No Means No

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.


  1. Rejoicing with you at your bravery and insight and God/dess's care for you and healing power.

  2. Love, love, love this. I struggle with learning no means no and that I can say no.

    One of the best things I have heard (probably from "The Gift of Fear," that you told me about or somewhere else) is that when someone says no and another person does not accept that that is the other person trying to control.

    Thank you for writing these journals. They help me (and I assume others) more than you know.

    Keep on keeping on and keeping the faith.


  3. Very cool.

    Never thought about this before, but it makes a lot of sense. Thanks.

  4. Really insightful post (as usual). You know, I really like getting to know you better by reading your words! Good for you for setting boundaries and moving on...a sterling example for us all no matter what our personal history.

  5. The word No can so be our friend.

    You say she is soft-spoken, introverted, and non-confrontational. Yet, I cannot help but feel that there is more to her if you get that vibe and trust your vibe!!

  6. And yet some of us shy introverted people are just NOSY!

    Not that I would know or anything. ~smiles innocently~

  7. Laura: Thank you!
    Anne: Thank you, too. I was actually reading Gavin de Becker's follow-up, Protecting the Gift (about keeping kids safe) when this occurred to me. So I think you're right on about the control thing.
    Rach: Thanks!
    Nancy: I like getting to know you better, too. And I think you're right about people from all sorts of backgrounds needing to learn about good boundaries.
    Mindy: You just always make me grin. Nosy is OK when you love the person, it's NOT OK when it's selfish. ;) And you're right about there being more than meets the eye-- I think I was trying to say that I'm slow to see that shy people might not necessarily be nicer than us loud folks.


"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."
-Saint Molly Ivins