Tags: boundaries and recognising discomfort, how to say no, hurt or offended, people pleasing, recognising your feelings, rejection, wanting to be liked

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As part of NPR’s Life Kit series on Instagram where they attempt to answer dilemmas in under one minute, I recently gave my advice on a wedding situation. The future sister-in-law was a maybe on attending the wedding because her child possibly had a recital that day, and the bride was upset and questioned if a recital trumps a wedding. Side note: some of the comments on the video are hilarious. Overall, while opinion is divided, most seem to lean towards the child. This got me thinking, though, about why we get upset when people say no to our invitation.

At the heart of every upset over receiving other people’s nos, it fundamentally comes down to not expecting them. We are disappointed and/or derive a meaning that we then use to tell ourselves a story about the no, our worthiness, or our relationship with the person. Invariably, whatever meaning we derive equates to rejection.

Even though an invitee has the option of accepting or declining, we want and expect it to be a yes. A ‘no’ or ‘maybe’, then, can be discomforting. Sure, we might not feel this way towards everyone who declines or is unsure, but there are certain people from whom we don’t expect a no or who we’d feel very disappointed by their absence.

Sometimes we get over our funny feelings about a no relatively quickly. Even though we’ll miss the person’s presence, we hold the disappointment lightly and move forward. We might focus on the event and who’s attending, or are aware that there’s the potential for other gatherings. This person declining the invitation isn’t taken as a slight and we might empathise with their circumstances. A part of us might also acknowledge that even if we’d like ‘everyone’ to attend that it was unlikely.

But, sometimes, our feelings about somebody declining our invitation go beyond, or sometimes barely touch on, disappointment. We feel upset, hurt or offended.

To us, the no or maybe feels inappropriate, unfair, or unwarranted. It doesn’t make sense because we don’t feel as if we ‘did’ something to deserve the no. It feels like the no says something about how they perceive us or the relationship.

So, take the wedding situation. The bride feels deeply hurt that the sister-in-law is a ‘maybe’. She’s the sister of the groom, after all. She may have internalised her future in-law’s answer and reasoning as shorthand for how much she’s liked. Or, perhaps she feels snubbed and unwelcome or that the in-law doesn’t think the marriage will last. People’s minds go to all sorts of places when they feel slighted! Ultimately, it feels hurtful.

There are certain people that we don’t expect to decline our invite or that we don’t expect to say no in important contexts.

So we might expect that barring serious injury, illness or being out of the country, our close or even extended family will and should attend our big event. So, again, using the wedding example, for the bride in question, a child’s recital isn’t a good enough reason.

We expect our closest friend(s) to be there, and maybe, depending on the event, close colleagues. If our close friend can’t attend and we don’t regard their other commitment as equally important or don’t think they have sound reasoning, we’ll question the friendship.

When, for example, our boss declines our invite, we might doubt our closeness. Or we’ll wonder if they value our work performance even though it doesn’t have anything to do with their answer. Typically, when we’re in a romantic relationship, we expect them to show up. If they can’t (or don’t want to), it’s often taken as indicative of how the person feels about us and the future of the relationship.

It’s crucial to point out a very uncomfortable truth, though: Sometimes we feel upset about someone declining or maybe-ing our invite even when we don’t like them.

It’s like when we feel upset about not being invited to a party we don’t want to go to anyway. Or when we feel offended that someone doesn’t like us even though we can’t stand them. I know, I know. We humans don’t always make sense to ourselves, never mind others!

With family or people who’ve been around for a long time, there can often be a sense of obligation. Particularly with family, the expectation might be that whatever drama’s going on, you put it aside to show up. For some, it doesn’t matter how you feel, it matters that you ‘do the right (read: expected) thing’.

Given the context of the ask or expectation, on some level, we might believe that they should say yes even if they don’t want to. And it’s easy for us to feel this way when we say yes even when we feel otherwise.

Sometimes it’s that we feel entitled to the yes.

We think that they owe us given all the things we’ve done for them. This might include busting our boundaries and holding back on calling out shady carry-on.

Whatever’s behind our upset, hurt or offence at receiving a no or maybe to our invitation, our response reveals previously hidden tension, friction or resentment. Or, at the very least, it reveals unrealistic expectations, whether it’s of ourselves or others.

Understanding our ‘why’ before we express our feelings or expectations to the invitee is key.

Are we upset about them declining or maybe-ing our invitation because we genuinely care about them and want them to be there? Or are we upset because of how we think their no makes us look?

The former is about valuing the relationship from a place of love, care, trust and respect, and the latter is about our ego.

Our disappointment is real and understandable whatever the context, but our honesty about it governs our next steps.

If we truly value the relationship and love the person, we can be mindful of telling ourselves a negative story that casts aspersions on their character and intentions. That same story, incidentally, also fuels our discomfiting feelings. Stewing in our ill feeling will only sour the relationship and create resentment. Opting to be more honest with ourselves, to give the other person a bit of grace, halts the negativity. We stop taking them declining the invite so personally.

If them not accepting the invitation is part of a bigger issue that we’d maybe hoped was resolved or could be put aside, we need to recognise the truth. Acknowledgement of the issues might pave the way to difficult but necessary conversations.

If it’s that our ego’s a bit bent out of shape and we care more about things looking okay than actually being okay, we can stop ourselves in our tracks.

What do our feelings about their no reflect back to us? For instance, it might reveal where we’ve been willing to force ourselves to grin and bear it and say yes. Resentment and the “after everything I’ve done for them” chatter don’t come out of nowhere! It’s time for us to face the real issues in the relationship instead of pretending they don’t exist.

Often it’s a matter of being more honest with ourselves. If, for instance, our future sister-in-law is a ‘maybe’ for our wedding, is it time to acknowledge that we’re not close? Recognising the truth might mean acknowledging that we need to make more of an effort. Or, is it time to acknowledge that maybe there’s an issue between your future spouse and their sister? Recognising the truth could pave the way to deeper conversations with our partner.

Sometimes we’re so caught up in our big day or moment that it’s hard to recognise other people’s positions. There might be things we haven’t wanted to see. If we come from a family that ‘suck it up’, it might never have occurred to us that someone else’s family might do otherwise. We also put people on a pedestal. If, for example, our family is cray by our comparison, it’s easy to overlook the severity of tensions in our partner’s family.

Acknowledging our ‘why’ and where our feelings are coming from helps us to be intentional in our dealings.

After all, if we’re going to, for instance, advocate for why we want them to attend or we’re going to express our disappointment, it needs to be from a place of valuing the relationship. It also needs to be from a place of respecting ourselves and the other party.

The truth is, no one wants to be shamed, guilted or obliged into accepting an invitation. They want to believe that it’s an invite, not a summons, so they have the right to accept or decline for whatever reason. Telling people that we think they ‘should’ accept an invite because of how it will look if they’re not there or how bad it makes us feel isn’t a reason for them to attend. If anything, it just puts a load of red flags over our head. Even if there wasn’t an issue when they declined or said maybe, our response may have alerted them to tensions and resentments they weren’t aware of.

As a society, we have a complicated relationship with no. We believe that it’s wrong to say no and rude to decline an invitation. But these are distortions that lead to tension, friction and resentment instead of loving, healthy, intimate relationships. If we can be a bit gentler with ourselves about giving and receiving no, we won’t have to grapple with so many feelings of rejection. Sure, we’re possibly going to feel away about someone declining our invitation, but it won’t be a story about our worthiness.

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