btw – I remember when my fave roommate told me “you need to go out and go do something without me, or any other friend.” It was amazing, and I am still so grateful for that. Setting aside 3-4 hours to have a self-date can help.

    Sending lots of love.

    • TheDreadVampy said:

      Thank you! This comment meant so much to me, it’s really helpful to be reminded that this is a slow process ❤

  37. mdlnx said:

    I just finished reading “When I say no, I feel guilty” yesterday. In my opinion it did not age well. I can totally see why it is a classic text on assertiveness, and it was a worthwhile read for me. But I thought that a lot of the language used was gendered in a way that really pushed my buttons. He does make an effort to say “he or she”, but standard stereotypes like “nagging” or “bitchy” show up, and go the stereotyped way.

    Also, I am not entirely sure that it is a good text for someone who is just trying to figure it all out. I think if I read this text some 10 years ago, I would have rejected the advice completely, even though it is good at its core. A book that really helped me in the past was “Difficult conversations” by Anne Dickson. She has the same assertiveness idea as the background, but she spends a lot more time on the motivation behind it. The “When I say No” dives right into the “assertiveness bill of rights” as something we should just accept. “Difficult conversations” introduces the idea of personal power and treating other people as equals by being assertive. It really helped me to see assertiveness as something good and respectful of other people.

    I used to have difficulty saying “no”, and still do these days, but I got a lot better. I can attest that it gets better, but it requires practice, backsliding, and then more practice.

    • j_bird said:

      Thanks for the review and alternative recommendation!

    • Nic said:

      I second “Difficult Conversations”. Teachers at one of my former schools all read this, and made it a point to model the behavior when dealing with both students and other teachers. Not only was it a fantastic help to all be communicating from the same playbook, it was almost magical seeing fifth through eighth graders using the same conversational techniques.

      Actually, it looks like mdlnx was suggesting a different “Difficult Conversations” than I was. Same general idea. The one I read is by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

  38. clorinda said:

    When you get to no and the person pushes you for an explanation, remember the Bartleby option. “I would prefer not to.” Repeat as needed.

    • This is totally irrelevant to the conversation, but did anyone else want to punch Bartleby in the nose when forced to read that book in American lit? I somehow managed to wind up with that story as part of *three* different lit classes when I was in college, and if I never hear that phrase again it will be too soon :-).

      • Yeah, when I read it I was like, “Fuck’s sake, dude, okay, ‘you’d prefer not to’. I don’t care how you *feel* about it, just do it.”

    • BigDogLittleCat said:

      I’ve found “because I don’t want to” (or “because I want to” as appropriate) to be the silver bullet to nosy people.
      It’s the most direct answer to the question of why you will not/will do something, and most people don’t have the nerve to continue on to “Why don’t you want to?” and those who do, can be answered with “because.”

  39. Southernbelle said:

    I agree 100% with all of the Captain’s advice – especially finding a good therapist who can help you unravel some of this. I wanted to note that when I started grad school, I was a meek little mouse who got steamrollered all the time. It took a full six months of literally practicing in front of the mirror to get to Moderately Assertive and Only Occasionally Steamrollered, and probably two years to get to “tell advisor, to his face, that I am setting this project on fire”. It’s a long road, but it’s worth it! Also, I’m here to affirm that it is Totally Okay to have opinions, ranging from “no, I don’t want tuna” to “I am not into this date and am leaving now” or “this project is a mess, let’s find a way out that is different.”

    Good luck finding your NO. It’s the best sentence!

  40. JB said:

    I had a hard time learning to say no. But once the habit of saying yes when I didn’t mean it caused enough trouble in my life, I finally learned. Here’s how:
    Say no. Stop talking at this point.
    Let the other person say whatever, don’t even listen, just wait patiently for the person to stop.
    Say no. Stop talking at this point.
    Let the other person say whatever, blahdiblah, it doesn’t matter. It helps if you don’t listen.
    Say no more grandly as in,” oh my gosh, I just have to say no. I’m so sorry, it’ll have to be no. Dear, dear, please don’t ask me again because I just have to say no.”
    Naturally the other person will ask why. This is the tricky part. Don’t explain! Change the subject or walk off. Pat the other person on the shoulder, give him or her a long meaningful look in the eyes, but don’t say a damn word. Just walk away.

    It works. After the first time, when you’ll be shaking in your boots, it will start to feel amazingly good to say no and watch how it makes other people dance around, beg and plead, try anything to get you to say yes. And you will know you have the ultimate power, the power to say no and walk away.

    • B. said:

      This comment comes off as weirdly power-trippy and condescending :^/ For the record, saying no is not a way to manipulate people, but a way to advocate for your needs and wants.

    • roramich said:

      wow, there is something very weird in this comment. I think the LW is asking how to be more honest, not for tips on a tool to make other people “dance around, beg and plead.” ugh.

  41. TheDreadVampy said:

    LW here: Um. I’m very on board with the therapy option, but the cheapest therapy near me starts at £50/session (I’m in Scotland, for context) and I live off about £100 a month after rent and bills. Does anyone have tips for accessing free services in the UK or online?

    • Gin said:

      Have not used so cannot comment on how good they are, but http://www.moodjuice.scot.nhs.uk/Assertiveness.asp is a handout/workbook from the NHS, and they say at the end to talk to your GP if you need more help. Is it possible to get some therapy through the NHS? Here in Australia our GP can give us a referral for a certain number of sessions per year (5 or ten?). Its not really enough, but it is Something, so its worth asking if the NHS has something similar.

      There is also this from the ANU ( Australia) https://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome/new/splash I think its more aimed at general mental well being, but it does include assertiveness on its list of outcomes (again, I have not done it, but the ANU is a well regarded university, so I think its pretty safe)

      Someone upthread posted a link to an assertiveness workbook from Australia as well. Doing it by yourself will not be as good as doing it with a therapist; but it may not be bad. And if you are able to access even a few NHS paid therapy sessions, taking along a completed workbook and talking about it may be a way to get more value from the sessions.

      Also, even though you cannot expect friends to be a therapist for you, you may have someone you trust (friend? Pastor? Elderly Aunt?) that you could check in with about specific questions from a workbook or book you read. (This book said X: my response is y; do you think that is sensible?) This does not help if you want to unpack your background and what is happening that you feel obligated to please. But it will help by giving you a reality check on your specific actions and reactions regarding assertiveness.

