We often hear the importance of setting boundaries, yet it may feel, at times, impossible to apply this skill. The inability and ability to say "no" is confined to our minds. At some point we were conditioned and shaped to believe saying "no" is a negative thing, and that it will lead to negative consequences. The word "no" as small as it is, may be one of the most difficult words to utter. But why is that? Why do we find it so hard to let someone know what it is we may or may not be able to do? Why would we rather appease another person, as though they have that much power over us?
To begin with, let's consider our childhoods and the way we were brought up. Think about times you said no, or may have expressed your thoughts and feelings. How were they received? Did the adults in our lives take our feelings into consideration? Did our voices matter? Were we taught that being a good kid meant we had to shut up, listen and do? After all, as children, we are powerless. We do not have the physical ability to do what we want, and for those children who do take things into their own hands, often times, their choices may lead to high risk situations and potentially lead them down a path where they will encounter hard lessons.
I write this, while wanting to also say that of course, as children, there is such a thing as discipline and order. We need someone who loves us and wants the best for us to set rules and limits. There also is a difference between setting boundaries and order, versus exercising power.
Yesterday I took my thirteen year old, Chloe, clothes shopping for school. As her mom, of course I have an image of how I think she should dress, and the music she listens to. We went to a second hand store she chose, although in my mind I thought she would have rather gone to the mall. But I get it. I used to love second hand stores because you always find items at a much lower cost than you would anywhere else, and sometimes you will find a gem or two that becomes a staple in your wardrobe. For me, in my day, it was a pair of combat boots and a military jacket I found at a local Goodwill store.
So there we are, shopping around, and my daughter is pulling out items I have to admit, made me cringe just a little. What do you think I started to do?
"Hey, how about these jeans here? You need to get jeans for school...."
"I don't want to get jeans. I like sweats."
"I don't think that will fit...here how about these..."
"I don't like that..."
"Just try it on. This is a great deal! I think it would look nice..."
"I don't like it..."
"You can't wear sweats every day....okay how about this shirt? Oh my god, look at this shirt?"
Eye roll. Silence. After a few minutes I realized she was holding a pile of clothes I had picked out for her. She was no longer speaking or commenting. I paused. Crap. I messed up, didn't I?
"Uh, Chloe...eh heh...uh...why aren't you shopping for anything?"
(Duh, I thought...why should she? Apparently I was shopping for her...)
"Do you want to try that stuff on?"
"Okay, fine. I get it. Look, how about you try those on, maybe you'll be shocked and like something. And if not, that's cool, too. You don't have to get any of those things."
She seemed to brighten up a bit, still not speaking, but she nodded her head and darted to the men's section. She picked out a few oversized flannel shirts, some t-shirts, and some hoodies. She found some jeans she liked, and then she went off to the fitting room to try things on.
The energy changed after that. I had decided to let go. I mean, it's not like she was looking to wear a mini skirt and platform heels to school. The girl wanted to be comfortable. She wanted to wear what resonated with her.
When she first opened the fitting room door, she was beaming. She was wearing an oversized red and black flannel shirt, with a black tee, and a pair of baggy jeans. "See, I want to wear roomy pants, not the fitted kind...so when I'm skateboarding I can feel comfortable."
"You look great," I told her, genuinely surprised at how cute she looked in her outfit. It made complete sense. She tried on the rest of the clothes, returned the items she didn't like-mostly the items I had picked-but whatever...she left the store smiling. As her momma, it felt like a win.
On the drive home, she asked if she could play her music and I agreed. I was fine with it up until she started waving what I thought appeared to be gang symbols. "Chloe! Stop doing that!"
"What? It's sign language!"
"No, Chloe...and even if it is, it looks like gang signs...anyone who sees you will get the wrong impression, and it may even be disrespectful to someone who may be in a gang. People take that serious."
"Ma," she laughed, "I'm just dancing..."
Uh, no. I get it. But I had to draw the line somewhere. For her safety. Perhaps it wouldn't be a big deal, but I wouldn't want her waving these hand gestures ignorantly, and for someone to get the wrong idea. I respect everyone, including gang members. If you are not affiliated, and if you don't know what you are doing...just don't. She continued to laugh, and I flared my nostrils, shook my head, and switched on some Barbra Streisand. When she groaned, and we both were able to laugh again, we compromised and played the track to Hamilton.
