Please come in, we don't have anything worth stealing anyway
November 22, 2012 6:33 AM   Subscribe

I find it very hard to say no to people. I try to please everybody, especially people I don't know well. I worry a lot about offending, committing social faux-pas or hurting people's feelings. The idea that somebody wouldn't like me makes me anxious. What can I do about it? And how do I learn to NOTICE when my boundaries are being crossed?

(I have an appointment with a therapist and will bring this up with them, just to head you guys off at the pass. Meanwhile, I would appreciate your thoughts and tips.)

Example #1: Two strangers show up at my door wearing workers' overalls. They say they're chimney sweepers and would like to make me an offer if they can take a look at the fireplace. They invite themselves in and... I don't know how to refuse. Seriously, I'm a small woman alone in the house with my young child, and I just let these guys walk right in. So now I've got two strange men in my living room, trying to convince me to accept a deal I'm not sure is very good, and I have no idea if they're legit at all. I have to fake phoning my boyfriend and having him refuse the deal, because I cannot bring myself to saying no to these really quite suspicious dudes.

Example #2: I'm on my way to a self improvement course (Improve Your Self Confidence!). The organization offers treatment for people with varying degrees of psychological and/or psychiatric issues. Outside the building I'm approached by a guy who clearly has some serious mental health problems. He starts asking me intrusive personal questions (why I'm there, what my problems are), and I feel so sorry for him that I answer candidly even though I really do not want to talk about my mental health or relationships with this stranger. Also, he sits way too close to me, but I don't move away because I don't want to offend.

Example #3: An acquaintance of mine gets drunk during a night out and starts making remarks about my clothing, my body, my accent etc. Not downright insulting - some are sort of backhanded compliments, others I guess just pretty classic negging, perhaps mixed with a bit of bullying. He's also being a bit too handsy. I'm uncomfortable but just laugh it all off. It's only weeks (!!) later that it SLOWLY dawns on me this was actually inappropriate and something most people I know would never do. And that's after putting an awful lot of thought into it, trying to imagine myself (or my boyfriend, or my brother) behaving like that towards anyone, etc... Until then, I could literally not see what was wrong or why I felt so icky about it.

Example #4: (Not sure this one really counts as boundary crossing, but maybe related anyway.) I'm a foreign student, and I receive the highest score of our entire year for an observational assessment test. The professors give me very positive feedback and a detailed list of everything I did right. Afterwards a couple of fellow students (who were not present during my assessment) tell me the professors were probably just biased and cut me some slack because I'm a foreigner. I say "yeah, probably", even though I have the score card right there in my hands and know I got the points because I performed really well. I just don't want them to feel bad about their own results, even though I think it's kind of shitty to tell me that I probably hadn't earned mine.

There are more (oh so many more) examples going right back to my childhood, but I'm sure you get the idea already. My questions:

1) A huge problem is that I don't realize a boundary's being crossed or that I'm unhappy with the way things are going until it's too late. How do I learn to NOTICE on time that I'm not comfortable with something?

2) How do I learn to be more comfortable with occasionally disappointing people, disagreeing with them, or with people being annoyed with me?

3) I was raised in a culture where conflict-avoidance and avoiding embarrassing or inconveniencing others were the norm. I now live in a country where people tend to be quite opinionated, pushy and open with their criticism. I know that "sorry, it just isn't possible" etc. is the right way to go, but how do I modify my knee-jerk reaction of being as accommodating as possible? How to balance kindness to others with standing up for myself?

The cognitive approach (being aware of & modifying my thoughts) hasn't worked too well for me in the past, at least w/r/t depression. Visualization and mindfulness (and healthy living) have helped much more, but I'm not sure how to apply that for something like this.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I think the main problem here is that you are equating being a doormat with "kindness for others", so standing up to for yourself would be "cruelty to others". It's isn't a kindness to let strangers into your home to try to sell you things, and it wouldn't have been cruel to tell them no and close the door in their face.

