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.

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.

Some examples:

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.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
For the woman who was staying with you, did you change her leave date at the end of her stay? It sounds like you initially said "My roommate will be back the 4th, you can stay until then" and then on the 2nd said "I need a day to clean so you should be out tomorrow." If that's the case, it will help you to think ahead and tell people up front what your boundaries are.

Other than that - when you say no, don't remain available to explain and negotiate the no. If they send more emails insisting that you read their writing, ignore them or send them to trash. You've said no. Your job is done. In person, if you say no and someone keeps pushing for more, leave.

I would provide excuses to trusted friends, in situations where I really did want to do the favor and might be able to do it at another time. To everyone else just say no. Don't explain that you're busy or that you have too many demands on your time. "I'm sorry, I can't do that. You might try X. Good luck with your project!"
posted by bunderful at 7:06 AM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Do you need to hear a clear ‘no’ without explanation to accept it at face value?


Also, feel free to rely on the Miss Manners' refrain: "I'm afraid that won't be possible," repeated as much as necessary.
posted by horizonseeker at 7:07 AM on January 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

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?

Yes, I had to learn to be assertive when I realized some people would always try to squeeze me for more favors. When I experienced pushback, it generally led to me not being friends with that person anymore, at my choice. I would distance myself. It wouldn't be hard because that sort of behavior makes me lose my feelings for people.

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?

Absolutely not. I take no for an answer and try to resolve my issue in some other way.

Do you need to hear a clear ‘no’ without explanation to accept it at face value?

I prefer clear communication, but I am empathetic so I can sense reluctance even if the person is trying to be polite, so I don't push the issue.

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?

Yes, I've learned that such people give off a vibe I sense as being both phony and pushy, and I avoid such people. I don't smile at them or make eye contact or allow them to flatter me, because that's how they have drawn me in in the past.

If you are a guesser, how do you learn to say no without guilt or agonising?

I don't think I'm a guesser, but there are times when I want to help someone but I don't think it's a good idea (it might be enabling, I might get too stressed, etc.) I don't agonize over it, I just regretfully decline and try to find someone who can really help that person.

Particular phrases

This happened recently at work when someone from another department tried to commandeer one of the laptops at my workstation. "I'm sorry, but that's not my call to make so I can't let you take this." I had to say it several times to a colleague AND her boss. My boss was out that day, and believe me, when she got back she was happy that I had stood my ground!

"I'm sorry, but that won't be possible." All-purpose. Varying degrees of vocal and facial expression, from sympathetic to stony, will provide nuances appropriate to the situation.

You don't need to dither around with long explanations because some folks will seize upon any information to try to argue with you. You don't owe a conciliatory smile to anyone, either. It's not mean to project an air of coolness when someone is bothering you.


Try to sense a person's vibe when you first get to know them and if they drain you, avoid them.

If you know a person is like this already but want to keep them as a friend, have an open and honest conversation about your boundaries. One book that has helped me is Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend. If your friend won't respect your boundaries, maybe they are not much of a friend after all!

personal anecdotes/examples

I really feel you, OP. I'm an editor, and I had a couple of pushy friends force their books on me, in one case demanding a rewrite of a 300-page slash fiction novel! I've been presumed on for rides to the store that end up being to the bank and a few other places as well. I've been called on the phone and expected to talk for hours. None of that is fun and I am no longer friends with those people. I felt like they didn't like me for myself, only for what they could get from me. I didn't have any problem cutting them off.
posted by Rainflower at 7:28 AM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was once told to simply laugh my head off when people without close ties/good relations asked for huge favours. I think it's great advice.

Because how could they seriously expect that?! Then you say, "Oh heck, you were serious?! I'm so sorry, it's just not possible. Good luck with it. I'm sure you'll work it all out."

I think the secret is not feeling you have to fill any awkward conversational silence with what you're feeling are excuses...but you rationally know to be sound, self-protective, reasons.

Just be quiet and then change the subject.

(If someone pushes past your comfort zone, you could always say, "Woah, you've entered in to the nagging zone. If you now spit on a hanky and wipe my face I'm going to have an actual tantrum. I may hold my breath till you change the subject or buy me sweets/beer.")
posted by taff at 7:39 AM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I actually think more than "some" of this is on your side. I respectfully suggest that you place much stock in seeing yourself in the role of magnanimous, generous, selfless successful person. You might have to accept that as you succeed more, your circle will get smaller and truer, and that's a good thing for you! Consider that one reason rich or famous people seem like assholes, maybe, is they have to insulate themselves against just what you are describing.

