How to learn how to stand up for yourself?
July 19, 2021 10:44 PM   Subscribe

I'm feeling down because I realized that I'm really easy to push around. Are there resources that can help me to learn to better stand up for myself?

I'm visiting $BIGCITY for the first time (not new to cities in general, but new to this one), and while there, a [presumably homeless] person asked me to buy them a sandwich. I had a bit of money to spare and have no problem providing people with food, so I said yes. A sandwich turned into a gift card that I didn't really have the money for. At that point, I knew this was a scam, but I bought the gift card anyway because at that point I felt pressured and stuck, and I know they were taking advantage of that.

Obviously the correct thing to do is to say no, but in the moment I find it hard to. On reflection/rumination, I realized that my inability to say no in situations where I'm being manipulated (or feel like I'm being manipulated) extends to other areas like relationships and work. Are there resources that can help me learn to do a better job of standing up for myself and help me build my "no" muscle? If you've ever been like me, how did you learn to stand up for yourself?
posted by Krop Tor to Human Relations (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
"A sandwich turned into a gift card that I didn't really have the money for." Buddy, no. This is a hard no, especially if you live in any city larger than a town (unless maybe you were just paid a lot(!) of money and made a random act of kindness to celebrate)

Start practicing right away, internally, in real time, etc. It'll blend into other interactions. The practice can arrive naturally.

Stop saying the phrase "I'm a pushover." And shift away from literal passive speech to active and confident speech patterns. Identify more confident traits and qualities. You are that.

How would a confident, non-pushed person act? (Btw, remember, it's not only possible, but most enjoyable, when someone is not a pushover, but also not a bully/a*hole)

Next time someone says, "you're kind of a push over.." you have many choices: smiling without saying anything*, other classics like "No." or "That's not true." If you enjoy french, "Oh, fuck off."
posted by firstdaffodils at 10:53 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]

For a couple of years I lived someplace with LOTS of touts. It was incessant at times. I had to learn how to deal with it. I could ignore it or succumb to it or choose another path. I chose acknowledgment and mild engagement: "No thank you," I said in the local language. I taught this to my older kid, who was always really stressed by people talking to him and asking for something (they were great at targeting kids).

It's now a lot easier for me (not always easy, but easier) to say no to people in a range of situations: non-profit folks hanging out looking for donations ("Do you have one minute to save the environment?"), people begging, etc. Often people take advantage of social norms to pin you, and ignoring people feels rude and worse to me.

I generally say some version of, "No, but I wish you the best." See also, "I'm sorry I can't help you. Good luck."

It took a lot of practice. I don't know how else you get there. Come up with a few lines and practice saying them a lot, when you're by yourself, in the shower, etc. You want them to roll off the tongue when you need them.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:17 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]

IDK your gender, height etc but for a long time I didn't use mine to advantage (I'm 6'3" with a thousand yard stare when I want). Otherwise a friendly guy. It is difficult as I enjoy meeting new people and do strike up great conversations just walking around towns but I keep 'me' just a little separate.

It's hard to define how I've done this but Sue Knight's NLP at Work and Janine Driver's You Say More Than You Think (former ATF field agent), have both been instrumental, especially the latter for how to not stand out when you don't want to.

Also for a long time I'd felt the need to engage with people, and even if you don't actually engage I feel that you can project .. something, and one can become a bit of a magnet. So I stay aware in urban situations and am careful where I look.

Yep, "pushover" self-talk is self-harming. Practice aloud with self-affirming words. Also ask a friend to let you try some words and phrases.
posted by unearthed at 12:01 AM on July 20 [4 favorites]

You basically know what you want and don't want. You know what you should say. It's just hard to remember when you're put on the spot, right? You need time. (That's what pushy people are banking on and why they're always making it seem so urgent. They don't want to give you time to think about what you're committing to.)

