"No": The Paradoxical Word of Simplicity and Difficulty

Now I don’t know about you, but I have always been a people pleaser.

For as long as I can remember, one of my top priorities has been making sure everyone I encounter likes me. This works favorably for me in some ways. For example, it’s graced me with impeccable manners (thanks, Mom). Courtesy and politeness got me far in my customer service job, and I established great connections with my clients. However, there were a few that took advantage of this niceness. Ultimately, I became a doormat to some people in my life, inside and outside of the workplace.

I was raised to be polite, and at some point in time, I equated saying no with being impolite. Because of this, I am not as assertive as I’d like to be, and it’s landed me in very questionable but very avoidable situations. Such as this one.

One evening, I decided to get dolled up and take myself out for some coffee downtown while I caught up on some leisure reading.

After ordering my latte, I grew uneasy at the idea of being by myself. Having anxiety tricks your brain into thinking everyone’s judging every move you make. I wondered what everyone thought about me not having any company on my espresso excursion.

I soon realized that plenty of the café’s patrons had also arrived alone. A few of them were typing away on their laptops, and others were scrolling lazily through their phones. They seemed content.

I took a seat at one of the tables on the patio and opened my book. Sipping my coffee, I convinced myself that I was having a good time.

After getting lost in the plot about 20 pages in, my inner dialogue was interrupted by a voice talking to someone nearby.

“Hey man, I got some pretty flowers here. $4 for one, $6 for two. I’m just trying to make enough money to buy a pizza tonight to feed my family.”

My heart twinged with guilt and pity as I began to sink lower into my seat. I’m always willing to help out when I can, but more often than not, I don’t carry cash on me. Aside from that, I only had about $13 in my bank account. It was a rough week, okay?

I heard a few people turn him down, never taking my eyes off my book. Then, I was greeted with silence.

I looked up and there he was, standing in front of me. He told me the same story he told the patrons before me, which I listened to earnestly, and I mentally rehearsed just how nicely I’d have to tell him I don’t have any money for him.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have cash,” I said with an empathetic smile.

He pointed me in the direction of an ATM and suggested that I withdraw some cash.

“Okay!” I chirped, maybe a little too nicely.

I knew my card would decline at the ATM because the minimum withdrawal is $20, which I didn’t have. It didn’t work, and I was relieved. He’d find someone else to ask.

Alas, this was not the case.

He insisted I try it again. So I did. Then, he insisted I try it again. Four more times. So I did. Because he wanted me to.

As forementioned, saying no is not an option for me. I have always found it more uncomfortable to say this simple, one-syllable, two-letter word, than to endure whatever circumstances saying yes brings upon me.

After four more failed attempts, I began to get increasingly more anxious at his clear agitation.

He informed that there was another ATM down the street and that we should try that one. I said okay and he led me away from the comforting bustle of the café and into the dark.

This same scenario repeated for the next three ATM’s he guided us to. With every step we took further away from my car, I progressively became more angry that I allowed myself to be put into an uncomfortable situation with a man I didn’t know, all for the sake of trying to be a good Samaritan. Not to mention I knew all along that I wasn’t going to be of any assistance anyways due to my lack of funds.

But hey, the appearance of being nice trumps safety, right? Even for a stranger I’m likely never to see again? You betcha.

I depended on making eye contact with people we’d pass by, hoping they could somehow get my telepathic message asking for their intervention. Shockingly, (note the sarcasm) this strategy didn’t work.

I don’t even blame him. It’s my fault for not establishing clear boundaries. If I’d said no from the get-go, I wouldn’t have felt unsafe all night, and this man wouldn’t have had his time wasted.

After the final ATM attempt, I worked up the nerve to tell him I had to get home.

“Got any change?” He asked as he motioned toward my wallet.

“Yes,” I said with a weak smile. My catchphrase.

I gave him all the coins in my wallet and began to make my way to my car. He then insisted on walking me to it. I felt my stomach twist as I thought about how dangerous this could become. But I said okay.

“How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? That lipstick looks pretty on you. Is that your real hair color? You should join me and my daughter for dinner.”

The dialogue between us became more uncomfortable, and I deflected as politely as I could.

We finally reached my car, and he bid me good night.

I quickly hopped in the driver’s seat and pressed the button to lock the doors. Five times. Just in case.

Here’s the bottom line: I was deeply upset with myself for quite a while after this night. I was legitimately fearful and, despite knowing how unsafe it was to wander around at night with a stranger, I allowed myself to be subjected to it because I wasn’t assertive enough. This comes from a lack of self-respect.

Caring about what others think of you means you have a conscience and a desire to do right by people. However, caring too much can be detrimental to your mental health. At the end of the day, what matters is that you care about yourself. Sometimes saying no and stepping on toes is the right thing to do. For yourself.