1. Editorial: "Honestly, I've had so many requests for editing/reading/advising/mentoring help, my new policy is to [give a polite no, and some generic direction] OR [charge for my time]."

2. Guests: Only family or the inner circle, ever. If you get the request, the answer is, "So sorry, don't have the room."
posted by thinkpiece at 7:41 AM on January 4, 2014 [22 favorites]

Refrain from saying "I'm sorry, but..." Some people take that to mean that the "door" is still open, since you feel sorry about it. As stated above, "I'm afraid that's impossible" shuts the door firmly. That is, as long as you don't dribble out yet another apology.
Stay strong and value your time, since no one else seems to.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:43 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

You just have to do it. You're thinking too much. "I'm so sorry, I'm swamped/overwrought/I just can't." Then let it go. Don't torture yourself. It's okay for you to use your free time exactly how you like.
posted by amodelcitizen at 7:44 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

It might help to consider that some otherwise well-meaning people really honestly assume others have unlimited time to give them. Many of those people would never ask for your money the way they will ask for your time. But taking up your time and effort-- they may even think they are doing you a favor because hey, people like to be of help. Which is in fact true, but there need to be boundaries on both sides.
posted by BibiRose at 8:08 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

If someone sends you writing that you didn't ask them to send you, either (a) ignore or (b) write them back and say "sorry, I will not be able to help you with this. Good luck!"

I'm sorry, something about this whole thing just seems a bit off to me. You're a trained lawyer with a Ph.D., you're an accomplished screenwriter, etc., but you haven't figured out how to say "sorry I'm busy"?
posted by jayder at 8:10 AM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I work in film. People ask me for favors pretty often. My rule of thumb is that if the time spent doing the favor takes me away from paying work, I have to say no. If the favor takes me away from my family, friends, etc., I have to think long and hard about doing the favor. If I learn something from doing the favor, I'm more inclined to do it. Chance acquaintances and friends of friends--maybe, if it's fairly easy for me to do. Close friends--sure, unless takes me away from paying work.
I'm not that flattered anymore when someone wants me to give my opinion or advice on their cut or script. Most people want hair-pats,not actual analysis. If they did, they'd ask about my day rate.
I think you might take a look at what people really want from you--your golden gut, or proximity, or association. ( The impromptu housemate was a sponge--if you want to be an air btb, fine.)
posted by Ideefixe at 8:11 AM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had a quasi-epiphanic experience years ago by discovering the ideas in two books by Wayne Dyer: Pulling Your Own Strings (specifically on setting boundaries), and the classical Your Erroneous Zones (more general, but equally helpful). You sound savvy and accomplished, and therefore might be less impressed by these books than I was as a shy and inexperienced freshman. Still, it is often reassuring and empowering to find those intuitions and feelings you have clearly stated and argued for.
posted by kayrosianian at 8:13 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here is a thing that worked great for me in learning not to take on too much responsibility. I go to these conferences I love, and I get so caught up in the atmosphere that I find myself enthusiastically volunteering for things in the heat of the moment, and then regretting the responsibility later. So, some years ago, my partner and I agreed that my default response to any requests at conferences would be, "I need to go home and talk it over with my partner, and then I'll let you know." Taking the time to get out of that heady atmosphere let me commit only to things that I was still interested in when I got back to real life.

A great variation on this for the kinds of things you're dealing with is to make your default response something similar: "I need to think about my schedule and responsibilities. I'll get back to you [in whatever time frame seems right to you]." This gives you time to reflect on whether you really are interested in doing whatever it is, really have the time and energy, and whether your relationship with the person warrants what you're being asked to do. It also gives you time to formulate your answer until, "I never read manuscripts," or "I don't have room for guests," or whatever becomes more familiar and easy to get out.

I've been in your shoes and it's hard to pull back. Good luck.
posted by not that girl at 8:20 AM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well, the first thing I'd advise is that you stop blaming yourself for all the unwanted pestering you receive. You shouldn't feel BAD about not giving out professional services for free, especially to someone who requests them without an invitation. What you describe in yourself are positive character traits and it sounds like you know it; it's not actually your fault that you live in a society of largely narcissistic and inconsiderate individuals.

As an 'asker' my general rule of thumb is that it's impolite to ask someone to evaluate (in whatever way) my own creative work/problems unless they express a strong enough interest in them. This is where the burden of politeness should lie. By default, it reflects well upon you if you give, but poorly if you ask.

