You have the right to say no.

When I wrote that sentence, it felt absurd. Of course you have the right to say no. We all do. “Just say no!” “No means no!” And yet…

We grow up learning that “No” is rude. It’s more important to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. It’s important to be polite and accommodating. Setting boundaries and prioritizing our own comfort and safety is selfish. We push these lessons even harder on women, expecting them to be caretakers, putting everyone else’s needs above their own.

Screw that.

I think Listening Ear training – where I became a volunteer crisis and sexual assault counselor – was the first time I really started to learn about the importance of boundaries. We talked about it first in the context of sexual harassment and assault.

You have the right to set your own boundaries, to say no and to have that be respected.

It’s something my culture is really bad at. We treat “No” as a challenge, a hurdle to be overcome through pressure, alcohol, emotional manipulation, even physical force.

It’s not just sexual. Over the weekend, I was talking on Facebook about an incident where a friend offered me food. I said no, and she immediately responded with, “Oh, why not? Come on, just take one.”

A few people didn’t understand why this bothered me so much. She wasn’t trying to be mean. Why was I blowing it all out of proportion? (The phrases “drama queen” and “mountain out of a molehill” were used.)

Ironically, this led to me choosing to set another boundary, telling someone he was no longer welcome in the conversation. That boundary was ignored. He wanted to argue his point. He complained I was just upset because he didn’t agree with me. He wanted me to explain.

When someone sets a boundary, your job is to respect that. You might not understand. You might feel hurt. You might be pissed off.

It doesn’t matter.

Your confusion, your hurt feelings, the fact that you don’t like someone telling you no, none of that gives you the right to violate someone else’s boundaries.

Whether it’s someone trying to pressure you into bed or someone who keeps pushing their homemade cheesecake at you, you have the right to say no.

I’ve lost friends because I had the gall to set boundaries in my own space, online or in real life. This happened a while back with an editor I considered a friend, and I still don’t understand why things immediately went to hell when I said I wasn’t in a space to have this conversation. Maybe I wasn’t nice enough about it? Maybe I didn’t adopt the proper tone?  I don’t know.

How often do we teach people that they have the right to take care of themselves? Why don’t we teach that it’s okay to set boundaries? And why the hell don’t we teach people to respect them?

You have the right to set boundaries. You have the right to have those boundaries respected.

  • Not “You have the right to say no as long as you’re nice enough.”
  • Not “You have the right to say no but I’m gonna try to change your mind.”
  • Not “You have the right to say no unless I think you’re wrong.”
  • Not “You have the right to say no once you can give me a satisfactory explanation as to why you’re saying no.”

When someone says no, the correct response is “Okay.” If you don’t understand, that’s fine. You don’t have to understand. Maybe the other person will be willing to explain. Maybe not. But they don’t owe you an explanation.

You have the right to say no, period. And if someone can’t accept that, then the hell with them. The problem isn’t you.