Read "The Gift of Fear", it will give you permission to shut people down as the consequences of your "kindness" could potentially be very scary.
posted by Dynex at 6:52 AM on November 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

You're pretty clearly dismissing your own thoughts and feelings as irrelevant, which seems to be the heart of the issue. Why do random creepy strangers get their feelings prioritized over your own? Why does kindness to yourself not count but kindness to strangers counts a lot?

The long-term answer is to learn to be kind and accommodating to yourself first, and others second.
posted by zug at 6:58 AM on November 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Firstly, you are SO not alone - don't beat yourself up for past behavior. I know, it's really hard not to, and I still struggle with an incident like your #3, but you're SO not a bad person for internalizing the messages of society. Forgive earlier you. You just need healthier patterns now for your own health and happiness.

Next, therapy is a Great step. I didn't find CBT very helpful, but longer term talk therapy that explored more around what I actually wanted (it's hard to know what you want when you're always trying to please others!) and how to stay true to that was the key. Coming to realize that other people are grown-ups and I can't fix the world for them helped, too.

Lastly, one of the things I learned in therapy was to realize that if I feel especially anxious, notice fast breathing, or catch myself thinking "oh, it's no big thing", or "I can put up with this", it's time to take a step back. Even if it's just "can you excuse me for a moment?" and going into the washroom. Decide what You need, and then if they're strangers you need to get away from, do whatever it takes - your phone example with the sweeps was actually pretty clever way a dealing in the moment - to part ways.

There's so much around self-esteem (you deserved those good marks! the other students were just being snarky and the professors are the important ones there!) and boundaries and getting so that you feel responsible for yourself and not the rest of the world. If you don't mesh well with this first therapist, try another! Or search askme for self-esteem resources. As someone who's come out infinitely happier and with better self-esteem, I can tell you that it feels great. You deserve feeling great and being good to yourself, too!
posted by ldthomps at 7:00 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. That is a HUGE problem, it may even be some kind of actual medical/mental issue, like color blindness or tone-deafness. I'm a gregarious person, but I have a pretty good internal alarm for when things aren't kosher. You need a professional to work with you to develop this.

2. You may never be comfortable when people are disappointed or annoyed with you, but you can learn to live with it. Tell yourself, "One of us is going to be disappointed or annoyed, and since I have the choice, it's going to be you." The more you do it, the more you'll learn to live with it.

3. Give yourself time. "Let me think about it and get back to you" should be your answer whenever anyone asks you anything.

You need to have rules for yourself that substitute for your judgement.

1. Don't talk to strangers. Since you don't seem to have an internal compass to help you figure out if a stranger is a friendly person (like me) or a nut job (like me) just smile and nod and move on.

2. Don't answer the door to people you don't know. Ever. You took too big a risk with the dudes and your chimney. I'm perfectly comfortable saying no to people. You aren't. There's no law that says you have to answer your door. Get a peephole. If it's a stranger, don't answer.

3. Don't let people say mean things to you. If someone says anything that you feel is mean, just say, "Wow, that's harsh." Then walk away.

You are skewed too far to being accomodating and I don't think it's entirely cultural. For sure, work with a therapist because you're kind of a menace to yourself.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:01 AM on November 22, 2012 [10 favorites]

You can still be kind and polite while saying no. Salespeople and chimney sweeps are used to people declining. Even if you were disappointing them, it is not your responsibility to say yes when you really mean no. If you don't want to pay for a service or talk or whatever, don't. It's that simple.

Whenever salespeople come to my door (annoying because soliciting is prohibited in my neighborhood and there's a sign out front) I say "no thank you" and shut the door. Sometimes they are talking as I am shutting the door. I see it as these salespeople are inconveniencing me. I did not invite them. Practice saying no and shutting the door. My parents have a "no soliciting" sign on their front door. If you get door-to-door salespeople knocking on your door on a regular basis, you might attach one.

To the mentally ill man: Walk away.