As a 'guesser', as you put it, I've received a little of this myself. I've found a relatively good (though perhaps a bit passive-aggressive, YMMV) strategy for dealing with it without outright refusing or being a jerk: the more unreasonable/unsolicited the request is, the more general, high-level and/or bikeshed-y my feedback will be. For example, if I were asked to critique/edit someone's writing, I might quote some parts on the first few pages that I think ought to be changed (rewritten, grammar corrected, whatever), and provide some overall impressions or advice on the piece (e.g. 'too much exposition'), and then recommend and link to places that can offer those services professionally. If someone asks me to fix their programming homework or something, I'll either (depending on what the trouble is) direct them to read a book on Javascript or what have you, or give them my thoughts on the particular error message without taking the time to parse the code (e.g. 'well, it's a Null Pointer Exception, so that means you're trying to dereference a value that was never set; follow the stack trace and find out where it's coming from'). Then I'll wish them good luck with an air of finality.

Given this kind of response, it usually takes someone particularly clueless to persist in bothering me. I mean, what are they going to say? 'Wait, this feedback you gave me for free actually isn't enough, I need you to be more thorough'? If someone DOES persist (some do, inevitably), well, there's your litmus test for whether or not they're really friendship material.

From your accomplishments and attitude I'd guess that you might balk at doing this; your instinct is to do a professional job in whatever you do. But what I'm saying is that there's no reason to do a professional job for free unless you actually want to, and--as it sounds like you've discovered--it can end up being harmful to you, as well. You get what you pay for; if they want thoroughness, let them pay for it.

As far as changing an established pattern of behavior, I'm not sure I can be of much use there. (I've never had a houseguest who outstayed their welcome, either; in that case I'd probably have to be rude/abrupt). If it were me, I would probably begin to make excuses more often, and/or take longer to do what I'm asked to do (though if you do this be sure to warn them that it will take a while to get to, if you want to avoid seeming flaky). I don't think anyone of the type detailed above is going to change their behavior without either being unequivocally told NO (which you'd prefer to avoid), or by failing to receive the same level of service that they're after (though this may take longer and requires more effort).
posted by Androgenes at 8:24 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

So for the examples stated above, it all sounds like normal negotiations that people do. If you're in the writing business then you know people have to be pushy. But by getting irritated, you seem to think that it's something wrong with you that screams "doormat!!" when I don't think that it is. Just know that you both have reasonable requests, reasonable needs, and you're both trying to get them met. Once you see it simply like that, you can just say no.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:30 AM on January 4, 2014

I'm curious about what your definition of "friend" is. Because it sounds like these are ACQUAINTANCES who are asking for favors rather than friends, who give back to you in one way or another. Once you can clearly define if it's a friend or not, then it might be easier for you to say no to an acquaintance who is less likely to return the favor.
posted by HeyAllie at 8:34 AM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Great advice so far. I posed a similar question on the Green and was given some wonderful responses, including the brilliant suggestion that I employ, or just invent, a personal assistant. From this point forward, everything you do has to go through your assistant. So when entitled people approach you with their random shit, let them know you don't have your schedule handy and you'll have to check with Isabel, or Gunther, or whoever. Email is easiest because you don't even have to be you when you respond. Reply in the voice of your assistant. "I'm sorry, Mr. _______ needs to decline your request, but here are some other possible avenues. Thanks for your interest!"

The great thing about the personal assistant thing is that it's plausible. Many busy and successful people have them. Hire one, or invent one, today!
posted by cartoonella at 8:37 AM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm seconding notthatgirl's advice hard.

"Let me get back to you on that," instead of the automatic, "Sure!" is how I transitioned out of being an overly apologetic doormat (and I'm saying that's what YOU are) who took on more than I could handle because I couldn't say no.

For the record, I still don't say no to people. But I give myself breathing space and if I find I can reasonably help a friend, then I do. But more often now, I don't. It feels like I almost trained my friends and family as well as I trained myself.

Once people realized I wasn't going to automatically say yes to everything they asked, they stopped asking all the time.
posted by kinetic at 8:52 AM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

There are energy vampires who will drain you - learning to spot them earlier on is a good thing and will result in less awkward situations where you feel uncomfortable declining help.

Since you get a lot of email requests, put a NO-file on your desktop. Compile a list of short sentences (like people upthread mentioned). Every time some email comes in asking/requesting unreasonable help just go to that NO-file and copy/paste a reply. This will give you more mental freedom, as you won't have to analyze each and every case anew.