      Finally, I expect that if you started a thread on the CA forum, something like ” positive feedback for when I am assertive” their would probably be people willing to take the time to cheer you whenever you did Not Go Along With Something. Could be useful for banishing brain weasels.
      (I attended a few therapy sessions recently and realised it was because I needed to be reassured that I was not stupid and that my reactions were understandable, from someone who was an impartial third party. It was incredibly helpful, and not to be undervalued)

    • Okay, according to this if the NHS refers you it’s covered. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/counselling/pages/introduction.aspx

      How long it will take, how well it works for you, etc, I can’t speak to.

      Free and low-cost counselling is usually VERY location-dependant and I don’t want to ask you publically to nail down exactly where in Scotland you are, so here’s some general stuff.

      Aberdeen and area: http://www.hope-counselling.org.uk
      Note: religious but “our service is available to those of any faith and none. We offer the opportunity to explore issues from the perspective of Christianity for those who specifically request it.”

      Edinburgh: http://edinburghcounsellingagencies.co.uk/

      Glasgow: http://www.lowcostcounsellingglasgow.com

      Inverness: http://www.crossreach.org.uk/crossreach-counselling-moray-inverness

      NOT location-dependant

      NHS telecounselling: http://www.nhs24.com/usefulresources/livinglife/
      If you live in a small town or remote area this may be your best bet.

      Relationships Scotland in fact makes a point of saying “whether you’re partnered or on your own”, so I think your current concern falls under their remit: http://www.relationships-scotland.org.uk/relationship-counselling

      Hopefully some of that will be of use. Also, NHS telecounselling may be able to help you find something local to you that you can swing. I don’t know if they do that but it’s worth asking.

    • resili0 said:

      I will have a look for you and post sone links today, I am in the UK and am in similar circumstances.

    • resili0 said:

      https://www.samh.org.uk/about-mental-health

      I don’t know what the NHS mental health services are like where you are, but this is the Scottish Mental Health charity that would know how to get access to therapy.

      You may find that assertiveness groups are run by charities and community groups; your local woman’s centre probably has one.

    • aimsme said:

      I don’t know if this is at all helpful, but I know of a counsellor who does sliding scale fees down to £15 a session (I realise that’s still quite expensive, even for 1 session/month, but I’ve heard really good things about her, and while she’s not in Scotland she does do Skype sessions), if you want me to give you her website address? Also I don’t know if you’d be in the catchment area for it to be free, but I got ten CBT sessions with Ieso Digital Health (http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/online-mental-health-services/Pages/ieso-digital-health.aspx) last summer covered by my local NHS provider, so if you feel like a text-based counselling service would work for you (and if it’s covered in your area ofc) then that might be worth a look.

      • The Dread Vampy said:

        I’d really like to look into the Skype sessions, yeah! CBT, not so much, I was referred for CBT by my doctor last year and found it actively damaging to my mental health (the practitioner says also fairly open about feeling that my mental health issues were too advanced and in the wrong direction for CBT to be appropriate).

  42. Jackalope said:

    I personally found the book “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend to be so helpful in figuring this out. I will add that the authors are explicitly Christian, so that may or may not work for you. But they dissect the different types of boundary issues and give what I do in to be very helpful advice on how to set boundaries. This was one of the most life-changing books I’ve read.

  43. lasers said:

    When I am feeling trapped by subtext, I try to bring as much of it as possible into main text. For me, that usually looks like, “When you say X, what response are you looking for?” or “I think you know I don’t agree with Y thing about how you’re worthless, but I don’t really know what to say beyond that” or “I want to tell you this thing about my partner but I worry because I know you’re lonely.” I find that once that more frank moment is opened, people will tell me what they are and aren’t looking for from me.

    For you, LW, I wonder if you could say something like “Oh, yeah, RenFaire is pretty cool. I feel like you want me to really lead the charge on the costume making.” Or, “Oh, yeah, going out for cocktails is fun. I feel like you have this vision of us bonding by going to every bar in town together.” Or whatever version of that feels non-accusatory and accurate as to what you’re picking up.

    I don’t know why, but I think this tactic works better the more you can avoid tacking a question onto the end. You just share your observation and see how they respond. If you assessed wrong, they can update you, and if you assessed right, you can continue to share facts about yourself. Like, “I like going to bars, but I also like to spend time sitting next to lakes with friends.” I think one important thing about this tactic is that you can do it even if you [think you] DO want to do the thing– and if you later change your mind, the conversation is already open.

  44. Don't Shoot the Messenger said:

    People who can’t take “NO” for an answer always choose people who can’t say “NO.” IME

    • They try to!

      My ex gf was very surprised every time I didn’t do favors.

      You see, even when it was difficult to refuse requests, I had one saving thought: I didn’t do things I’d resent.

  45. maggiebea said:

    I haven’t read all the comments yet, but this post hits home for me on so many levels.

    Rather late in life, I found myself taking sales training — which is where I learned that for MOST PEOPLE (that is, NOT just salespeople) their first response to an ‘explanation for why I’m saying no’ is to try to fix the problem you’ve just explained. That is, in salesperson language, your ‘explanation’ is seen as a gambit in the negotiation.

    This was earthshaking knowledge for me, at the time, because so much of my life had been driven by the need to be seen as ‘nice’ and ‘accommodating’ that I could never turn down a request without having a good excuse — and had a lot of trouble understanding why that didn’t always work.

    Quite recently, I was tasked with making a series of phonecalls to recruit someone to work on a project. One of the people I called said, “Oh, thank you SO much for thinking of me; I’m honored that you would think I could do this. [pause]. For a number of reasons I won’t be participating, but I’m so glad you called me. I’m sure you will find JUST the right person for this work.”

    It took me more than a minute to realize that she’d said NO. I felt great — properly thanked, valued, encouraged, all the things I would have felt if I had received a Yes, but she also didn’t commit to something she didn’t want to do.

    I’ve used her ‘No’ a few times since, with excellent results. It’s delightfully liberating to find that I can still be ‘nice’ and ‘friendly’ without having to say Yes.

  46. HannahS said:

    A few scripts I use: For saying no to plans being made at the moment to take place at a later time/place, what I’ve done sometimes is say, “I don’t know if I’m free. Let me check when I get home and I’ll let you know.” That way, my previous polite enthusiasm still stands, and I can send my regrets through text-based communication instead of saying yes in the moment because I can’t think of a way to say no that is both honest but doesn’t sound like a rejection and hurt someone’s feelings and assures them of my appreciation for the invite…and then having to change my RSVP.

