The Inner Bottom Line ®: “Setting Boundaries and Saying No”
A Column about Ethical Dilemmas and Personal Choices
February 20, 2005
I need help with a problem. I can’t say no. That might seem like simple thing, but it’s a big deal to me. No matter what someone asks, I mumble, get confused, say nothing and then end up with a new file on my desk or chores at home someone forgot to do. Do you think that’s fair? I’ve been reading your column for over a year and like how you get to the bottom of things so I thought maybe you could help because nothing I’ve done has made it easier to speak up when I’m under pressure or stress. I did see a therapist about this for a year and that helped me understand a little about my family and how they didn’t listen when anyone talked, but that still hasn’t made it easier, especially when it means disappointing or refusing someone. I don’t feel as guilty about that as I used to, but when a friend accused me of being a doormat the other day, I knew she was right. I’m stuck and don’t know what to do next. Why is this still so hard? Why can’t I say this one stupid word? Do you know other middle-aged people who fail at this? At my age, I feel ridiculous. I’m hoping you have some suggestions that will help.
It certainly is painful to feel stuck, unheard, ridiculous or undervalued. Take your pick. None describe a state that’s comfortable, deserved or acceptable. It’s apparent over the years that you’ve had to pay a very high a price for not being able to set boundaries and speak up for yourself, so let’s see what we can do to free things up a bit.
To begin, please know you are not alone. I taught assertiveness to adults of all ages for The Learning Annex in Los Angeles for seven years starting in 1987. During that time, I had the privilege of working with thousands of folks who had similar difficulties. Every person who enrolled in the six-week class was struggling with a myriad of painful emotions that ranged from low self-esteem and shutdown to stuttering, night sweats and hallucinations.
I remember one man, in particular, who was a very successful architect. He could make million-dollar decisions without blinking but couldn’t order breakfast. If the waitress brought him rye instead of whole-wheat toast, he couldn’t say, “No, this isn’t what I ordered” and then ask for what was rightfully his. By the time he started class, he was in agony, feeling like an impostor and fool with little remaining self-esteem.
Being given that kind of intimate, inside peek at the specific, seemingly trivial moments in my students’ lives that were causing them such anguish was invaluable to me. Among other things, it taught me a lot about the inner workings of isolation, silence, frustration, abuse and self worth.
What keeps us from speaking up for ourselves is never one isolated trauma or emotion. Shutting down can have many roots, but mixed into the physical inability to vocally connect to needs and wants are significant and often disparate fears. Fear of making a fool of ourselves. Fear of being refused our request. Fear of being humiliated or ridiculed for even thinking we were worthy enough to ask and receive anything in the first place. Even fear of having the world literally explode if we dare demand anything or speak the truth.
Some of the fears are grounded in possibility while others spring from fantasy. I’ve often explained F-E-A-R as fantasy embellishing and augmenting reality. But whatever the origin, when we’re afraid that a choice might result in global ruination, it’s amazing how readily our jaws snap tight and no sounds come forth.
It’s scary to say no. We never know in our increasingly boundary-less, arrogant, in-your-face culture what we’re going to get back. And if we grow up in a home where we’re not heard, where anger or strong emotions are not permitted expression and where the mere idea that if we get angry others will get angry with us for being angry, then any act or word that might displease or cause disapproval or disagreement becomes a potentially frightening and unpredictable explosive.
While some people have learned to verbally defend themselves when insulted, attacked or neglected, a good many of us are not always comfortable saying no when the chips are on the table, especially when it involves something of personal value. At those moments, when the stakes are high and there’s something to lose if we blow it, it’s normal and not uncommon to panic and find ourselves, if not speechless, then flushed, fumbling or downright illogical.
Why is that? Why, when what we say counts the most, do we often find we can’t find words? Or if we do, why do they seem to come out all wrong, even if our intention is right? Fear. Fear kicks in whenever something of value is at stake or the price we may have to pay is high. Then fear of the unknown, unnamed explosion becomes high on the list.
It’s admirable that you’ve had the courage to explore and benefit from the therapy you’ve done. Now that you’ve gained some insight into why you grew up feeling at risk to speak, it sounds as if you’re ready to consider a next step, for you always have options and the choices belong solely to you.
One choice is to simply discard the word “no” from your vocabulary for the moment. Throw it in the dumpster. “No” is a word on its own that viscerally can invite troublesome reactions. For example, just saying “no” to someone unexpectedly will probably illicit a defensive or confrontational “what?”
There are lots of ways and words to communicate “no” without ever saying it, including body language. And it starts with rethinking your position. Rather than denying or refusing someone, think of it as a way to communicate what works or is good for you. If someone demands something from you, instead of saying, “No, I can’t or I won’t,” consider how you’re feeling and then saying, “Gee, I’d like to help but right now, but it’s just not possible.”
Feeling comes before speaking. The biggest challenge is authentically feeling that you deserve to take good care of yourself without feeling guilty. That is really the heart of the matter and only you can decide when being everyone else’s doormat is not respectful of, fair to, or deserved by you. If you’ve truly had enough, then you’re ready to consider the people in your life and determine whether he level or respect and consideration they give to you is what you deserve. Knowing what you value most starts with valuing yourself and it’s a process that takes time.
The transition from reacting to the world and other people’s unending demands to expressing your own needs won’t happen overnight. It’s appropriate that you come first on your list. But letting go of one hugely symbolic roadblock like the word “no” can start the boulder rolling down the hill. Just make sure you aren’t in front of it as it begins to move. Above all, be patient and good to yourself. You’ve been wrestling with this your entire life. Overcoming the kinds of rules or fears that have kept you shut down for so long will not happen immediately. But once you understand and master other ways to express yourself, I think you may be surprised at how things open up for you.
You can submit your questions or book private phone sessions with Olive at theinnerbottomline.com, explore her new blog at whatskeepingyouawakeatnight.com, or call into her blogtalkradio.com show, “The Inner Bottom Line,” with your questions. All letters and calls can be anonymous and confidential.
Kindle and audio versions along with the hard cover of Olive’s book, The Nude Ethicist: A Simple Path to The Good Life, are now available on amazon.com