The classic trick is buy yourself time to think.
- Begging: "Not today, sorry." (You could still come back tomorrow if, after thinking about it, you feel that you want to.)
- When people are selling something: "I always sleep it over before buying anything. Personal policy." (And if they try to rush you by claiming it'll be too late, you then know it's a bad deal and your reticence was justified. Trust me, I have never regretted waiting a day to make a purchase.)
- an invitation to an event, or a summons (like being asked to help someone move house or to babysit): "I'll have to check my calendar." (Even if you think you might enjoy it. Make it your personal policy to always "check your calendar" first.)
- Regular favours (giving coworkers car rides): "Hm, let me get back to you. I need to check a few things first." (What you're checking is whether you actually want to do this.)

You are at nobody's beck and call. How people react to your delay, whether they respect it, will give you valuable information on whether to say yes or no. People who push back on "let me get back to you" will probably be a boundary pushing PITA about the actual event/thing they want you to agree on as well. Just Say No!

Once you've bought time, sit with the thing and think about it. "Do I actually, really and truly, want to do this? If not, is there a trade off that makes it worth it for me to do this?"

Take yourself seriously, respect yourself and your needs just as much and more than you do other people's. Why? Because the you that's posting here has a responsibility towards the you who always gets pushed around. A responsibility to protect that you's time and resources. Because nobody else is going to do it - it's your job! You can't outsource it to the people asking you for stuff. They're depending on you to manage your own resources and handling their asks accordingly.

You still have to find a way to say no,which I know can be difficult if you're not used to it. But you'll find it a lot easier when you have had a minute to touch base with yourself and promised yourself you'll honour your boundaries.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:45 AM on July 20 [31 favorites]

There's another thing I'm finding hard to articulate, but: Once you've made a decision, stand by it. I used to defer to other people's judgements. Like, if a friend pushed me to go to a concert, I'd go with her voice rather than my own, even though it sounded not much fun to me.

I eventually realised that it allowed me to blame her if the evening sucked. She pushed me to do this! Whereas, if I'd gone with my gut and stayed at home and then regretted it, I would have no-one but myself to blame. And that is apparently the Worst. I've always had this thing about making "regrettable" decisions and will apparently give up my personal autonomy rather than being "at fault", because things not being fun for myself and other people is apparently a very high stakes mistake.

Whatever. Don't be me!

If you said yes, remind yourself out loud "I agreed to do this because I thought it would be fun / it was the right thing to repay her the favour / whatever". If it turns out to have been a mistake, that's fine! Some percentage of decisions will have less enjoyable outcomes, this one was yours. That doesn't mean it was a bad decision. All decisions you can explain reasonably with "I decided this because, given what I knew at the time, that" is a fine decision. And you made it and stood by it. Go you!
posted by Omnomnom at 2:13 AM on July 20 [15 favorites]

I think the answer is, boringly, just practice. Say no when you want to say no. Say “Let me think about it and get back to you,” when you’re not sure. Reserve “yes” for things you’re sure you want to do.

It’s not easy, but it is simple, and it gets easier with practice.

Once you start you’ll find that most of the time nothing bad happens when you just politely say “No thank you” or “Not today, sorry!” And with the rare person who does/would react badly, you don’t want to get enmeshed with them! Of they’re going to react badly, better to have that happen after one “No” than after three yesses and a gift you can’t afford or a favor you don’t have time or energy for.
posted by mskyle at 3:47 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]

Just a suggestion specific to your beggar: if you are willing to buy him a sandwich, just give him the money. No sense in prolonging the interaction, and giving him more opportunities to manipulate you. Might he use the money for something else? Sure. But if you think giving him a gift card prevents that, be assured that it isn't that hard to turn a gift card into cash. He can just sell it to someone else, who is happy to pay 35 dollars for a gift card worth 50, or whatever.

The way I look at giving money to panhandlers... I gave him money for a sandwich. If he doesn't use it to buy a sandwich, that's on him. If you're really bothered about what a street person might do with cash you give them, but you still want to do some good for folks down on their luck, donate money to a reputable shelter, food pantry or soup kitchen instead.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:36 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]

I looooove saying no to things. It's so great. No gives me so much agency over my own life. I want you to enjoy saying no, too.