  47. Anisoptera said:

    Hi LW – I used to really, really struggle with this. I hated expressing my views, and then I got upset (eventually) when perfectly nice people failed to read my mind, and I left lots of room for deniability for less good people who could just pretend they hadn’t detected my reluctance.

    First off, at a fundamental level, it really helps to believe that you deserve to have opinions and preferences. I didn’t. And I’d so internalised that idea that I didn’t even realise that I fundamentally believed I didn’t deserve to have preferences that conflicted with other people’s. I was always very focused on not being a bother. It should come as no shock that I learnt this in childhood, that it wasn’t ever OK to want stuff, that I was demanding and selfish. I don’t think I actually am those things, but you know, it’s hard to deprogram your brain, as you know. So this is something to talk to a therapist about, because when I finally realised I felt this way it got easier to see it for an irrational belief and start expressing preferences.

    Next a tip: all of this is easier if you shift some of your attention to performing “perfect friend who is totally low effort and low stress” to thinking about how you feel. I understand this might be hard at first, because you’re used to trying super hard to be really cool, and to feeling like if you don’t disaster will ensue, but the first step to expressing preferences is to be in touch with what they are. So, next time you’re talking to someone, think about if talking to them is interesting and fun. Or is it not fun, and boring and awful but you didn’t notice because all your attention was focused on being nice? I often still don’t realise I don’t like someone or something I’m doing until after I’ve left the situation because I’m so focused on my social performance. This is a good low stakes way to start, just think about how you feel without acting on it at first. Then move on to acting on it when you’re getting better at thinking about how you feel before how you feel is dire.

    Finally, just practice, as the Captain says. Practice saying stuff out loud when you’re alone, practice saying “no thanks!” with a friendly smile. Practice dropping the smile and saying “no thanks” with a flat tone (for people who aren’t taking no for an answer). Think about something you want to do that you could invite a really good friend to? Then do it. Don’t add to the end of your invite anything like “if that’s OK” or “we could totally do something else if you like” just invite them. A low stakes way to get started with this is to issue a general invite to a bunch of people you like on social media – you know “I’m going to X, who wants to join me?”

    LW, you can do this. Your life will be better when you do this. 🙂

    • De-lurking after a long time to say this was also a huge problem for me and you nailed what was also the root cause of it for me: feeling worthy enough to have my own preferences and consider them equal to others’. It wasn’t even until a former significant other asked what my feelings were about something that I realized I couldn’t express them because I didn’t know what my feelings were – I’d gotten so used to shutting them down because I didn’t think my feelings were important enough to consider. In the end, that casual conversation was one of the major reasons I started going to therapy, because I realized that people truly value being around other people who know themselves and can express themselves.

      One thing that helped me was to twist my people-pleasing tendencies to make standing up for myself a positive thing I could do for others. By getting in touch with my own surface-level preferences and stating them, I was taking the emotional labor of figuring out what to do of someone else. Then I leveled up to sharing my deeper feelings – even when they might be in contradiction to someone else’s – because in the end, it’s kinder to cut out the exhausting guesswork of wondering where someone stands.

      Seconding Anisoptera’s suggestion to take a moment during social interactions to check in with yourself and see how you feel. Giving myself permission to even consider “am I enjoying this?” as well as “are they enjoying this?” was so helpful for me as a reminder that my feelings were important. One note, if at first you aren’t even sure how you’re feeling about an interaction, it also helped me to take a second and check in with my body. Was I tense? Did I have an uneasy feeling in my stomach? What was my unconscious body language like? Checking in with those physical reactions could help guide me when I had walled myself off from my feelings.

      Another helpful suggestion from my therapist was to stop and reconsider situations where I felt guilty about saying no as if it were a third person who was turning me down. If I would be understanding of a friend’s reasons for saying no to something, why wouldn’t they feel the same way if I said no? And if they weren’t ok with me setting boundaries to take care of myself, are those people I really want to be around? Basically, she wanted me to treat myself with the same consideration and compassion that I would treat others.

      Jedi hugs to you if you’d like them – knowing this is a problem is the first step to solving it. Be gentle with yourself and celebrate your small victories, because it’s hard to unlearn these life long patterns, but you can do it! I’ve definitely struggled with it, but learning to be more assertive has made my relationships so much deeper and more satisfying.

      • Anisoptera said:

        Oh yes – +1 to checking in with your body. Often I only know I don’t like something when I realise my stomach is twisting or something equally physical like closed off body language or whatever. I’ve discovered a great way to react when I *do* notice my physical reaction is negative is to excuse myself briefly (bathroom break is a classic for a reason) and then go somewhere quiet without other people and think about it. Taking a little breather is a good way to let all your thoughts and feelings re-emerge. And conveniently, you now don’t have to go back to that situation that was annoying you – people head off to the bathroom and don’t come back to a specific conversation all the time in social situations, no one will think anything of it.

  48. placeinthisworld247 said:

    I’m just learning how to say “No” more in certain situations. I have been known to be taken advantage of because of my fear of disappointing or angering people, so I can relate to the LW very much! I think a combination of a good online friend of mine and my T have taught me how to assert myself more. What really struck me is when I was telling my friend about someone that I felt was taking advantage of me and she said something like, “If you do nothing, it will get worse.” And afterwards, I got an idea from this site (Thanks, CA 🙂 ) on how to say “no.” in a couple situations 1) when someone yells at you or is being verbally abusive, say “Don’t talk to me like that.” in a firm and calm manner. and 2) when someone tells you to do something you’re uncomfortable with say, “I’m sorry I’m not comfortable with this because of x.” or you don’ t even have to give an explanation. 3.) When someone touches you without your permission, let out a yelp and/or “I don’t feel comfortable. Please stop that.” or “I don’t like you doing that. Please stop.”

  49. Madb said:

    I feel like I learned to say “no” by learning to say “yes”. It took lots and lots of years after finding my best friend, who was super good at telling me “It’s okay to say no”. I try to say the same thing to my friends. It’s still awkward, and hard, and distressing a lot of the time. So that part may not go away. It’s still a better feeling than doing things I really didn’t want to do.

