I have an old acquaintance, a friend from long ago, with whom I've felt uncomfortable for years. I knew the incidents that caused my discomfort, but I didn't know why they mattered. I held the relationship in a weird limbo where I dreaded being around her, but I felt unreasonable about that, so I continued to spend time with her.
Once she asked for a difficult favor, another time for details of my personal life. Both times I said no but eventually gave in, afraid I wasn't being a "good friend." I wish I'd realized then that "if you were really my friend" is an awful lot like "if you really loved me." I never would have bought that kind of line from a date. But from a friend? I didn't recognize it. If a man had ignored my limits the way she did, I would have known immediately that something was Very Wrong. Instead, two male friends withing the past year were both instantly respectful when I indicated that a topic was off-limits. It's easy to see the difference between being disrespectful and leaving a door open-- even when the latter is done clumsily, it's simple to distinguish. One says, "I need you to change your mind," and the other says, "I'll be here if you ever change your mind." When someone ignores "No," it means that what they want from you is more important than what you want for you. Period. Their want trumps you.
I've always thought that I am "less nice" because she is soft-spoken, introverted, and non-confrontational, and I am extroverted and .... direct. (That may be a euphemism. I don't always think Dr. House is too blunt). But I still had a nagging gut feeling that I didn't want to be around her. (Full disclosure: there are plenty of times when I really am not nice; I am blunt, impatient, irritable.) Saying no to someone who appears weaker is particularly difficult to me. Holding my own line begins to feel like battery. For years, I felt guilty. Now, I'm beginning to recognize manipulation. (Maybe this is why I've had Sondheim's Red Riding Hood on the brain lately, as she learned from the Wolf that "Nice is different than Good.")
This is a particularly hard, slow lesson for people who were abused as children. There's no frame of reference for our "No" having any meaning-- not consistently, at any rate. And since objecting often leads to more abuse ("no" being somehow heard as "more"), its meaning becomes confused. Since the people we love are the people we aren't allowed to resist, it seems normal when our limits are ignored. It can take years to unlearn this-- for the lucky people who unlearn it at all.
"Loving our neighbor" is not the same as "our neighbor has to be our friend." I want the best for this woman. I want her to be as healthy, happy, and whole as possible. But that does not mean she is my friend.
I am so, so grateful to be learning that my "No" means no as much as anyone else's. It might be basic to a lot of people, but it's a miracle for me.
Insight from Different Versions of Psalm 126
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