Practice saying no to things. Little, inconsequential things. Maybe this is getting a text and not responding right away. Maybe this is sending a phone call to voicemail. Maybe you and a friend are planning to get dinner this weekend, burritos are proposed. No, you would prefer Thai instead. Just little tiny things, baby steps to practice exercising your agency in low risk situations.

Once you're comfortable saying no and expressing your opinion about the little stuff, it will get easier to do it in higher pressure situations.

And there's also a consent aspect. Yes means yes, but you can say no at any time. Even if you say yes at the beginning of an interaction, you can change your mind and say no at any point. One yes doesn't lock you in for the whole ride.
posted by phunniemee at 6:27 AM on July 20 [9 favorites]

Yep, this is absolutely a combination of practice, personal policy development, and preparation. Turning people down got SO much easier on me when I sat down and gave some actual serious thought to the situations I tended to get tripped up by and pre-planned how I wanted to respond in real-time. What's more, once I had done this, THEY ACTUALLY WORKED. No one following/arguing with/pushing back on me. What a rush!

Someone on the street wanting money: I don't have any cash on me, sorry! (Nearly always true.) Alternatively, I've heard of people putting a buck or five in their pocket each morning, it goes to the first person who asks without deliberation, and that is the extent of their giving for the day. If no one asks, it goes back in the pocket for the next day.

Someone at the door asking me to give to $CAUSE: We don't give at the door but if you have any literature, I'd be happy to take a look. Thanks for stopping by! (Also applicable to people on the street wanting to talk about the environment or whatever, I have somewhere to be but I'll take a flyer, thanks and good luck!)

Someone pressuring me to buy today or some kind of time-limited deal: Really appreciate your time. I need to discuss with my family first, so I'm not able to sign today.

Someone asking me to shill for Beautycounter, LuLaRoe, Rodan + Fields, ugh: I have a personal policy of not buying from MLMs, but thanks for the invite. Good luck with your business!

Someone trying to get me to buy something in a tourist area: Direct eye contact, small smile, firm headshake no.

Someone pushing me to attend an event: Thanks for sharing with me! Let me check my calendar and get back to you.

And so on. I also spent more time in the company of friends who are naturally good at this, and observing/mirroring how they delivered clear and direct "no" statements while still being polite and kind and without a trace of anxiety about being manipulated or causing confrontation.
posted by anderjen at 8:07 AM on July 20 [11 favorites]

I have an extraordinarily hard time telling people "no," too. I have found that boundaries are difficult to enforce with people who don't want to hear "no." It is worth remembering that it isn't just your soft boundaries that are the problem: it is those people's lack of respect for boundaries. You are not "at fault," here, you just have something to guard against. Boundaries are hard to put into words, so I think it is useful to codify them as personal rules.

With people you know, you can say "I have a rule..."

With strangers, you can skip explaining that you have a rule, but you must remind yourself you have a rule.

Here are some rules I have, which you are free to adapt for your own use:

I have a rule that I don't do business with strangers who approach me in public, or who pitch to a captive audience. This means I don't stop to talk to religious missionaries, beggars, people purporting to collect money for charity, cold-call solicitors (public, door-to-door, telephone, internet, business-to-business), or MLM victims. If I am walking, I keep walking and say "Sorry." They are not entitled to my time, money, or validation.

I have a rule that I don't eat/drink/smoke things I dislike just to make the offeror happy.

I have a rule that I don't hug people I don't want to hug, even if they say they "need" hugs. Sometimes I "need" to burp, but I don't pressure acquaintances to pick me up and burp me.

I have a rule that I don't carpool with people whose driving/passenger behavior makes me feel unsafe.

I have a rule that I don't volunteer for a new commitment without figuring out which current commitment I will sacrifice.

I have a rule that I'm the one who gets to decide if I feel guilty. I sprayed mint in my kitchen yesterday and many, many ants died. I decided to feel a little bit guilty. I declined to greet my racist, sexist brother-in-law when he stopped by unannounced the other day, and I decided not to feel guilty. My conscience belongs to me.

I have a rule that my first "no" should be enough. If I decline an invitation/offer/sales pitch/hug, and the person keeps pushing, they have shown me who they are. My trust is not a consolation prize. Neither is yours.