  50. ebbandflow said:

    LW, one part of your letter in particular stood out to me: “Actually, quite often I end up leading the way into something I know I don’t want to do, just because I can tell that’s the kind of person someone wants me to be” followed by “it does mean it’s definitely on me not them.” One thing that has been helpful for me in working with my similar experiences is when a therapist framed it for me: this is an old pattern that has helped me survive and get what I need (like positive regard or care from others) or minimize harm (similar to the way some people surviving domestic violence might say or do things to initiate a blow up from their partner – the abuse feels inescapable but if you start it on your terms there’s a little more sense of control). Framing this as a survival technique allowed me to let go of feeling shame about it (“why do I keep doing this to myself??”), which helped me make decisions from a more confident place. Working with a somatic therapist (doing therapy that recognizes that our bodies are important parts of our self and healing and not just meat suits we ride around in – you can google sensorimotor psychotherapy, somatic experiencing, generative somatics, etc) has been especially helpful, because now I can *feel* my no, and *feel* strong in asserting my boundaries and wishes, where before I could *think it* but felt stuck and unable to take action. Sending good thoughts to you!

  51. resili0 said:

    I had therapy for this, it was so ingrained in me not to express myself in case I provoked (what I know now was) abuse from my family.

    I was in a county that offered Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, a behavioural skills based therapy designed to treat the people written off as untreatable; people with complex and long term mental illness. It dealt solidly with skills in the here and now vs dredging up the past.

    I mention it because it has four modules, and all formed a part of my process in being able to say no:

    Mindfulness: the prospect of having to give an opinion triggered a kind of panic and before I knew it, I’d told people what they wanted to know. My habit was living by blocking off all the awareness of my body, how my emotions manifested. I couldn’t say no because I was totally shut off from myself. Mindfulness gave me the gap between pa mic and reacting.

    Emotional regulation: I grew up thinking I was really good at picking up on others feelings. I was terrible at recognising my own emotions. I had two modes, feeling numb or feeling huge, overwhelming feelings. Thus saying no meant I might be drowned in my emotions. So I just turned into a yes robot. Emotional regulation gave me trust that I could practice tuning in to my emotions and actually living my life in a way that meant I’d have happiness and joy as well as fear and pain.

    Distress tolerance: I’d been taught that my job as a daughter was to be the glue that held all our broken bits together. There was no room for my sadness or anger. So I was scared of feeling anything that wasn’t ‘nice’. I feared that if I got in touch with sadness or anger, I’d be consumed by it. I had no practice in feeling it and soothing myself. So naturally, I stuffed a lot of emotion and said yes to some really damaging things. Distress Tolerance taught me how to soothe myself, distract myself, look after me.

    Interpersonal Effectiveness: I’d picked up a lot of myths about how social relationships worked. This module helped me unpick how to make requests, say no, set boundaries and decide how to negotiate.

    There are DBT online groups and web courses. I got lucky. My inability to say no looked simple from the outset but actually it came from a few places and there were things I needed to learn, soothing myself, trusting myself, skills I assumed everyone else had I didn’t because I was broken.

    The good news about behaviour is, humans are great at learning. Our brains will quite literally regrow new pathways as we practice. The forest might be thick but you can choose a new route to go down and your brain will follow, you can grow a new habit. You can do it.

    • Thanks for this explanation resili0. I had heard of DBT, didn’t know much about what it actually was. That’s really interesting.

  52. emmych said:

    I learned to say no when I realized people took my time and energy for granted, so I started say no to weed out the shitheads that only cared about my emotional labour and not the person attached.

    Good kind people will listen to a no. Find them: practice on them, prune the rest.

  53. atma said:

    I might have missed something, but it sounds to me from the words LW is using that this is not a work situation, but more of a dating/sex thing?

    If the person/s this happens with are otherwise good friends and you have reasons to believe they are your well-wishers, try talking to them outside of the situation, maybe bring up how you easily get swept away in the moment and maybe in advance you can talk with them about what you’d typically wouldn’t want because afterwards it doesn’t feel good for you?

    I’m not sure my suggestion is the best, but I think it’s an important point of view for this question, what are good ways to deal with in an intimate situation where you own conditioning makes you act enthusiastic when you’re really not.

    Of course, therapy and groups would be good for this too, but somehow, to me, it seems that the stakes are a little higher than if you occasionally take on more work than you’re actually happy with

  54. Mary said:

    LW, I’m not totally sure from your letter whether your problem is 1. recognising when you don’t want to do something or 2. knowing that you don’t want to do something but struggling to communicate that.

    If you haven’t got 1. down, practice that first! If you find that when you’re surrounded by other people, their desires and wishes tend to overtake yours, then literally go and ask yourself what YOU want to do. Excuse yourself and go to the loo. Shut the door. Listen to the thoughts in your own head and very clearly say to yourself, “Do I actually want to XYZ?” Figure out if your response is, “Actually, I really do!” or “You know what, I am not feeling it.”

    Articulate “No, I don’t want to” to YOURSELF first, and it gets a lot easier to say to other people, “Actually, that doesn’t sound great to me. How about ABC instead?” You can also do this if you’ve actually said yes – “Sorry, I know I’ve said yes but I’ve just thought about it and realised that I’m not keen, actually. How about X instead?”

    It’s also useful to ask, “Do I like this person? Am I enjoying their company? Do I feel good hanging out with them? Do they make me feel funny and relaxed and interesting? Do I want them to like me?” One of the really easy traps to fall into is to meet people and get caught up in wanting them to like you and wanting to impress them without actually working out whether you like them, and you end up in a cycle of trying to please them and feeling rubbish and trying harder instead of asking whether you actually like them!

    You might need to literally go and be by yourself at first, but it gets easier with practice. You can also use fiddling with your phone, going to the loo, going for a walk, going for a cigarette if you smoke – just a chance to get away for a few minutes and listen to *yourself*. Get used to listening to yourself and what you want, and expressing that to other people sometimes follows naturally. Even if it doesn’t follow naturally, it’s still a necessary first step!

  55. Clarry said:

    When I Say No, I Feel Guilty! Great book! It was recommended to me when I was in therapy. No, it hasn’t aged well. It has some flaws, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worthwhile read. For me, the biggest flaw isn’t the gender assumptions. (They’re there, but they don’t bother me too much. I remind myself that it was written in the 70s and sort of read around them.) For me, it’s how little attention is paid to figuring out what you DO want. It’s all well and good to get what you want when it’s a matter of returning an item to a store or to stop loaning a cublicle mate spare change, situations where any onlooker could see that you’re right. It’s harder with whole projects where you like some of the ideas, don’t mind volunteering for part of what needs to be done, and basically need to figure out what’s going on for a time.