It's okay for you to walk away from the drunk, inappropriate acquaintance. Just walk away.

A book you may be interested in: Too Nice for Your Own Good.
posted by Fairchild at 7:06 AM on November 22, 2012

Telling (some) people to go right to hell is fun. Especially passive-aggressive people who are using the ordinary "rules" of politeness to manipulate you. They just can't believe it when you call them on this (example: I made friends with a guy who quickly demonstrated that he thought my place was going to be available for him to sleep at any time he wanted to come drink in my town from where he stays, 20 miles away. I had to get explicit about telling him that he was mistaken). It takes a while to get used to it, though, if you start (like I did) from the kind of place you describe.
posted by thelonius at 7:10 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I believe that example #4, up to some level, could pass. Your concern not to want the others to feel bad about their results rings plausible (to be sure, I would react differently. But that's me).

Otherwise, I believe that it could help you (as you began to do here) to write down the exact moment in every such incident where you feel that your boundaries have been crossed. Make a catalogue of these boundaries, try to refine the definition of these, and make everything into a kind of personal rulebook. What you will end up with is a concise version of your personal legitimate expectations of the world.

Say no every time anyone disregards any of the rules from your private collection. There is no reason for excuses (they're golden rules...).
posted by Namlit at 7:11 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

It may also help you to reframe this as modeling behaviour for your daughter. If you are unable to make clear boundaries for yourself, you can ask yourself what reaction you'd want her to have when two men want to enter her apartment, when someone she doesn't know asks her personal questions, or when a friend of hers gets drunk and handsy.

You might also take a women's self-defense class; the good ones focus not only on physical stuff but assertiveness and boundary defense.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:20 AM on November 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Honestly I wish there was a class for this.

A safe environment with a coach and other "trainees." You start by yelling, together, at the top of your lungs: "NO." "THAT IS NOT OK." "LEAVE ME ALONE." "FUCK OFF." Maybe for 5 minutes until it starts to feel sort of natural to say those things.

Then a series of exercises.
1. A coach's assistant mimes spilling ink on your clothing. You inform them it's ruined firmly ask them to cover the costs of cleaning. A few rounds of practice is ok. Then applause from coach and other trainees.

2. An assistant tries to cop a feel. You yell "What the fuck!?" Applause and positive re-enforcement.

3. An assistant asks you to loan them money. You refuse politely. They persist. You re-iterate that it's not possible, and end the conversation. Applause!

I have been thinking about this "class" for years. The whole idea would be practicing being NOT polite or ladylike in a safe environment.
posted by bunderful at 7:32 AM on November 22, 2012 [19 favorites]

Hey, I have the same problem, and it's hard. The book that The Disease to Please might be interesting to you.

I've noticed that as I get older it's gotten a bit easier to say no, because I've experienced more instances of support and love from family and friends even when I do say no to them. Writing down some examples of times that you did enforce a boundary successfully might be a good exercise for you.
posted by k8lin at 7:34 AM on November 22, 2012

I just found this thread because it was linked in the MeTa cards on the table thread. I'm reading it now, you might also find it useful.

I have some similar tendencies. Sometimes avoidance has been a great strategy for me. If someone I don't know tries to talk to me on the street or subway, I just pretend not to notice them and get away. This means I don't have to come up with a polite but firm way to say "You seem mentally unhinged and I do not wish to talk to you."

Big smile and "No, thank you" while closing the door or walking briskly away is good.

And sometimes, lying. "I can't give you my number, strange man, because I have a boyfriend."

Yes, I wish I could just tell people "You are making me uncomfortable and I am ending our interaction." And some day, I hope to get there. In the meantime, these strategies help me avoid getting into situations I don't want to be in.

Points are:
1. recognize potentially bad situation
2. make excuse if necessary
3. get away or cut off contact

Sounds like the point you need to fine-tune is #1. It's ok to stall. If someone strange shows up on your doorstep, it's ok to say "Just a second," close the door, and think for a few minutes. Or even call someone.