Budget your time and prioritize people. Are acquaintance the same as friends to you? Someone you met years ago and haven't talked to since? Yeah, maybe a coffee date if you feel like it but not any major favors. Working through an academic piece and giving feedback the same day? No, not really, unless it's a close friend and you have that many free hours. How much time can you realistically spare per day (emergencies excluded)?

Do not assume people will be hurt or let down or embarrassed just because that's how you'd feel in those rare instances where you actually ask for assistance. There really are people who are takers, they take from everyone, without giving back. They have a different comfort zone. I doubt they feel the same level of hurt or embarrassment you would in such a situation.

"I’m at a loss about what to do with people who just push."

People who push past your limits are simply impertinent. The right response to outrageous requests is to shake your head and move on.
posted by travelwithcats at 8:53 AM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

not that girl has good advice: avoid answering on the spot by saying and instead say you'll get back to them. My son is at his first job, with varying hours and people switching/covering shifts all the time. He was finding that people were coming to him more and more to cover shifts, because he always said yes. But he was saying yes to be nice, not because he wanted the extra hours. So now he says "let me look at my calendar and let you know." And with the pressure off, he calls back and says yes or no based on what he actually wants to do during those hours. You have to value your own time/efforts at least as much as you value others'.
posted by headnsouth at 8:57 AM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some people are completely selfish and thoughtless and rude. You don't have to help everybody. Help the ppl who appreciate you and care about you. Don't help everybody because you want to be "a good person."
posted by discopolo at 9:06 AM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

"I’m an empathetic and intuitive person and I’m very generous." Kind of like how Uriah Heep was very 'umble?

If you want to change the status quo, I think you need to reconsider who you want to be. It might require a one-time reset with some people (if you have read their previous eight drafts, they might be surprised when you decline to read the ninth) but I suspect things will quickly fall into place if you reconsider the empathetic/intuitive/generous claim.

It's like some people are desperate to earn the claim that they are "great listeners". So they spend their free time being on the receptive end of toxic rants from emotional vampires. But being willing to listen when other people refuse is what makes them such a great listener, right?
posted by 99percentfake at 9:08 AM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think I was around 30 when I learned that "no" is a complete sentence. I'm not kidding. What you describe is people taking advantage of you. No explanation for the decision is necessary in this kind of situation. You'll feel weird at first (at least I did) but now I can say it without agonizing.
posted by tuesdayschild at 9:29 AM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm with you. This is a tough one, normally deeply entrenched in early home life.. what was your role in your family? What were the consequences of saying no?

Here's a few thoughts. Write yourself a list of NON NEGOTIABLE boundaries.. emotional/financial etc.. try and enforce.

Watch other people put boundaries in place, with warmth, humour.. or firmness but fairness... no one can pinch someone else's 'style' but I think there may have to be a bit of 'faking it until you make it' - how do you like boundaries to be 'done'?

Try an assertiveness training course where you can actually practice scenarios a lot.

Tune into your body... is your belly knotted? Where do you feel it? It's probably someone impinging (deliberately or not) on your boundaries.

Watch little kids.. or animals.. their natural instinct to draw lines is interesting.. they don't chew over whether they actually deserve them or not.

Think about attending Codependants Anonymous, don't get 'brainwashed' or self blaming... but take what you can from it... people working hard on this 'unnatural' for them.. stuff.

Tune A LOT into how new people treat/speak about OTHER people.. god I wished I'd learned this one sooner.

A book you might find interesting is by Ross Rosenberg and called something like "Emotional Manipulators, why we love people who hurt us". It's a bit repetitive but the crux of it is.. good people attract sharks and what can be done about it.

The other beauty of this book is it, as do you (and I) actually value and honour these parts of yourself.

Not everyone deserves them.. these traits are a gift for the deserving and a loaded gun to many others. Trust needs to be earned.. and then verified.

posted by tanktop at 9:30 AM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

I’m at a loss about what to do with people who just push.

The cheerful, breezy, immediate change of subject often does the trick when someone tries to keep pushing your boundaries. "Come on, it's just going to take you a few minutes to look at this!" "Sorry, it won't be possible. Hey, so how's [your kid/your dog/your hobby/etc.]? I heard [she can fly/it can fly/you can fly]!"