    My suggestion that’s not in the book is to practice. Saying no is a skill like any other. You get better at it with practice. Set yourself a limited time, say 6 weeks, in which you promise yourself that you’re going to say maybe to everything. Everything. Even things you’re sure you want. For invitations that come over the phone or text that are happening next week, say maybe and promise an answer the next day. For invitations that come in person for things that are happening in an hour, say you’ll give an answer in 5 minutes. For people who are baffled by your behavior, explain that this is something you’re trying. For people who press you for an answer before your time period is up, either say no right then or put off the time period again by saying maybe and waiting another day.

    When the 6 weeks of maybe are up, practice 6 weeks of saying no to everything. Wait, you’re thinking, I can’t say to everything. I wouldn’t have a friend or a job by the end of it. Right. And here’s the beauty of it. Say no to everything you can. When you’re feeling really uncomfortable, your fallback will be to maybe. Then you’ll have time to think if this is a situation where you want to say no.

    The nice long time period will give you time to think about who is pressuring you out of enthusiasm and not knowing that you want something different and who is manipulating you because they know damn well that they’re serving their own ends not yours. Besides, think of it as exercising the no muscle. With physical exercise, you start with only a few reps, then move on to doing more. The whole time you remain sure that you will get better in time. Saying no is like that.

    • I think the gender issues in the book “When I say no I feel guilty” are partly due to its age (although the feminist movement was well underway, and the author did include an example of a woman who wanted to get a job outside of the home and how she asserted that want to her husband, so the author was aware of and somewhat supportive of it) and partly a symptom of an overarching unspoken assumption. That assumption was hinted at when the author described a student coming back to say he tried all the techniques but he still couldn’t get that refund he wanted … of a product that was *way* past any reasonable refund window.

      So I don’t recall it being explicitly stated, but being assertive without being guilty hinges on being assertive about things you are reasonably entitled to have, like being treated like a human, being able to not buy something you don’t want to buy or not do something you don’t want to do, and so on. So the assumption is that the thing you are asserting is something you are entitled to. (There was no discussion of how to determine whether or not you are actually entitled to the thing! And for many people who have trouble saying no, this is really a key part of the problem.)

      Unfortunately, in the chapter on sexual matters, the man was “entitled” to have a kind of sexual experience his wife didn’t want, and *her* saying “no” wasn’t an option.

      The book also didn’t address the situation where both people in the conversation are reasonably entitled to incompatible things. That would have been well placed in the sexual chapter, because the man was entirely within his rights to want something, and the woman was entirely within her rights to say no, and those are not compatible.

      • Clarry said:

        Thanks, Invisible, you got to the heart of the problem better than I. While Smith does give lip service to “reasonable compromise,” he doesn’t go into nearly enough about what that might look like, and that’s the real flaw in the book.

  56. spookycatlady said:

    I could have written this letter years ago…

    I just went through having to give a hard no to a friend. It was hard because I didn’t want to disappoint her or poo-poo her idea outright and hard as in there had to be no wiggle room for negotiation. She had suggested we go on a specific vacation together, one that would probably destroy our friendship, if past experiences provide any insight.

    She knew it was off when she suggested it because her pitch was, “I know group tours aren’t your thing and you’re worried about your budget, but here is this expensive food tour through Country that You Love! You love the food! You love the country!”

    Always saying yes, is ‘nice,’ but it is not necessarily kind…to yourself, or your friend/partner/co-worker.

    There’s a book called, The Tyranny of Niceness* by Evelyn Sommers which goes into the social conditioning we go through and the peril we can put ourselves in by trying to please others at the expense of ourselves. I found that reframing from always trying to be *kind* instead of ‘nice’ was immensely helpful in learning how to say no.

    *She was my therapist and I’m one of the case studies, with sufficient details masked to hide my true identity.

  57. IS said:

    I found reading the Miss Manners books hugely helpful in this respect. She says etiquette permits you to simply decline (without even giving a reason), and does offer various scripts for various situations. I found it very reassuring that etiquette allows me to just decline the offer and not do the thing.

  58. Rhoda said:

    My mother was one of those people who never took no for an answer and would keep pushing and pushing and pushing until I had to practically scream NOOO!!!! at the top of my lungs to get her to back off.
    At that point she’d get all hurt and pouty and use guilt to get her way, or try to rally other family members around her to agree that I was nasty and unreasonable and just “bit my head off for no good reason!”. So, I also had a hard time saying no when I became an adult.
    One thing that helped was getting a book on assertiveness (this is so long ago that I can’t even remember the name, sorry.) Another was simply getting out into the adult working world and seeing other people set boundaries. I saw that they didn’t get hated and yelled at and ganged up on for saying no, so I realized that I could do it too, with most reasonable adults. (Most adults are reasonable, thankfully.)
    I don’t know if this is something you’ve gotten from your upbringing, but I second the Captain’s suggestion for therapy.

  59. Jynnan_Tonnyx said:

    I used to struggle a lot with saying no, but now I’m assertive AF. When I was in my teens and early 20s, I was like you, LW – I found myself unable to say no even to things that I wasn’t at all interested in. Thank FSM that I never drew any attention from a sexual predator back then; I would have been a perfect target.

    The biggest thing that I started doing that (I think) led to me being my assertive present self was saying “maybe” or “let me get back to you.” Having the breathing room to actually /think/ about my response helped a ton – if only to allow me to come up with a good way to phrase my eventual “no”.

    And I definitely second the Captain’s advice re: therapy. For me, the roots of my inability to say no came from the way my mom treated me when I was growing up; there were abusive dynamics at play there. Addressing that helped me enormously with saying no, among other things. Good luck, LW! I believe in you!

  60. mybluehighways said:

    I didn’t read through these many comments, so I may be repeating, but honestly what helped me the most about learning to *say* no was learning to *hear* no. It wasn’t until I started really hearing the ways in which other people declined things or saw up-close just how often people declined things that I realized it was okay for me to do so too, which came as close friendships and partnerships came. When you see someone else’s life up-close for the first time, you suddenly start to see all the things they say no to and realize that it’s much more than you thought it was. You also see the different ways they say no from the “Mom, I’m so sorry, I’m not feeling well, I can’t make it to dinner like we’d planned” to the “I’d like to, but I can’t come to that event, I need some down time for myself” to the “I’m not interested. The end.” which are all very different. And finally, you also get to see the times when they feel like they should say no and don’t and then end up in a worse place because of it.

