Learning how to set limits and follow through on them
January 4, 2014 6:46 AM Subscribe
I need help in learning how to firmly say no and in changing patterns that have been years in the making. I’m an empathetic and intuitive person and I’m very generous. It’s second nature to me to offer to help out or to support my friends. I come from a very ‘what’s mine is yours’ approach. I’ve given people places to stay, financial support, intensive emotional support and career assistance. I like being this way; it’s true to me and I’m not resenting or adding it up…but I feel I am training some people to exploit me or to assume they are always entitled to my help. I’m happy with these parts of myself, but recently I’ve started feeling that my kindness and sensitivity to others needs and boundaries is encouraging some people to treat me as if I have no boundaries or needs myself.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (35 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I do a lot of favours for people. I give a lot of advice and practical support. (I’m a film-maker so I read/get approached to provide feedback on a lot of treatments and screenplay drafts; I studied law so I’m often called on to help out with legal advice; I have a PhD so I’m asked to read a lot of applications and academic work, I used to be a book editor so I get requests to read manuscripts for free, I am a huge source of emotional support to many people and so on.) I have many absolutely lovely friends who would never dream of abusing this but I have also had some really disappointing and depressing experiences recently with people who seem to be using me or who keep asking for more and more no matter how much I give. It’s reached a point where huge chunks of my time are going to providing feedback to others projects/applications/drafts. Sometimes there is little appreciation and a sense of entitlement surrounding these exchanges. I almost feel I’ve trained people to think my professional input and time are worthless or that I’m just a person without limits. Some people I thought were friends have disappeared as soon as I’ve helped them with what they needed and will presumably resurface when they need something else.
FWIW I am myself very guess culture-ish about asking for assistance (though quite direct and open about my values, opinions and beliefs and in relational/emotional matters) so I tend to be uncomfortable asking for things directly myself and also to spontaneously offer a lot without being asked.
For one reason or another – my personality, the fact I’m semi-successful in a difficult career path, the fact I often want to help and support – people ask me for things all the time. Friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, near strangers. I’m starting to feel exhausted and fed up.
Yet it’s hard for me to say no. I tend to feel that unless a request is practically/literally impossible for me or absolutely outrageous that I should fulfil it. Now that I’ve started getting better at setting limits, I’m facing people trying to push past them.
My close circle of very good friends are extremely aware of my generosity and kindness and very judicious in what they ask of me and express thanks for my supportiveness (and offer me huge amounts of love and care in return). But outside that core group, it’s becoming a bit of a mess. My friends say I am too generous and offer too much. They also say that because I appear very accomplished and competent, people want my advice (especially in relation to career stuff).
I am slowly learning to set boundaries and to say no. But it’s not going well. I’m experiencing a lot of pushback. Some people are cajoling/begging/arguing when I try to set limits. Because I want to preserve people’s feelings and give them a gentle let down, I fear I’m being too nice, too indirect or too subtle. I am trying to build up to being more assertive gradually.
A woman I met once years ago found me on linked in and asked me to read her film treatment. I did and we discussed it over coffee. When we spoke, I directed her to screenplay assessment services (that charge a fee) and short courses and explained that I had had to draw a line on how much feedback and reading I could do unpaid given my busyness and economic situation. We exchanged a few unrelated emails and then she sent me her full feature without any offer on my part to read it or request on hers. I will write and say I don’t have time to give it my attention and can’t help out but good luck – I’m still irritated though.
I invited a friend who visited my city to stay in my spare room until my housemate returned. After two weeks, I let her know I needed a day to clean up and wash the sheets before my roommate got back so it would be better if she went back to where she had been staying previously. She has another place to stay on the outskirts (less convenient) and said that was fine but then began trying to argue me into her staying longer by suggesting she sleep on the couch or help me clean up even though I’d already told her it would be easier for me if she moved on. I said I wanted to just clean up in peace and set things up for my roommate and wouldn’t be a good host but she kept pushing. I felt so uncomfortable I prevaricated, repeated myself, became vague and just got embarrassed and stuck.
A friend sent me his writing to edit (unprompted) with a long email saying it was a ‘short one’ and ‘wouldn’t take long’ and he knows ‘I’m really busy but he really needs my feedback’. This feels pushy and pre-emptive.
Another friend started to just assume I would read her work without even being asked and emailed it to me saying she needed the feedback by the end of the day because she wanted to send it off elsewhere. (This woman and I are no longer close because eventually I realised she was just abusing my generosity and using me as an unpaid mentor/editor/teacher). The same friend would do things like say ‘are you really busy this week?’ and then when I replied, thinking she might want to make social plans, sprang it on me she wanted me to read all this academic work of hers.
I know some of this is on my side. I don’t like to ask unless it’s a very trusted friend and I know I’m not intruding or making life inconvenient for them and unless the request is really important to me. So I tend to assume others will be hurt or let down if I say no or embarrassed in some way. But as I gradually work towards being more assertive, I’m at a loss about what to do with people who just push. Perhaps I need to be more direct? Is it a bad idea to provide reasons for my saying no and to gently let the other person down? (This seems to lead into their pushing harder and trying to combat my excuses.)
My questions are – do you have experience in learning how to be assertive and what did you do if you tried to change your behaviour but met a lot of pushback? If you are an asker and someone declines a request warmly and apologetically but clearly, do you find yourself wanting to keep trying/pushing just in case? Do you need to hear a clear ‘no’ without explanation to accept it at face value? Does anyone have experience with identifying people who tend to ask and ask and take and take early on before it becomes an ingrained problem? If you are a guesser, how do you learn to say no without guilt or agonising? Particular phrases, strategies and personal anecdotes/examples welcome.
TLDR: sorry this is so long. I’m trying to learn how to say no after years of being the giver/supporter/reader/script editor/academic counsellor to friends, strangers and acquaintances but I’m experiencing a lot of pushback. I’m worried I have accidentally trained people to assume they can always get the help they need from me and so now I am learning to set limits they want to crash through them or ignore them. I’m also realising some people I thought were friends are actually just askers who rely on me a lot.