LEARNING TO SAY “THAT’S NOT OK”
I have, my whole life, had the hardest time saying no to people. For many reasons, it was an example my mom set for me, I also had a very strong desire to be liked by everyone and didn’t want people to think I was a bad person. I was, what you would call, a people pleaser. If you’re thinking those are all pretty normal things and not really that bad, you’re right. They’re not bad for the people on the receiving end of that mentality, but for me they weren’t healthy personality traits.
It wasn’t until one of my solo adventures to Sequoia national park, standing on top of a rock completely alone, letting my mind wander, when I had a moment of clarity and realized I had a problem. A problem with saying no. A problem telling people that’s not ok. A problem letting people know they’d crossed the line. And a problem setting healthy boundaries with everyone around me. Friends, family, boyfriends, co-workers, bosses, strangers. Literally everyone.
Moving to Los Angeles didn’t help my situation. A young guy from Eastern Europe in a big American city trying to figure out the ins and outs, and trying to “make it”…. it was a whole new level. I needed to meet people, network, make friends, get a job, get another job, and find a place to live… I came across so many people, people who I thought might want to be my friends, who may be able to help me in some way, or just maybe ask me out on a date. And I was so afraid to do something wrong, to offend the wrong person, to make situations awkward or uncomfortable for everyone just by being more assertive. So instead I struggled in silence, feeling awkward and uncomfortable myself. And just smiled.
Often times in those situations people were just out trying to get something for themselves: an ego boost, a feeling of empowerment, being desired or cool by showing off and name dropping, telling me about all the things they could do for me, touching me inappropriately, or having the attention of a young man… And I foolishly thought that if I just be nice and friendly and agreeable, they will maybe help me or at least be nice to me in return. But most of the time I was wrong. Once they got their “fix” they moved on. Leaving me feeling stupid and confused.
It took me a while to catch on. I would let my boyfriends treat me like garbage. I would let my bosses demand things from me that were far beyond my job description or general human decency. And I would let friends talk shit about me and hurt me without holding them accountable, knowing in my gut that it wasn’t ok.
Over the years I worked for people who abused their status and wealth to literally destroy lives and families in front of my eyes, I worked for people who threatened me with deportation, I worked for people who asked me to do things that were borderline illegal. And I either just watched or obeyed without saying a word. Because I didn’t know there was another option. It just wasn’t part of my programming or upbringing. It was easier for me to quit those jobs than stand up for myself, my beliefs and my principles.
Same goes for friendships and even social settings. I would rather leave a bar or just smile and be very uncomfortable than tell a stranger that it’s not ok for him to put his hands down my pants uninvited. But I didn’t want to be rude or make a scene and ruin everyone’s mood. Yes, it’s quite obvious my problem was much bigger than just not being able to say no to people.
Let me be clear. This is not a pity party. These are all things that happened for one reason. Because I allowed them to happen. Because I allowed others to have power over me and to determine what was ok. Because I always put other’s comfort and wellbeing before mine. And I allowed them to define me. To define my worth, my attractiveness, my skills and my abilities. And most importantly, I would allow them to push far past what felt comfortable and safe for me because I was afraid. I was afraid that nobody would like me, nobody would hire me, nobody would want to be my friend and most definitely nobody would want to love me if I voiced the fact I wasn’t ok with something they did or said.
So I just kept going along with it. Nodding, smiling and doing everything I thought would make them happy and like me. And I took it. Took the abuse, discomfort and unpleasantness simply because I was afraid.
But that day, several years later, after dozens of therapy sessions working on my self-worth and self-confidence, when I was standing on the top of that rock in the middle of nowhere it hit me. Why am I feeling uncomfortable? They should! Why do I feel like I would be rude? They are! And I am allowing them to be! I realized that by allowing people to behave that way I am normalizing it for them. And if they don’t get called out, they will continue to behave like that. Not just with me, but with others as well because nobody ever told them it’s not ok.
I allowed people to behave in unacceptable ways because I always thought that I was less than others for a million different reasons. They came from a better background, had better jobs, better clothes, made more money, knew better people, had better skin, better bodies…. the list goes on. And because of that I didn’t think that it was ok for me to put my needs first or that it was okay to say no or ask them to stop. Because I didn’t feel I was good enough.
Lucky for me, all of these revelations were happening while I was still in therapy, so naturally I brought it up and my therapist suggested practicing boundary setting with strangers. Because the risk there was the lowest. So I did. Scared shitless. Wondering what was gonna happen. My voice was trembling every time I chose to stand up for myself, but I was so exhausted of being on the other side that I saw no other way but to push through the discomfort and fear. And I slowly started experiencing the empowering feeling that it brought.
When I say standing up for myself, I don’t mean that I was being angry or nasty. But rather clear and firm about setting boundaries and letting others know what’s not ok. It sounds so simple when I write it, but putting it in practice was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. After practicing with strangers, I started with friends and family. And as challenging as it was, I felt encouraged from within. I started developing respect for myself, for who I was and for having the balls to finally do it. For knowing my worth and understanding that me feeling ok and safe was more important than not making a stranger feel awkward.
Before I knew it, during all this practice and growth period, the day came when I wanted to quit another job. It was unbearable. My boss was treating me like shit on almost daily basis. And like so many times before I just took it because I didn’t know what to do. Then I remembered that quitting is not always the solution. And realized that this was the ultimate test. I needed to stop this and draw the line. I had nothing else lined up and the risk of losing my livelihood was very scary, but I knew that I didn’t have a choice. So one day, after much thought, I stayed up all night preparing the speech that I would deliver to my boss. I couldn’t sleep because I was so nervous and my heart wouldn’t stop racing as I rehearsed the conversation in my head. I wanted to be concise, rational and clear. Telling my boss that things have to change or I am going to quit. This was the moment of truth.
I walked into his office the next morning determined and asked if we could talk. And like usual, he dismissed me immediately. I started walking away, but then a voice inside me said, “Fuck no!” I turned around, sat down in front of him and told him we are going to talk right now. And I just went for it. My voice was shaking so hard, but I wasn’t going to stop. The pent up emotion and frustration bellowed out in a volume so loud that it traveled through the whole house. But I did it. I delivered my rehearsed, concise, rational speech even though I couldn’t hide how emotional it was. I stood up for myself in a way that I had never done it before. Then came a moment of silence. He stared at me for a minute and said, “I’m sorry.” Then he apologized again and even called me later that day to acknowledge the situation. He told me that he understood how I felt and that things would change.
I can’t tell you how great that felt. Not just for all the obvious reasons, but because I finally understood my own value. For the first time ever. And he could see it, and it made him respect me. That helped me understand and apply that same mindset in all my interactions and relationships. Realizing that what I was always afraid to do was the exact thing that I needed to do to get what I wanted. Love and respect.
The moment I started being more assertive, the moment I started setting healthy boundaries with people…as scary as it was…was the moment my relationships solidified and improved. Because people now know where I stand, they know my values and principles, and they respect me for who I am. And that’s been one of the most liberating experiences of my life.