    Some other things that helped me were to find close friends and confide in them this issue and to ask them to help remind me that I’m doing a good thing when I say no, whether I say it to them or I tell them second-hand. I had this unique experience of needing to turn down a project in college that I was really in turmoil about turning down. I wanted to help them, but I just COULDN’T or I would have not been able to survive. And when a week or so later I told my friend about it, still feeling sad and guilty, she immediately said “but you did such a good job for saying no and here’s why…” I had forgotten that I had even asked her to do that and it was a huge lift for me. The person you’re saying no too has asked something of you and while they probably won’t be upset by your no, they could be, which is where the fear and guilt stem from, the idea that that person might not like you or be angry or hurt. So it’s hard to expect that same person to thank you for saying no (though the best people, I find, do actually do just that), but you CAN often rely on close friends, partners, and family to understand WHY you said no and to confirm that it was a good decision for you.

  61. Girl in the Stix said:

    FWIW: It’s easier to change a no to a yes than a yes to a no.

  62. Studies have shown that one person in a crowd of people making a wrong statement – as basic as ‘this line is longer than that (blatantly longer) line’ are more likely to say what they mean if there is a second person saying it – moral support is now scientific fact.

    Sometimes you need to be your own moral support.

    When I know something is coming up that will make me say YES when I mean NO, I will write down a statement on an index card in my pocket where I can discreetly hold it, or a paper I can wad up and touch, and remind myself that when Self had time and clarity to think this through, Self made a good decision, and it would be a bad idea to agree just now.

    I realize that some people don’t need a physical object to touch, but ‘tie a string around your finger’ to remember suggests that a visual or tactile cue is helpful. Otherwise, write it on your phone.

  63. Muffin said:

    This is specific to sexual contexts, but one thing I found really hard (which sounds similar to what you describe, LW) is that often the situation felt like it had gotten away from me or escalated too fast before I got a chance to say yes OR no. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that in a lot of cases, the problem was that I just wasn’t being asked anything. A lot of stuff would kind of… happen, without the other person saying “Do you want to _____?” And then by the time we got to a place where a question happened, I would already be confused and unhappy.

    I invented a tactic for this which is basically turning myself into Clippy the Microsoft Paper Clip — you know, the annoying little bouncing critter that goes, “It looks like you’re trying to write a letter. Would you like help with that?” Except instead it would be, “It looks like you’re trying to / you want to make out with me. Is that correct?

    That worked well for me because it 1. made the tacit explicit, 2. required the other person to use their words to ask for things (like, y’know, consent) and 3. gave me time to stop and collect myself instead of feeling like I was on an express train to Uncomfortabletown.

    I hope this helps, LW!

    • B. said:

      Not LW, but I’m totally stealing that. Thank you!

      • Ha, I really like this idea! Thanks Muffin.

    • panda said:

      Thank you thank you! Yes, and this happens not only in sexual situations but also other social situations. I find it hard to say no when things just seem to happend. I will try your tactic. 🙂

  64. JK said:

    My therapist did an exercise with me that changed everything for me. We stood up in her office, and she slowly moved a little closer to me and then stopped. This was repeated, and I got to say when she should stop. I could tell her to back up or step forward. I thought it would be silly, but it really helped me by showing me that (1) I get to decide and (2) I liked being the decider. I’ve made tons of progress since then in seeing and enforcing boundaries, but that is what got things started for me.

  65. RRRowena said:

    Another way of looking at it: people want you to say no. We want the people in our lives to be happy, and part of a friendship is taking their needs and wants into account. But that’s hard to do if we have to guess they want and need. Early in a relationship (especially a dating relationship) I watch for whether or not someone can disagree with me. Even if it’s something as minor as “Can we get Chinese? I had Italian last night.” It’s reassuring to know I don’t have to play that complicated game where I try to guess what they want, and then not bring other stuff up because they’d feel obligated, and then we’re all tied in knots and expending a bunch of energy and are maybe doing something no one wanted to do, but we both thought the other one did.

  66. Buni said:

    From my many years working with kids, who will quite happily ask the same question 2000 times in a row before they even get to “But whhyyyyyyyyy?”, my go-to is now:

    Kid: Can I / you do X?
    Me: No [possibly w/ reason, possibly not]
    Kid: But can I / you do X?
    Me: [puzzled look] You already asked me that question, and I already answered it. [robot-repeat as necessary]

    The point is, you answer the question once, but any subsequent times you ignore the actual question (because you’ve already answered it) and simply deal with the fact that they’re repeating themselves. I can’t remember that I’ve ever had to use this on adult, but then any adult who willfully refuses take a single answer probably should be treated as a child.

  67. Proffie Galore said:

    How I started saying no to after-work socializing: Sad face. “Oh, I can’t. I have a previous commitment.” Sad face and shrug.

    The previous commitment is to watch Netflix with a big bowl of popcorn.

    How I have started getting away from colleagues who Will. Not. Shut. Up.: Grimace. “Sorry, gotta run.” Grimace.

    Heading for the bathroom usually does the trick.

  68. I used time travel.

    Seriously. LW goes along in the moment, even though she knows this will not end well when they find out she is not enthused. So you stretch out that moment; you pull out the time frame to include the unhappy conclusion. Make the whole thing a continuous thing. Make the moment they get disappointed later the thing we dread now.

    It requires practice because when we feel panicked we are just reacting “in the moment” but when we widen our perspective, and look at the whole thing unfolding before us, we don’t have to let our panic beat us up now and we don’t let the crushing disappointment that is to come panic us now, either.

    I hope I’m making sense.

    Because either way it’s disappointment for the person who thinks they are making LW happy in some way. I told myself I can’t do that to them; it becomes a kindness thing, then.

    And yes, practice practice practice on people LW is not afraid of and who will not mind.

    I know for a fact people can learn; I was a small town girl shy my whole life and I got a job in NYC. It was assert or die there, and I ASSERTED my behind off. And, LW… it was wonderful.

    Honesty has incredible power.

