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The Spot Between Yes and No

Some people are excellent with boundaries.  They take on only what they know they can do without making themselves miserable.  They don’t feel guilt when they can’t volunteer.  They say “yes” when they can, but they have no compunction about saying “no.”

I am not one of those people.

I am terrible at setting and enforcing boundaries.  People make assumptions about what I’m willing to do and rather than correct those assumptions, I go along with them.  I say “yes” even when I know that saying “yes” means that I will give up sleep.  I am the type of person who boldly declares that I’m about to start setting boundaries, and then doesn’t set them.

I want to say “no” but it comes out more like “nuuuuuuuuuuh” and then the other person assumes that guttural moan was a “yes.”  Not their fault; I need to learn how to enunciate and mean it.

Cheryl Strayed gave advice recently to someone who described themselves as a recovering “yes” addict who has found that people are cranky with her newfound “no” (which is probably my fear — that people will be miffed if I say “no.”):

I know many men struggle to say no, but there’s another layer of complexity for women. We’re culturally conditioned to be the nurturing ones, and there’s also a smaller field we get to move in when it comes to what’s considered selfish. Women are accused of being selfish for acts and qualities we deem perfectly fine in men. I’d say that’s where at least some of your guilt comes from, Ghost. When I’m feeling guilty about saying no, it helps me enormously to ask myself, “What are my intentions?” Answering that is so clarifying and calming to me.

The problem, of course, is that if I’m honest about my intentions, it’s just to get back a little down time.  It’s to get in some book reading and video game playing.  I’m not saying “no” in order to make room in my schedule for saving ducklings.  I’m making room in my schedule to jump over virtual mud puddles as Pitfall Harry.  And this is my right: we are all entitled to down time, and we get to use that down time however we choose.  But it does complicate the “no” when I think about the instead.

Some people achieve that sweet spot between yes and no, and for whatever reason, they never deal with the ire that the woman in the article expressed once she started saying “no.”  I’m not talking about the guilt — I think there are many people who feel zero seconds of guilt over saying “no.”  What I’m talking about is the people who don’t attract any ire over their “no.”  They say “no” and everyone accepts it without a second thought.

That is what I want to understand more than the lack of guilt over saying “no” in the first place.


1 Linda @ Circle of Daydreams { 08.16.17 at 8:23 am }

I used to be the ultimate ‘yes’ girl. People pleasing was in my blood it seems…. and I was the poster girl for it. Now, not so much. I’m a lot better at saying no, even if it’s just because I need ‘me’ time to read a book or whatever. If I don’t have my ‘me’ time, then I’m not the best version of me I can be because my mental health is not as good… I’m more stressed and cranky. So having ‘me’ time actually benefits everyone as when I do go out etc. everyone else gets the best version of me showing up! I find that when you let go of the guilt over it… that’s when you stop attracting the ire from others over it. If you feel as though your worthy of the boundaries, other people behave as though the boundaries are worthy too. Just my experience. (:

2 Elizabeth { 08.16.17 at 8:27 am }

But their reaction has nothing to do with me, it’s about their conditioning, their assumptions and expectations, and how they then see my “no.” I can’t co trol their reactions. I say this in light of how I have reacted to other people’s nos in the past and why I thought they “owed” me and the volunteer organization we were in their time.

3 Lori Lavender Luz { 08.16.17 at 8:50 am }

I think maybe I am that person. Unless I’m comparing myself to my sisters (which I do, and which is painful), I feel no guilt and I like to think I garner ire. Then again, I could be wrong.

But I don’t care. That’s the key.

4 a { 08.16.17 at 8:51 am }

I guess I just don’t care if people get mad. But I do have a strategy for you, which is the one I like to employ. If you get the sense that someone is going to ask you for something…make yourself scarce. Escape the conversation before they can ask. That way, you don’t have to say no. For example:

Person who wants you to do something: Hey, have I told you about this new program I’m working on? It’s really awesome! You should…

You: Is that the time? I’m late for Truman’s treat – he’s going to be really upset if I don’t get there RIGHT NOW! Gotta go – love to hear about your new program. Send me a text or something!

5 Peg { 08.16.17 at 9:28 am }

That Dear Sugars episode also hit a chord with me. I really struggle with this and haven’t found a solution that works.

