On Her Own

And we shall know them by how they react

This meme is about feminism and misogyny; this post is not. Instead, I want to talk about the idea of looking at how someone reacts when something isn’t going their way, and what it means for your relationship with them.

It’s easy to be happy, friendly, and kind with someone who is agreeable. In fact, being compliant is an oft-recommended policy when dealing with difficult or potentially dangerous people. We could talk about the wisdom of that strategy, but there are a lot of subtleties and nuances that are difficult to convey in text and without concrete examples. It’s also the kind of strategy that’s ever-changing in its applicability, and one that needs to be backed up by a variety of different skills and options. Regardless, we’re not here today to talk about when you should be nice. We’re here to talk about what happens when you aren’t.

Wait, let’s back up a moment. This isn’t about being nice or not either. It’s about putting yourself first. It’s about not being a doormat. It’s about not allowing someone to bulldoze all over you and what you want. Doing that isn’t being “mean.” We can set boundaries in a kind manner, just as we can do so nastily. The very act of setting a boundary, of deciding to not worry about pleasing someone else…that’s not what defines whether we are “nice” so much as how we do it. Just as importantly, though, we must remember that we don’t owe niceness to other people. It may be more comfortable for us, less escalating with them to be nice, to say please and thank you when we draw the lines around how we want to be treated. It’s often a better way to start the negotiation of that line, more likely to find success, but it’s not required and sometimes, frankly, it won’t work. And the working? That’s the important part, not the being perceived as “nice.”

Here’s part of the problem: no matter how nice you think you’re being, drawing a line between you and another person won’t always be taken as kindly as it may be meant. When that’s the case, it’s as much a statement about that other person as it is about you. A person who respects you as an autonomous individual may not like everything you do around or against them. They may get frustrated, even angry. That’s understandable, even normal. Nobody likes interpersonal friction and nobody likes not getting their way. That’s why it’s so hard to be on the side of standing up and drawing boundaries, and why it’s likewise hard to run up against those walls. The moment when you decide it’s time to please yourself even if it means displeasing someone else is fraught for both of you. Either or both of you being upset is normal under those circumstances, and they can result in you deciding not to be nice, and them deciding to be unhappy. That’s not inherently problematic.

But pay attention to how that crankiness from the other person is expressed. Is it anger that is out of proportion to how you have acted, when viewed objectively through the eyes of a reasonable, uninvolved person? Is it anger expressed physically and violently, whether or not that violence is visited on your person? Is it anger that plays out in screaming and yelling, cursing and insulting? Is it anger taken out on you for being “nasty” instead of self-directed anger at trespassing on a line they were unaware of before? Is it a cold shoulder, the silent treatment as punishment, a different way of expressing anger without the hot fire of a fight? Does the initial reaction end with practical rejection of the boundary you are trying to draw or the treatment you are trying to demand, or does it end with acceptance and respect for your newly expressed position?

Acceptance might not look like a complete agreement with what you have asserted but there should always be respect for you as a person and for your position regardless of disagreement. Relationships of all types come with compromise and negotiation. The question is how much you choose to permit after you have drawn a line. A relative stranger, perhaps none at all. Perhaps the fact that you didn’t lead with the boundary or with specific enforcement of the boundary was as much give as you’re willing to allow. Someone who is closer to you, who has earned your trust whether deserved or not? You might be open to a gentle questioning of exactly why you have decided to stand up for yourself, why you are no longer accommodating them, why you have decided to draw a fresh boundary. You might even be open to adjusting your stance after a rational and logical discussion with the other person who didn’t pressure you to change, but genuinely asked if you might, and who understands that right now might not be the right time to find out if a new boundary is malleable. That’s not the same as you backpedaling or being bulldozed, so long as you had the real opportunity to say no, you really meant it, or yes, you can smudge the line a little. Who asks, and how, and why, will help you judge if it’s an appropriate back-and-forth or if it’s a power play disguised as reasonableness.

See, it’s not the pushing that’s necessarily problematic. It’s the unwillingness to back off when you are firm about it, whether at the initial moment you stop catering to that other person or after you’ve decided it’s time to say no more. It’s the unwillingness to ever agree or comply with your asks and demands, to gracefully lose the request to negotiate a middle ground with you. It’s the unwillingness to treat you respectfully when you have said enough is enough, you are putting yourself first instead of them. Those are all red flags, indications that the person who is so wonderful to be around when everything is going well might not be a healthy relationship for you to maintain after all. Demand, instead, someone who is willing to accept you for who you are, when you aren’t who and what they idealize. Someone who likes you even when you aren’t being “nice.” Because those people exist, and you deserve them in your life.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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