Their Feelings? Not Your Problem

Inside my heart, I hate telling people no or that I do not want to do the thing they request. I avoid telling people no and ensure that my nos are as gentle and diplomatic as humanly possible.  Fundamentally, I feel guilty any time I set a boundary that carries any possibility of making someone else feel rejected, disappointed, or otherwise negative.  For me, boundaries pose difficult and stomach-churning quandaries. They are difficult to figure out and comprehend.  In addition, complicated cultural, family, and personal influences make boundary setting unpleasant, for many of us.

But, last night, an acquaintance called to invite me to attend a support group of which I have some familiarity and no interest.  After a few minutes of talking about how much the program has done for him, he continued in the script, asking me a very open ended question along the lines of, “what matters the most to you?”

In that moment, I knew what was happening and that I needed to firmly but gently establish a boundary. The recruitment script has been exquisitely designed to generate a sense of trust and welcome.  The pointed question served as a grammatical invitation (imperative) from the speaker to the responder to accept a premise and engage more deeply in the conversation.  Therefore, common politeness requires us to answer questions, not deflect them. I was very tempted to choose the *polite* and *nice* route of responding to the question asked. I immediately felt guilty for NOT responding even though I had no interested in sharing deeply personal feelings with someone I, frankly, hardly knew at all!

In that moment, a quite, powerful voice from my childhood spoke up. In my family of origin’s family system, a woman who sets boundaries is a b#$%!. We are to share when asked, restrain ourselves from imposing too much, and ensure that what we share is pleasant or helpful to those who deign to pay attention to us.  If asked to help, we are to do so eagerly, and gratefully for the opportunity to be of service.  If asked to retreat, we are to be shamed for having imposed upon other people.

This pattern is the center of my own struggle with internalized sexism.  It was invisible to me until late in 20’s when I asked my mom about her interest in our genealogy. One afternoon, I asked my mom to draw the basic family tree and tell me more about her grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and influences. At least three times, she got to a woman and took a breath before summing her up this way,

“Yeah, she was a bitch.”  After several repeats, I realized I was hearing a pattern, so  I asked,

“Mom, when you say that, what do you really mean?”

Then, she started telling hilarious stories. In each one, the woman in question had done nothing more harsh than refuse to be bullied, stood up for herself, chose based on integrity, or simply ignored popular opinion.  One of my great-grandmothers sold her house and moved out of own in the middle of night, literally.  She had rejected the neighbors’ hatred and sold to the first Jewish family to live in her exclusive suburb of New York City. Evidently the entire neighborhood called her names for years after, and the family story claimed she only sold to *that* family because they were willing to overpay to get into a *good* (read: WASP) neighborhood.

So, basically, in my family, bitch means a woman with boundaries.

From then on, mom and I claimed bitch as an endearing term of respect and a fundamentally good thing for a woman. However, knowing better does not entirely remove the influence of childhood teaching, even as it lessens its sting. Internalized sexism (i.e. my experience of gender expectations and how I impose them upon my behavior) often manifests and the most powerful of my influences.

I am not alone in this struggle. Our globalized but primarily western culture continues to teach and expect outsiders – anyone of lesser status in the traditional sense – to make the people around them comfortable. Feminism tells us that women are not responsible for men’s feelings, and this teaching exists because most girls were taught at young age to tend the feelings of (everyone, but especially) men and boys around them.  Honestly, I find this most real in hierarchical settings: people with more power or standing in a group reward the newer or less powerful people who make them feel good about themselves.

In fact, hospitality exists as the explicit counterpoint to this implicit cultural expectation: the insiders will make room for outsiders, as an act of benevolence and goodwill!  This virtue would not exist if the opposite assumptions of exclusion and tending the powerful were not embedded within how our culture trains each one to behave.

Again, it’s less true than it was for prior generations, but that does not eliminate the influence.  Women are trained to be hostesses in any space; girls are still encouraged to show their admiration by asking a boy about his interests rather than imposing her interests upon his time. This people pleasing is subtle, rarely direct or obvious.  Sometimes it means that I can choose my favorite option, but only if I attend to the feelings of the person who asked.  At other times, it means making a special effort to empathize with someone’s feelings, even if this person is not close to me or someone who would reciprocate support in any way.  The most nefarious examples occur when power disparities, privilege, or hierarchies come into play.  All of my childhood training tells me to ensure I am tending the feelings of a person who could make my life better or worse on a whim.

I can tell someone no, but only if  I do so in a way which makes them like me more, feel good about themselves, and attends to their potential feelings of disappointment.  If they react badly, I must have done a poor job setting my boundaries!

I’m writing all this internal struggle, not because I have an answer.  But because when I name the struggle, and consider the influences, I can determine how to respond rather than be controlled by them.

What conflicting influences make it more difficult for you to do simple things like say no, claim your own preferences, and tell others that they do not get to run over you for their own amusement or comfort?

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