By redirecting the conversation (particularly by turning it to something they'll probably be unable to resist engaging), you disrupt their strategy of wearing you down in order to get what they want. In other words, super-pushy people count on your own sense of social niceties taking over -- i.e., that at a certain point it's going to be more comfortable to acquiesce than to escalate a disagreement. The firm-but-pleasant redirect disrupts this dynamic entirely. (And I'm of the opinion that it must be both firm and pleasant in order to really close the door on the topic. Think of yourself as cheerful teflon. This is important because you don't want to give them an opening to prolong the harangue by making your emotions/tone their new line of attack. "Jeez, why are you getting so huffy? I can't believe you're getting mad at me for asking for a little help!")

More generally: I think you may have some issues with believing that being a compassionate person means that you have to meet everyone's needs or demands, otherwise you're being unkind. In this line of thinking, drawing boundaries = being mean. If this rings a bell, you might want to think about what is sometimes characterized in Buddhism as idiot compassion. Basically, allowing yourself to be walked all over is only a masquerade of compassion, but in fact it doesn't actually do you or anyone else any good. Setting boundaries, in this sense, is sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do.
posted by scody at 9:34 AM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, and you might want consider what Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys said about how he responded to people always asking for his own time, help, etc., in the context of having taken the bodhisattva vow (basically, a vow to work to end the suffering of all beings):
I do think that is a misconception of what the bodhisattva vow is. Because a lot of people just mess themselves up by feeling like they have to "do" stuff for other people, all of the time, even when that's not working for them personally. They have to include themselves in that overall picture of benefitting everyone. They have to include themselves as "beings", and know that by being in their strongest place, that that is how they can most benefit the universe, most of the time. Being a bodhisattva is about strengthening yourself, so you can go on. Benefit where the benefit is needed. Come from a strong place in yourself and you really help people.
Full interview here (quoted comment is on page 2).
posted by scody at 9:45 AM on January 4, 2014 [11 favorites]

I’m experiencing a lot of pushback.

That should be your signal that you were correct to say no to the request. As you said, people in your inner circle of friends don't push; so when someone does push back, that's your early-warning signal that they aren't someone you want to form a relationship with -- they are a taker.

Think of the pushback as a positive thing -- it's immediate feedback that tells you you made the right choice to opt out of an unfair and uncool request.

If they continue to pester, do not engage.
posted by nacho fries at 11:24 AM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

You're successful in a few highly desirable, highly competitive areas. The people who want you to read their stuff also likely want you to pass it along to "the right people." And I'd bet few of them realize how common their requests are, or else they just don't care. Keep in mind that these people are asking you to provide them a valuable service for free. Imagine if, instead of asking you to read their work, friends regularly asked you to give them $50; would you feel guilty declining? It's the same thing.

I've heard of writers and editors having a blanket policy against reviewing their friends' work for precisely this reason: too many requests, and the expectation of free service. It can also strain friendships when you do provide a favor and it goes wrong, e.g. your friend's manuscript is unintelligible crap. I'd encourage you to adopt something like this, and you can have a boilerplate "I am unable to do X for reasons A, B, and C" response to all requests for X. I also like the idea of mentioning a consulting fee or recommending another service that is currently accepting (paying) clients: it drives home the point that this is real work, not an easy thing friends do in their free time.

For people like that pushy woman who just sent you her screenplay even though you declined, be a broken record: "As I mentioned before, I'm unable to do X." Don't cushion it this time around; you want to leave as little room for negotiation or pushback as possible.

I like to use the word "unfortunately" when declining requests, rather than "sorry." It's sympathetic without being apologetic.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:33 AM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice above. I'd only add that you can also pre-plan your giving of free services. Maybe you feel comfortable doing a free read-through or short edit job once every two months for a total of 6 per year? Or, maybe on a quarterly basis? Devote those slots to people who are ready to value your work and who are genuinely thankful. Don't give those slots to inconsiderate users. Once the pre-planned slots are filled, practice saying, "that won't be possible." No further explanation is necessary. Of course, if someone in your inner circle of actual friends and/or family need something, that's another thing, but it sounds like those who are taking advantage of you aren't real friends.

Also consider that there are professional editors and reviewers who make a living from the work that you give away via your free favors. It's good for everyone if you get the freeloaders to be a part of that marketplace so that they learn about the value of professional time. Be ready with a list of referrals.

I would also consider asking free favor askers to make a donation to a local food bank or shelter as "payment". Let them know that they can email you a receipt and you'll start the work. There are a number of ways to teach freeloaders that what they're asking for has real worth and that they're asking for something equivalent to asking you for a considerable amount of money.