I share this because it brought me back to my upbringing. I met much more resistance in my day. My mom wanted to see me dressed up in the way she thought was fitting for a young woman. For the bulk of my childhood I had no choice really. I had my own self-esteem issues at the time, and as much as I wanted to look like the other girls I saw on TV, I knew I had no choice, so why bother? Instead, I would go along with whatever it was my mom thought I should wear. But then, my adolescence arrived. It was the era of alternative music, grunge and goth. I was fourteen and was seeing what my older brother was wearing. Suddenly, I discovered the Beastie Boys, Nirvana, and Marilyn Manson. I started to use my brother's skateboard, and would listen to Alanis Morissette and Lenny Kravitz. My world was expanding, and for the first time, I started to get a glimpse of what it meant to have a personal identity. I started to wear oversized jeans my brother had "misplaced", and I would sneak on some of his long sleeve tees. When I was able to go to the mall with a friend (which wasn't often) I bought a chained wallet and a silver beaded necklace. My dad even agreed to buy me a pair of platform converse sneakers for my birthday. I felt so cool. It wasn't so bad, until I was about sixteen....and allowed to wear makeup. Suddenly, I was wearing black eyeliner that would tend to sweat and gave me raccoon eyes. I didn't want to smile in pictures anymore because I thought smiling made me look goofy. At halloween I bought fishnets which I transformed into a shirt, and wore those under my Marilyn Manson tees. My mother-let's just say long story short-when she finally "had it up to here" with my newfound form of expression, my mother tore down all of the posters I had up in my room, and overpowered me the old fashioned way.
I still rebelled, and even through my adulthood, my mom has continued to criticize my choices, although I am no longer wearing fishnets as shirts. But I also remember telling myself I didn't want to be like that with my kids. I wanted my kids to be free to choose the music they wanted to hear, to choose the clothes they wanted to wear. So when did I become my mother?
I was reminded that there is a balance, and although I believe I know what is best for my child, she has the right to explore what she likes within reasonable limits. I can understand now, that my mother wanted what she thought was best for me, although her approach made me rebel even more. Perhaps if we had actually sat down and had a conversation, I would have understood her concerns, and she could have also learned why it was so important for me to dress a certain way. More important, I would have learned that it was okay to express myself by using words, instead of finding a silent form of communication through my way of dress.
I believe this played a role in my adulthood. I have always been overly aware of how others view me. Concerned of whether they will approve of me or not. I have made choices which have not necessarily been mine, but like my daughter, I remained silent and went along with whatever other people imposed on me because I figured, "I have no choice, so why bother?" Or, there was the other thought, "If I don't, they may not love me anymore...or want me...or like me...they may think I don't care...what about their feelings?" The thing is, looking back at it now, I realize the people in my life who had this much power, were people who didn't really love me, and people who were only out to get their needs met, or to offset their insecurities by using their influence to shape me into who they needed me to be. This manifested as abuse in some cases, and I was forced at several points to decided, "Where do I draw the line?"
This is a very powerful question, when you sit down and really think about it. Forget about the word "no" for a moment. Forget about what the other person is going to think, or whether they will leave you or whether you will hurt their feelings in the process. Instead, ask yourself, "Where do I draw the line, here? At what point do I decide that this is just too much? How hurt do I have to be, how much pain do I have to endure, to finally acknowledge to myself that I am not happy?"
After you consider these questions, ask yourself, "When did the happiness and needs of others supersede my own?" When we speak of assertiveness, and being assertive, the operative definition of being assertive is acknowledging equally your own needs and the needs of the other person. It does not mean you acknowledge the other person's needs and toss yours to the side. You compromise. You negotiate. And when you both realize there is absolutely no way to compromise, then you have to ask the question, "What are we doing here, then? Perhaps we are so far off on each side of the spectrum, that it doesn't make sense to force something that won't make either one of us happy."
Saying "no" is the short version of the last two paragraphs. Saying no is your way of saying, "I have to draw the line here....I understand that you have needs, however I am not able to get you what you want, or to do what you need me to do, because it will then compromise my needs...and my happiness matters too." The more you practice saying no, the more empowered you will become, because you will begin to realize you do have a choice, and knowing you have a choice, can be mind-blowing.