6 Beth { 08.16.17 at 1:02 pm }

I am very similar. I feel tremendous guilt about what I “should” do and what I “should want” to do. I was recently aggressively befriended by a woman I barely know and really do not care to be around. However I gave her my phone number and am dreading the eventual invitation for our children to play because I feel guilt already for not wanting to go. She needs friends,
I see, isn’t it selfish of me to say no? Writing this I realize the silliness of my reaction but in the moment I want to be that kind, generous, selfless person who can say yes to everyone.

The same is true of “quiet time” in the afternoon. My kids are young and needy and I love spending time with them but there comes a point some days when I need a break. “But I want to do a craft!” “I want to ride my bike!” My husband can unequivocally say that we will do that later but not now, and then he will nap. I will much more likely cave or at least make myself clean or do laundry because I feel guilty relaxing when I “should want” to play with my kids.

7 Sharon { 08.16.17 at 1:20 pm }

There are many things I’m not good at: as a few examples, I’ve been overweight and sedentary most of my adult life; I am not creative or crafty; and I yell at my children too much. However, I am VERY good with setting and maintaining boundaries and have never really had trouble saying no to things/people. (One of several ways in which I am not a typical female.) Surprisingly, I have also never gotten much push-back from people about it.

Becoming a mother of twins who also works full time outside the home in a demanding job has only made this easier for me. Before, when I said no, I sometimes risks censure by the asker. Now, nearly everyone understands why I simply don’t have time to take on more.

8 Amanda { 08.16.17 at 2:49 pm }

I totally understand this. I am slowly getting better at setting boundaries but with a new job change and that ever increasing need to please people, I find myself saying yes, even when I want to say no. I try to remind myself that saying no, means I can yes to other things. No I don’t want to go save puppies for $400 at a benefit dinner, yes I want to spend $400 towards paying down debt. or No I can’t come with you on Friday night to the movie, but yes I can on another night, when I feel more rested.

9 Working mom of 2 { 08.16.17 at 3:13 pm }

Well, you kinda have to care if it’s your boss. I’ve tried to be more assertive the past couple years at work re: saying by no b/c too much on my plate but it really hasn’t gone well. The best was when my boss asked for people to volunteer with something she had volunteered for. I did not volunteer. Then a coworker sends around an email with everyone’s assignments for this volunteer project including me. So I sent a reply saying that unfortunately I was unable to volunteer for this project based on my workload. No one else declined, which made me look bad.

10 Jess { 08.16.17 at 3:53 pm }

I am trying to be better at saying no, and I’ve done it a couple times recently and while I get the sweats and a bit of that fight-or-flight when I get set up to do it, I feel better when I realize I’ve saved myself a time suck, or something I didn’t want to do, or a service that I don’t find helpful. I just said no to joining an orchestra for the summer, knowing that while I might enjoy it I just don’t have the bandwidth right now, and I just fired my therapist. I’m trying to be more like Lori, and not care, because at least with the friend who asked me to join her orchestra, saying no was not met with the ire I thought it might be. I’m trying to protect my time and interests better, saying no and not worrying so much about fallout that may or may not be real is definitely a step in the right direction. But man, it’s hard.

11 torthuil { 08.16.17 at 4:01 pm }

Maybe it’s easier for me to say no because I have always had a strong negative reaction to people crossing my boundaries. Actually I’m not the kind of person who gets constantly asked for favours, so it’s sort of a pre-emtive no lol. I don’t usually get guilty and agonize because I immediately know I’m not comfortable and I go into grr, stop it mode. And repeat boundary crossing tends to intensify the reaction.

The exception is if I’m dealing with a vulnerable or disabled person whom I know is lacking skills or the ability to cope somehow, then I am consciously more patient. But then I’m also strategically looking for ways I can teach them to change their behaviour.

Based on that, if you want to be able to say No more often, my advice would be to become more sensitive to your negative emotions. When you get that “I don’t like this: get me out of here” feeling: listen to it and get out of the situation. Allow yourself to feel cranky and overwhelmed because that’s how you really feel. 😀

12 Mali { 08.17.17 at 9:14 pm }

I think we should feel much freer to say “no” more often. I’ve been able to do it more in my 40s and 50s, when I finally learned some self-care. I’ve made a practice of saying “yes” and “no” more often! And I find I don’t need to justify to anyone else saying “no.” A simply, “No, I’m sorry I can’t,” is perfectly reasonable, and you don’t owe anyone any explanation, whether the reason for the decline is “no I’m too busy,” or “no, that’s my sleeping in/playing a computer game/reading a book time” or “no, I don’t like you” or “no, because I’ve done it the last ten times and it is someone else’s turn.”

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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