When we have to continue spending time around someone who makes their romantic interest clear or asks us out, and we don’t reciprocate their feelings, it’s not unusual to find ourselves trying to avoid saying no outright. As it is, many of us have negative associations with having boundaries and saying no. We worry about hurting people’s feelings and inviting confrontation or being badly perceived. It’s one thing to turn down a stranger; it’s another when we might have to see this person at work or each time we go to church. If they’re in our social circle, we might fear that our knocking them back will create awkwardness within the group.

So we try letting them down gently by avoiding saying no outright or avoiding making our lack of interest clear. And what could have been an awkward situation in the short term becomes a problem that lingers and multiplies.

Something that’s easy for us to forget is that we are allowed to say no just because. We’re allowed to not reciprocate romantic interest.

We don’t owe anyone our interest or a relationship. We don’t. And that doesn’t change because we happen to be at work, church or around mutual friends.

In an effort to spare theirs and, let’s be real, our feelings, we override our boundaries to preserve misguided ideas about ‘goodness’. e.g. We don’t want to be a Bad Person/Coworker/Christian, etc. Or we preserve misguided ideas about “keeping the peace” and then put our inner peace on the chopping block. e.g. If I don’t out and out say no, they’ll back off, and work will go back to normal. Oh, wait, they’re not backing off. Ugh, I feel so anxious. Why won’t they take the hint and leave me alone? And now, if I say no, it will look even worse because they’ll think I “led them on”.

We dismiss our right to say no and misread the situation. For instance, we might imagine that they’re madly in love with us and will be devasted (or act out) if we don’t keep them sweet. Next thing, we feel twitchy each time our phone pings because the person keeps texting us. Or maybe we’re avoiding work or church. “Well-meaning” coworkers or pals who maybe tried to play matchmaker and meddle might also exacerbate the situation.

Playing roles in our relationships can make it difficult, sometimes near impossible, to say no and create boundaries.

It’s understandable for us to feel cautious in this situation, but we also need to be honest with ourselves.

Is this person taking advantage of the awkwardness of the situation and playing to our people-pleaser ways? Or, is it that we feel cautious due to playing at being the Good Something?

In the former situation, the person flexes the power or optics of the situation. They know that we’re uncomfortable/uninterested but don’t care. In the latter situation, us playing, for example, the role of the Good Coworker creates caution. It’s not that the other person is necessarily making us feel bad; we feel cautious because we fear doing something outside of the role. We’re trying to uphold an image even though it hurts.

Let’s say that we have an identity of being good and that we imagine that we never hurt anyone and that we have also experienced what we deem unfair rejection. To keep this identity, we will try to turn the person’s romantic interest down “nicely”. We won’t want to do anything that seems like “rejection”. When we consider how this affects our behaviour, we can see how it leads to problems. We might exaggerate how nice we’re being to this person or how “in love” they are without acknowledging our underlying motivations.

We have to be mindful of this because as inappropriate or frustrating as the other person’s behaviour might be, playing to our role, an identity, skews how we view and behave in the situation. It limits our options. In being focused on what we want to avoid and how we look, we miss the wood for the trees.

Here’s an example based on a very true story:

Linda loves going to church and is an active member of the community. When charismatic Johnny joined the church, he took a liking to her and wasted no time getting her number from a church WhatsApp group. Linda felt immediately uncomfortable but insisted she had to play things carefully because she’s a Christian. She mentioned to him that she just wanted to be friends but didn’t tell him to stop sending suggestive messages. To be fair, she thought one would cancel out the other.

His blatant pursuit rumbled on for months, to the point where she felt sick each time his name popped up on her phone, and she was avoiding going to church. Still, she insisted that she couldn’t go all the way with saying no. Because this went on for months, Linda was convinced that Johnny wanted a relationship.

Eventually, when she could take no more, she finally said that she wasn’t interested in a relationship. You can imagine her horror then, when he replied, “That’s alright, babe. I was just trying to f*ck you.”

Yep, that’s what months of avoiding a no she could have said straight off the bat led to. It was a reminder that, often, the story we have in our head about why we can’t have boundaries has nothing to do with reality.

Quit hinting

The thing about “letting someone down gently” is that sometimes they miss the point entirely. To us, it might feel as if it’s patently clear that we’re uncomfortable or not interested. To them, though, the lack of outright no may be interpreted as a chance of us reciprocating. If they’re of shadier, boundary-busting inclinations, they’ll exploit our fear of having boundaries. They’ll see it as a game or foreplay. In an ideal world, the fact that someone isn’t receiving clear and enthusiastic consent should be a stop signal. Sadly, it isn’t.

If we’re not being clear about our lack of interest, we’re dropping hints.

That’s unclear, unboundaried communication that relies on others doing the heavy lifting. We imagine that we’re going seventy per cent of the way and that others should just take the hint. In reality, we’re giving ourselves an out from being honest and clear. We try to avoid looking like the Bad Guy, and, yes, we try to avoid confrontation and having our feelings hurt. We don’t realise, though, how we’re hurting ourselves (and potentially others) in the process.

Here’s an example script. Work out your own phrasing to suit your situation, but hit on the key points (bolded).

I’m flattered that you’re interested, but I don’t feel the connection that you do. I’m more than happy to connect at the church group, but I don’t want to pursue anything romantic or mislead or confuse you around friendship. So let’s keep contact to within the WhatsApp groupI really value attending church group(s), and so I recognise the need for me to start as I mean to go on. If, as I get to know you better, we forge a genuine friendship free of any romantic agenda, then obviously the nature of our contact may change at that time.

People like to know where they stand. They do!

Sometimes, in fact often, all someone needs out of a situation is a clear no. And it’s best to do it sooner rather than later so that we don’t tangle ourselves up in an unnecessary situation.

We have to align with who we are, not with an identity that we’re trying to uphold. When we do, we don’t allow our ego or false notions of our control over other people’s feelings and behaviour to get in the way. The other person is going to be disappointed, and that’s okay. Now that they know where they stand, they can process their disappointment. The situation can become clear on all sides. Sure, it might feel awkward for a bit, but it will pass.

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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