It is 100% OK to respect your own rules. You can even make them up on the spot if you need to. It gets easier with practice. I'm rooting for you.
posted by armeowda at 8:58 AM on July 20 [13 favorites]

I think there are a few things to note here:

1) You first need to know what you think or want in a given situation.
For me, regularly spending some time reflecting on my values helps me get in touch with this, especially when I concurrently think through specific situations, how they went, what went well, and what went poorly. A good way to start might be to go on a 15-20 minute walk every day (or some similar regular time commitment) where you allow your mind just to roam over recent events in your life and your own reactions to them. Sometimes it can be hard to determine that on the go in a fast-moving situation, and my general policy is that I can always opt out by saying something like "I'll have to think about that and get back to you" (different variations for different types of situations). Basically, I don't let myself get swayed into acting or committing unless I feel sure. There is almost nothing worth having or doing that can't wait at least a day or two for a yes.

2) Embrace your agency
Once you feel more in touch with what you want, it's time to deploy it. I used to spend a whole lot of time and emotional energy worrying about other people's reactions, which I think is part of what made me feel pressured to agree to things. Expending less energy on that and more energy on what I think and feel helped me become more comfortable and confident. I think it's helpful to reframe things: it's not you saying no to other people, but rather, it's about you drawing boundaries for yourself. I also think that Omnomnom made a really important point above. I became a much more positive person after I started embracing my own agency, because I took responsibility for my own decisions rather than blaming others.

3) Tips for actually saying no
With everyone:
- I have found people to respond best if I am emotionally neutral or cheerful. People often interpret their own reactions based on the lead that you set. If you stay calm and not angry, encounters are much less likely to get emotionally charged.
With strangers especially:
- I have found, when possible, it's best to avoid giving reasons, especially to strangers. That tends to encourage your interlocutor to argue with you and tends to prolong the engagement and make it more fraught. Something like "unfortunately that's not possible" is best, and keep repeating variations of that if they disagree. Let your no be a no.
- It's about you, not them. Your time is valuable, your feelings are valuable, your desires are valuable. Someone else is not entitled to your time or your affections or approval, especially not a stranger. I'm not sure what gender you are, but women in particular are often socialized into non-confrontation and being agreeable and accommodating. I've been in hour-long conversations with creepy male strangers when I was younger, because I didn't know how to cut the conversation off and didn't want to make the guy feel bad (rather like your interaction with the homeless man). Don't be afraid to cut short the interaction and walk away. Your concern is you, not him.
With family/spouse especially
- When you're in a close relationship with someone, I have found it's sometimes helpful to empathize with the other person's position while saying no. I don't do that with strangers, but do do that with friends or family. For instance, if my mom really wanted me to visit in August but I can't get off from work, I might say something like: "I love you so much and miss you. I wish it were possible for me to come visit you in August. I look forward to when I can see you again!" It's much easier to take a "no" when you feel heard.
- I have found it's best to give I-statements if I'm having a discussion with close family or my husband where I'm trying to maintain a boundary. Articulate your own feelings. People typically respond well to personal sharing and vulnerability. Helpfully, it's also impossible for someone to argue with your statement of your own feelings about something. "You" statements tend to come across as more accusatory, and often the subsequent conversation devolves into argument about character and motive. So, say for instance that my husband often leaves dirty cups around the house and I've decided that I'm not going to keep cleaning them up and that that's a boundary of mine. Saying something angrily like: "You always leave cups around the house and never put them in the dishwasher" usually doesn't produce good results. In contrast, you could calmly say something like: "You know, honey, it really makes me feel taken for granted and like a maid when I have to clean up cups around the house regularly."
- Enforce your boundaries. After you've articulated boundaries, unfailingly enforcing them is the best way to train yourself and others to respect them.
- Practice makes all of this much easier.
posted by ClaireBear at 11:04 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]

You don't want to be rude or unkind and make them feel bad. You don't want to be cold. So don't. Give them eye contact and a warm smile, "I'm sorry, no, but good luck!"
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:32 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]

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