Learning to say no

Say no

Standing your ground. Clearly defining what you do and don’t want.  Why is it sometimes so difficult to say no? Journalist Mariska Jansen searches for answers.

German author and life coach Sabine Asgodom believes many of her clients find it difficult to stand up for themselves. ‘I try to make it crystal clear that it is not about being liked but about being respected, especially at work,’ she writes. ‘The same is also true in your private life.’ But isn’t enforcing boundaries also a matter of selfawareness? You can only dictate your boundaries once you know what they are. My personal boundaries are not always very clearly defined. I do a lot of things by instinct and I don’t always think about what I should and shouldn’t do.

Until here
My approach is similar to that of the squirrel in a story by the Dutch children’s author Toon Tellegen: The squirrel draws a line in the sand to establish a boundary: until here and no further. But when it sees a beechnut laying on the other side, it quickly wipes the line away. Sometimes I second-guess the boundaries I set for myself later, too. Were they reasonable? Was I too strict? Did I properly assess the situation? No matter how difficult it is sometimes to do what’s best for you, other people’s reactions are often less negative than you would expect. People find it comforting to be around those who are self-confident—it offers clarity.

A point in case is Queen Victoria—whose life is portrayed in the historical TV series Victoria. She constantly felt trapped by old customs: She was not allowed to choose her own ladies-in-waiting and was forced to take mandatory breaks during her pregnancy. She fiercely fought against these customs and ultimately she succeeded—within certain boundaries—and, as a result, she gained respect through her obstinance.

One possible consequence of having clear boundaries is it frees you from simply having to accept things you don’t want. Maybe you’ll need to find a new job or maybe you’ll lose a few friends. These consequences may be difficult, but the reward is that you will live the way that you want. Australian writer Bronnie Ware, who spent years caring for dying people, interviewed them on their death beds about the things they regret. A common theme continuously surfaced: They didn’t take the time to build their life around the things that they found important. They mainly regretted all of the choices that they didn’t make themselves and the conflicts they avoided to simply keep the peace.

Expand your boundaries
Putting your own principles front and center doesn’t mean that you need to be selfish for your own short-term gain. It may very well be that during some stages of your life you expand your boundaries, set aside your own interests, and put someone else’s first. In this way, you can deliberately choose to take care of someone else for a while. Taking care of a sick friend may require you to cross your own boundaries, for example. And yet, everyone surely understands this.

  • The full story ‘Drawing the line’ can be found in Issue 23.

Text Mariska Jansen  Illustration Roberto Blefari