  69. Nic said:

    Not specifically related to saying no, but something that has been (and continues to be) quite important on my journey towards not being a doormat is not volunteering for things without being asked.

    As a female who grew up in the South, I was trained not only that good girls do as they are asked, but also that they try to anticipate needs and do what they can to resolve situations before they start. Because of this, any time anyone I knew had an issue I could help with, regardless of the difficulty, pain, or stress that it would cause me, I jumped in with an offer.

    Learning to bite my tongue has been incredibly hard, but not having to do all those things I never wanted to in the first place has been quite liberating! I wish you luck on your journey!

  70. I’ve been here. Things started to change the day the waitstaff at one of regular places said, “You know, we can totally make that rings only if you like.” After I didn’t eat the calamari legs for like the fifth time. Starting off with ordering things done slightly different was how I practiced expressing a preference.

    As for the volunteering to do something you don’t want to do because you know the other person really wants/needs you to do the thing, I instituted a “they have to ask” policy pretty much across the board. The other party is a grown ass adult who doesn’t get EXTRA assistance without asking for it first. Sometimes, it makes me feel bad; but, I’m OK with that.

    • KittensMakeEverythingBetter said:

      This. Just making someone ask is huge. There is someone in my life right now that thinks it is insulting to them to ever have to ask. It is slowly changing the entire relationship for the better to refuse to do favors unless they will ask. After all, I’m not a mind reader nor am I under some obligation. They had never before considered that any favor might be an inconvenience for me, just that they needed/wanted something and I should do it. Simply having to ask seems to bring to their attention that I’m not some slave required to do what they want. They are currently furious, but I am really enjoying this, well after I get over shaking from requiring them to ask.

  71. Word Turner said:

    I’m still not very good at saying no or figuring out what I want, but one thing that’s helped me a lot is not always answering the phone when it rings. Turning the ringer off, figuring out that I didn’t have to open the door just because someone was knocking and I didn’t have to pick up just because someone was calling. And then not getting back to people right away when they contact me, but taking some space to make a decision without someone hovering there pressuring me.

    I do answer the phone right away if it’s my landlady but other than that no. Not answering the phone is a baby step towards no because you’re deciding that no you don’t want to be interrupted right now and someone doesn’t get to interrupt you. And the delay between when they call and when you write them back can make a big difference.

  72. oregonbird said:

    I’m not certain this counts as learning to say no, but after a minor stroke I lost a number of filters, and that dithering, ‘maybe its me’ mindset vanished. It was a little startling, after a lifetime of being British-level polite, and it took me a while to find appropriate levels of honesty. But the sense of power is invigorating! And now covert insults, attempts to belittle, insinuations, presumptive assumptions, demands — none of them work on me any longer. The first night I moved into my current housing, a new housemate tried to pass off insulting me as humor. I couldn’t believe how fast I shut it down, and it all started with, ‘No.’

  73. Fiver said:

    I’ve been struggling with the exact same thing for years now. A couple things that helped me have been research. I’m not interested in diagnosing you, LW, but it might help you to know you have a lot in common with a lot of people. Reading books & blogs about abuse, ptsd, and personality disorders have helped me identify what I’m doing, even though it’s still a struggle. You might not have been through any of those, but you have enough in common that it might help clarify a few things for you anyway. And I know that, for me, it’s much easier to be kind to myself about something when I can remind myself that it’s a symptom, not some unique personal failing. Other people do it too, you’re not alone.

    My main bit of advice though, is that it’s toootally okay to draw back from relationships for a while. If you find yourself offering to do things, if being around people makes you feel like you have to play a role, you can try drawing back from those for a while. Avoid situations where you’re going to feel pressured like that, if you can. It’s helped me a lot to have periods of down time, where I can just focus on myself. Total self isolation isn’t the best, of course… but you’re already in a really stressful, untenable situation. It might be a relief to let yourself just… avoid people for a while. Doing the work to practice “No” is stressful enough, take it easy, take it slow.

  74. turquoises said:

    Hi LW! I can relate, and I think you are being totally courageous and badass– un-learning these sorts of responses can be very hard work.

    I want to add one thing that I don’t think has been mentioned yet. From the way you describe it, it sounds like you might be experiencing a “freeze” response, as in “fight, flight or freeze”.

    “… it’s like I’m trapped in my body while it goes through the motions. So by the time I manage to admit that I’m not ok….”

    Freezing can be subtle or dramatic– either way it is a totally valid physiological response to stress, which can leave you genuinely stuck and unable to say no. In the broadest terms, it’s very possible that you’ve had many experiences that taught you it *wasn’t safe* to say no, and your autonomic nervous system has learned to put the brakes on in those situations, to keep you safe.

    I have this experience myself, as a C-PTSD survivor, and I have a few suggestions based on what I have learned about “thawing” my own freeze response. It mainly has to do with paying attention to bodily sensations, and *giving* yourself sensory input to help ground yourself. Fight/flight/freeze actually takes your prefrontal cortex offline, among other things, so you just can’t reason your way out of it, but you can build your capacity to navigate stress & alarm.

    1!!! Practice pausing to give yourself a tiny bit of sensory input. This really helps stabilize and nourish your nervous system so that you can be more calm and present. I learned this through occupational therapy. Touch-pressure and proprioceptive (body-position) input are really important food for your brain! Autistic people call it “stimming”, but it’s really a critical life skill for anyone.

    Some of my favorites:
    –sway back and forth gently, as much or as little as you like. Make sure to breathe!
    –rise up & down on your tiptoes. Notice the feeling of your feet pressing into the floor. (can do this while sitting too, only you’ll just be raising & lowering your knee)
    –press your hands together
    –rub your palms firmly along the top of your thighs
    –cradle your face in your hands
    –rub your face or scalp
    –roll/flex your ankles (you know what I mean? like trace a circle with your toes?) This one is surprisingly powerful– it really gives you a LOT of proprioceptive input through your ankle joint.

    2. Practice pausing and paying attention to how you feel during mundane activities– making breakfast, getting dressed, running late for the bus, taking a walk, typing an email, calling a friend– practice with things that have low to moderate levels of stress. It’s okay if you can’t name your feelings, just build that muscle of pausing to notice. Cultivate curiosity.

    3. Practice just NOTICING when you are uncomfortable and don’t want to do something. Just noticing. And then maybe circle back to #1 and give yourself some sensory input. (This can help your nervous system learn that it’s OK to recognize discomfort. You are building resources in your nervous system.)

