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’)?
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?