Might also help to think of it in these terms: who are you that people are going to be so broken-hearted if you don't talk to them?

Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 7:59 AM on November 22, 2012

I still have a problem with 2 and 3.

1. No, thank you. Close the door. Every time. Doesn't matter how legit they may be, people come to your door to pressure you into agreeing to something that if you had the time to think about alone you probably wouldn't agree to. Don't make eye contact, don't listen to their spiel, if its not someone you were expecting, a delivery guy or a police officer say "no, thank you" and close the door. I used to be a total pushover for people like that but now I have a policy that I don't agree to anything on my doorstep, nothing they can say will change their mind so I might as well cut them off as quickly as possible so they can move on. Its not being kind to let them prattle on, wasting their time when I'm never going to agree. If they have one, I will take a pamphlet.

4. I think you did the right thing, it wasn't worth the effort to argue with them. You know the truth, don't let them bring you down to your level. Yes, it was rude of them to dismiss your accomplishments but you gain very little by correcting them and engaging with people like that is a waste of your time.
posted by missmagenta at 8:33 AM on November 22, 2012

missmagenta has it. If someone calls you at home, say no thanks, and hang up the phone. If someone knocks on your door, ignore it or give them 30 seconds of your time, then say 'no thanks' and close the door. It's just a matter of developing the habit. It gets easier the more you do it. You just need a new default response to unsolicited interactions with other people.

That doesn't mean you need to never talk to strangers, etc, you just need to be more picky about the contexts in which you will talk to strangers:


At home.
While shopping.
On public transit or while walking.
While working

etc... If people approach you in the proper context -- like at school after class, then you can be more open about listening to them. People who intrude on you when you are busy or at home, you should never give any time to.
posted by empath at 11:04 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Oh, ah."

One of the benefits of growing up in a repressive WASP family culture was learning the power of the "Oh, ah," and other non-responses.

"Lizard people are bombarding me with polka music that foretells the heat death of the universe!"
"Oh, ah."

And other non-committal non-responses.

"The prof went easy on you because you're foreign!"
"Huh. Never thought of that."
(or a favorite of my mum's, "Well, I'll certainly keep that in mind.")

And Miss Manners (US etiquette columnist extraordinaire) has crafted the perfect answer to everything you don't want to do: "I'm sorry, that won't be possible."

"We'd like to show you how sweeping your chimney can help you save money on your heating bills!"
"I'm sorry, that won't be possible for me. Thank you."
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:47 AM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of the main ways I noticed what my boundaries were and when to say no was by recognizing past events as defining my boundaries and not as an incident where I made another mistake.

Those moments in your life are examples of what your boundaries are. You're learning. You recognize it made you uncomfortable. Now visualize that moment again where you recognize your boundary in the same situation. Practice saying NO out loud. In the mirror. Around the house. As you walk around town. Make it part of your vocabulary.

Recognize that the word NO is not bad or rude. It does not need explaining or justifying. It is completely clear on its own. Other people may want to put that on you but really that is on them.

Now you apply that boundary to your life next time a situation will come up. It takes practice. You will miss some but realize this is another situation that is defining unclear boundaries for you. It's ok if you respond too harshly or late with 'no.' You're practicing what is right for you.

I also like to watch others say no, like when a waiter offers something extra on a meal. When a person is asking for money at the bus stop. I watch others say no, and note what works better and how they say it.

Once I watched this man effectively tell different people no when they wanted something from him. He said with no apology, "No. I'm not going to do that." It was straightforward, matter of fact, clear. And every single on of the people took it as final. His body language seemed to match his words. He didn't offer any explanation. I've tried that phase and it works well. I need to work on having my body language match my words because people seem to think they can still question my 'no' and it makes me have to be more firm which is so uncomfortable. But each time I get better. You will too. And these situations will lessen because you have learned a boundary and how you want to guard it. Good luck!
posted by dog food sugar at 8:03 AM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

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