Anyone who pushes you after you've given a clear answer is not respecting you and they're trying to bully you. As was noted above, this is a great indicator that your decision to say no was the correct one.
posted by quince at 3:38 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd like to focus on your interaction with your houseguest for a moment:

"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...so it would be better if she went back
The time to set the terms of when a houseguest leaves is at the beginning of the stay, not two weeks in and certainly not a day or so before you want the person out. Also, I hope you phrased this more directly than "It would be better" to her. She argued with you in no small part because for her, leaving would not be better. Less wishy-washy and more timely language on your part is needed."

This. Also, have you considered that, in suggesting that instead of leaving she sleep on the couch or help you to clean, she might have been trying to guess the right answer? That maybe she thought you might want her to guess that what you wanted was help with cleaning? If you express your wishes with extreme reluctance and only in terms of guess culture, your sensitive friends will have learned that when you say you want one thing, you actually want another, and it's their job to guess what you want.

Of course, the answer to this kind of guessing game is always "I am generous to a fault, and you are selfish and stubborn". I don't doubt that you're generous, but I also think you're pretty generous about giving people rope to hang themselves with. You yourself tell us that you actively work to prevent the recipients of your generosity from giving you what you want, or even knowing that you want anything.

As for the requests for unpaid professional favors from people you don't know well, I second the advice to have a proçess, be terse, and not take unreasonable requests seriously.

Like jayder, I also find it curious that you have a PhD and a legal background and are an editor, all things that would normally have forced you to learn to set limits long ago whether you wanted to or not, and yet you have asked the question that you have in the way that you have. Someone of your age and experience must know that "no" is a complete sentence, and yet your commitment to seeing yourself as generous to a fault is so overwhelming that it prevents you from being able to say that word, and even to think and express yourself coherently about this issue. I don't often suggest therapy but this is one occasion where I'm going to, as I think you could use a systematic reality check from someone who's not a friend and doesn't want anything from you.
posted by tel3path at 4:17 PM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

That irritated feeling you mentioned above? I suggest you get in touch with that a little more. It's there for a reason.

Re-establishing boundaries that have already been run over is much, much harder than establishing them in the first place. Yes, you will get pushback. And it's going to get worse before it gets better, because most of these people are going to like the "old" you a lot more than the newer, more assertive model. This is unsurprising, because you becoming more assertive and boundary-aware is actually a net loss for them.*

So yeah, my best suggestion to you is to move towards those angry, irritated feelings a bit more. I'm not talking about throwing tantrums and ruining friendships - just admitting to yourself that yes, these people are taking advantage of you, and yes, it sucks. Allow yourself to be pissed off about it, because it may be just what you need to push through the resistance. Because there will be plenty of it, believe me.

*The only exceptions to this are the people who actually care enough about your happiness to be happy you changed. These people rock. Sadly, there will not be many of them.
posted by Broseph at 7:55 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know. It sounds to me like you do know how to say no but you want to figure out how to control their responses or even how to get them not to ask in the first place. You can't control any of that. You can only decide what you will and will not do. If someone responds to that in a way that you don't like then use that to determine if they are still friend material or not. It goes both ways, you know. They can decide not to be friends over you saying no but you can also decide not to based on their reaction.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:25 AM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Loads of fantastic answers here. "I do a lot of favours for people. I give a lot of advice and practical support." I suspect the lack of reciprocity is a piece of the problem here.

Why aren't you asking folks to reciprocate in some way for all the favors you've done? Ask. Ask. Ask. Time to call in those favors. Start with the people who were "cajoling/begging/arguing" when you tried to set limits.

Start asking for a lot of advice. Certainly you have little problems one of the takers in your life could help you with.

Ask for practical support. Even if you don't need anything from anybody because you're super competent. Why not act a bit more vulnerable and in need of help than you feel?

Give some thought into what you'd like in return and in the future, set that expectation ahead of time.
posted by hush at 4:09 PM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey again,

there is a relevant FPP up right now: What to do with the freebie heebie jeebies that links to an article with the title "What to say when you’re asked to work for free".

One way to respond that is mentioned in the article is this:

"When you give something away, send a bill listing your fee, followed by words such as “Fee Voluntarily Waived.” This establishes your value and reinforces that you won’t always work for free."
posted by travelwithcats at 5:15 AM on January 7, 2014

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