    4. And then…. WHEN you notice you’re uncomfortable, start to get curious about what your body language is. What is your face doing? Get curious.

    5. And THEN…. you can start to practice making tiny adjustments to your body language. TINY!! Just start playing around and see if you can make your body/face just a LITTLE more congruent with what you’re feeling on the inside. Work your way up from there. Be gentle.

    By gradually building your *nonverbal* capacity to express discomfort, you are thawing your freeze response and setting the stage to verbally say no… which segues right into the Cap’s excellent advice to practice saying no in low-stakes situations.

    Be gentle, and don’t expect it to be a linear process. You might cycle through all of these steps in rather a jumble. Just go slow and be gentle with yourself 🙂

    lots of love!!!! ❤

  75. Ash said:

    This is the ask that me of 18 months ago would have written. I found it really hard to assert my wants and needs, even when the other people involved would be totally chill if I did. It made me feel like shit. I remember drawing a sad sad little cartoon showing me letting myself get hurt and the other person involved being angry that I hadn’t told them no. I eventually put a bunch of work into dealing with my issues and things slowly changed, I find it easier to set boundaries now even though I know this is something I’m always gonna struggle with sometimes. So, sending solidarity feels.

    I think Cap gave some really sound advice. The stuff that worked the most for me was 1 therapy and 2 practising setting boundaries in small ways.

    Therapy really helped me to feel stronger in myself, and to unravel some of the reasons why I find saying no so hard. If you can possibly do it, it’s totally worth it.

    Practising setting boundaries in small ways is so so good. Even if the issue in question would seem tiny to somebody else, if it was hard for you then you should feel proud of doing it. Even if you can’t manage it all the time. I wrote down some of my successful times in my diary so I could look at them and say, Here are times when I did manage to assert myself and it all went ok. And remind myself of them when I was faced with another challenge.

    When you practise saying no for small things, you’re building the same set of skills you use for bigger things: recognising that you might want to say no, finding the time/mental space to process it, working through any fear and anxiety that you have, and actually finding the right words to put it across. It’s a skill. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.

  76. Erika said:

    It’s not exactly the same situation, but I think it has enough parallels that it will work here. When I was in middle school through maybe sophomore year, I was really unhappy with myself . I was fat, was being badly bullied (sexually) and that manifested in extreme shyness–I wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. I came close to killing myself. Instead, I decided to fake it.

    I decided to fake being the person I wanted to be. When faced with a situation that old me would turn bright red and walk away, I would think about how I wanted to come across, and then fake being that person. Old me, tripped on the sidewalk, would cry when people laughed. New me would think about how the popular kids would be have in the same situation, pretend I was one of them, and laugh off any embarrassment. It was really hard at first. It took a lot of mental energy and a physical toll–lots of running to the bathroom with nervous diarrhea, to be honest. I would check myself in every situation, and inside me there would be this cringing shy person, while outwardly I tried out for the school play.

    It has worked for me. My jobs all involved public speaking, asking for money, and dealing with angry people. Most people have NO IDEA that I’m not a naturally outgoing person. At a work thing where we took tests and shared the results, people literally refused to believe that I’m an introvert.

    Long story short, Captain Awkward’s right. Being assertive is a skill that can be learned. My advice is to pretend. Think of someone you know that says “no” easily and naturally, and pretend to be them when such a situation arises. “Fake it till you make it” is not a bad thing.

  77. morgansd said:

    How about if my reply is to you, Captain, wondering why you let this victim-blaming subthread happen in the first place?

    Because I’ve very much been wondering how you personally think that letting people tell LW (and everyone else with boundary issues who ever accesses your blog for advice, regardless of trauma or mental illness) that she should be worrying about alienating them by saying no in a way they don’t like? That flies in the face of everything I have learned about boundary building in therapy, and in what my friends with no boundaries have been taught: that it doesn’t matter when you say no, or how someone feels about your no. What matters is that you were able to say it.

    I question why you let this subthread go on so long. And I question why you’re not addressing any of the ways people without boundaries were vilified during the course of it. Especially since you apparently still have nothing to say about that vilification now. Guess we know where you stand. And it’s not on the side of people without boundaries and supporting our unique needs against people who victim blame us. That sucks.

    • morgansd said:

      *…that she should be worrying about alienating them by saying no in a way they don’t like is going to help her learn to say no more easily?

    • JenniferP said:

      Hello.

      Short answer for why this subthread went on so long: Many replies to the post came in while I was at work (in class). It unfolded faster than I could pay my full attention to it and by the time I could track the developments it had spiraled to a different place than I thought I was going. I am sorry for that. I should have headed things off much sooner.

      The victim-blaming parts of the subthread, which I am not happy or comfortable with, were aptly refuted by you and others. It seemed to me that an important discussion was happening and that you were making a convincing argument in defense of the LW and other possible survivors of childhood abuse to remind us that a) the perspective of those who are good at boundaries (which by the way, was not always me – I learned the hard way, raised by a mom who would not let me say no) is not the most valuable one here and that b) the misunderstandings and hurt feelings of people who can set boundaries are not the most important thing for survivors of abuse to worry about as they learn this stuff. When I commented – before things spiraled – it was from the perspective that, yeah, misunderstandings happen, but a misunderstanding (or cancellation) is not the worst thing in the world, and it’s maybe of some use for the LW to be reminded that the idea that saying yes to everything is necessary for making everyone more comfortable is a fallacy. I think Anothermous’s doubling down on the “I can’t be friends with people like this” was unnecessary and hurtful and should have been pruned outright.

      Anyway, I closed the thread, giving you the last word. I can see why you’re unhappy and wanted more active moderation, and I’m sorry.

      ,

  78. I used to have such a hard time saying no, or disagreeing with anyone in any way. But now that I have started, it keeps getting easier! And honestly, I feel like most people actually treat me with more respect now (which I think is messed up, but whatever).
    It really is less of an energy drain to be upfront with a No than it is to go along with something. But it is really hard, especially at first!

    You can do it!!!

    Just yesterday I was reflecting about how far I have come in speaking my mind, and I can feel myself getting stronger, and I feel unstoppable!

    Celebrate yourself when you take even a small step, like the first time you say no and you stammer through it and blush and get flustered. It still counts!

    Go get em!!

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