If You Want to Help Others, You Must Learn to Say ‘No’

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My work as an activist and advocate sits at the intersection of race, gender, and class, with a particular focus on family and community. But I can’t show up for others to do this work unless I take care of myself.

To effectively care for myself, I have to be aware of myself. Self-awareness is critical for us individually, but it’s also critical to having workable relationships. Identifying and understanding our boundaries—key in our relationships with others—requires self-awareness.

I used to think of boundaries as a response to enact when people tried to impose upon me or demand something of me that I didn’t want to give. That’s not wrong, but it’s not the whole story. Boundaries are what we want and don’t want. Boundaries help us recognize what is or isn’t ours. In the midst of conflict or charged interactions, boundaries help us discern which baggage is ours to carry and unpack, and what is someone else’s.

Saying “no” is an interpersonal responsibility

Shawna Sodersten, a marriage and family therapist, puts it this way: “One of the basic principles of boundaries work is to understand who is in charge of what, who is responsible for what, in any given situation.” In an ideal world, she says, where each person is sovereign over themselves, “what I’m in charge of includes my body, my time, my attention, my trust, my choices, my behaviors, and my feelings.” Other people’s bodies, time, attention, trust, choices, behaviors, and feelings are not ours to control or be responsible for.

If self-awareness helps us notice when we’re feeling activated or our baggage is in the mix, boundaries help us take responsibility for those and not those of others. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’ve confused the two. I have blamed others for my feelings of rejection or anxiety. I have also taken responsibility for other peoples’ anger and disappointment.

Sodersten finds that there are some common places where people struggle with boundaries: giving and receiving care; saying and accepting “no.” Saying “no” is particularly challenging for so many reasons. Others may not like our “no” and then we have to deal with their response. Saying “no” may cost us something. But part of our work is to evaluate the cost instead of just abdicating our agency.

To be sure, agency and choice exist on a spectrum. Part of what systemic oppression does is limit the choices and agency of the people who experience it. It also works to convince us that we have no agency and no choice. As the author Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Saying “no” to people we like is something many of us also struggle with. As I’ve worked on my boundaries, I’ve found that I often don’t even notice I’m saying yes because I haven’t even recognized that there’s a choice to be made. As a younger person, not wanting to hurt people’s feelings, or make people uncomfortable, or fail to meet someone else’s expectations meant I developed a practice of minimizing my own feelings and comfort — so much so, that I often didn’t even ask myself the question “Do I want this?”

Race, class, and gender: The elephants in the room of saying “no”

Unsurprisingly, my biggest challenges in maintaining personal boundaries were often in interactions with men and/or white and/or older people. While I was outspoken and would readily argue a perspective or interpretation in a class or work meeting, in my personal relationships I tolerated a lot of bad sex, tedious interactions, flawed directions, and racist and sexist microaggressions. Internalizing that I’m not responsible for someone else’s reaction to my “no” has been uncomfortable work.

As a woman, I’ve been socialized to believe that what I want is secondary to what men want. The consent conversation, most recently brought to the light by the #MeToo movement, has opened up much-needed space for thinking about “yes” and “no” in the context of sexual intimacy. Given the prevalence of sexual assault and questionable sexual encounters, it’s safe to say that many of us have had our boundaries crossed in ways that have made it hard to claim our agency.

When I need to reestablish the edges of my boundaries, I find inspiration, strength, and clarity from these words from Audre Lorde: “The speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And at last, you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

While Lorde is talking about the danger of not speaking out against racism and sexism and homophobia — and thus, speaking in service of freedom — I think it applies to our personal sense of boundaries and sovereignty too. Saying “no” can be hard. Hearing it can be hard, too. But accepting the “no” is how we respect autonomy and agency. Putting “no” into practice is how we protect our own.

Excerpted from How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community by Mia Birdsong. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Writer, activist. I wrote a book: How We Show Up (Hachette, June 2020)

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