Putting the “No” in “Autonomy”
Do you have any tips on how to figure out who is trustworthy and who is not? As in whether or not someone intends to cause harm to you, etc. I find that I never realize I’m being mistreated until it’s too late, and it makes it really hard for…
Lots of good thoughts in realsocialskills’ post, but it seems to me it misses the most crucial thing.
I learned this gem from Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear which I recommend highly; it’s about dealing with extremely dangerous people, but some of the lessons apply more generally, and this one does.
The single most important sign that someone is likely to be a danger to you is that they ignore your “no”. You tell them “no” about something, even something trivial, and they discount it. Maybe they:
- Ignore your “no” and do anyway what you told them not to do.
- Try to argue you into whatever you refused.
- Throw a temper tantrum or out-right threaten or assault (intimidation).
- Threaten to hurt themselves or imply they’ll be devastated by your refusal (emotional blackmail).
So the thing is to evaluate what happens when you tell someone “no”. Not just what they say (though pay attention to that, too) but whether your no “sticks”.
Let me give you a little example of what I mean by that. I was starting a new job, and the person I was supposed to be shadowing for my first day was negotiating with me when it would be. I explained that I had a previous commitment all day on Tuesday, but I could come in on Monday and then return on Wednesday. He was initially resistant to the idea, but then suddenly changed his mind, saying, “Oh, actually that would work well, because it won’t be busy so I can focus on showing you the paperwork.” So we agree I’ll come in on Monday. I’m there bright and early on Monday morning… and he never shows up. I leave various messages on his cell’s vmail. Then, after I’ve left after lunch, there being nothing for me to do, I get a call on my way home, him being so very apologetic, and asking if I could come in to make it up on Tuesday. The day I had told him I wasn’t available, but which now it was somehow my responsibility to make available to him because of his screw-up turning this into an emergency. I remember thinking at the time, “NICE try, sunshine. Still not coming in on Tuesday.”
The thing is to evaluate whether, after you’ve told someone “no”, it winds up happening anyway – one way or another. If it does, that’s not someone to trust.
de Becker describes in his book how batterers looking for partners use an escalating pattern of discounting nos when trawling for potential partners, to filter for those who will tolerate their boundaries being overridden. It’s chilling – and illuminating. He describes a scenario in which a man approaches a woman at a bar, offers to buy her a drink and she says “no, thank you”, but he buys one for her anyway. Maybe then he buys her dinner over her objections, or insists she’s cold and put on his jacket. Then he’s insisting on driving her home. If she doesn’t insist on her “no” being respected, it just keeps escalating:
He will next try one a notch more significant, then another, then another, and finally he’s found someone he can control. The exchange about the drink is the same as the exchange they will later have about dating, and later about breaking up.
What a boundary is is a place (metaphorically speaking) where you say, “this far and no further”. It’s a “no”. Saying “I don’t want to go with you”? That’s a boundary. Someone who doesn’t hear and honor your “no”? They aren’t aren’t someone you should trust, and you should let them into your life only so far as you have reason to believe you can control them and enforce your “no” with them, because that’s what not respecting your boundaries looks like.
The corollary to this is that it’s pretty simple to check to see how someone handles your “nos”. If you told someone you prefer not to go out for Chinese, but somehow here you are at the Chinese restaurant with them, anyway, without any sort of agreement on your part to go along with them… something is wrong. If your expressed preferences, wishes, limits – even small ones that you might be inclined to shrug off as “well, it wasn’t that important to me, I don’t want to make a fuss” – are routinely ignored, challenged, or overridden one way or another, your “no” is being discounted and your boundaries trespassed.
(BTW, you don’t necessarily have to make a fuss if you don’t want to to protect your boundaries, you know. You can simply quietly and to yourself factor this observation about another’s behavior into your own decision whether to continue engaging with them. Were situation permits, it’s entirely legit to decide, “You know, I don’t like how this person treats my ‘nos’, so I’ll just elect to spend further discretionary time with people who respect my 'nos’.
After I read The Gift of Fear and started noticing how certain other people ignored my "nos”, my friends circle changed significantly; it was surprising to me how the profile of the people I hung with changed. For one thing, a lot of quieter, more easily overlooked, people started being more prominent in my life. They weren’t flashy, they didn’t necessarily express care in showy ways, but once I started paying attention to who respected my “nos”, these are people who shone.)
Obviously, this is a really challenging issue for anyone who was raised to believe that they don’t get to have opinions, don’t get to refuse care-givers, or don’t get to have a say in their lives. In fact, I would say it’s absolutely core to why those things are so terrible to experience: they are all examples of having one’s “no” discounted, not merely on occasion, but systematically. They are terrible because they train people treated that way to believe they don’t get to have “nos”. And people have a right to have “nos”.
That’s what autonomy is: getting to have “nos”.
Another way to put all this is that someone who doesn’t respect your “nos” is someone who doesn’t respect your autonomy.
Agreed that people ignoring or disregarding your no is the mother of all red flags.
The only thing I’d add is that I think _The Gift of Fear_ is a seriously flawed book, and it has a pattern of – something I’m not sure how to describe, but it’s a kind of pattern that can be dangerous to some people. Some people describe this as victim-blaming, which it is, but it’s a particular *kind* of victim-blaming – like that you have to accept the ~harsh realities of life~ according to his views, or else you’re just asking to be victimized over and over.
And he also strongly hints that you can reliably protect yourself by following his advice – and while a lot of it is genuinely good advice, that’s not true. You can do absolutely everything right and still have someone hurt you. And, even if you didn’t do everything right (and in practice nobody does), it’s still not your fault that someone hurt you. It’s important to do what you can to protect yourself,, but it’s also important to remember that it’s criminals and not victims who are ultimately responsible for crimes.
So, it’s a useful book with a lot of helpful advice - but be careful reading it. Think through things for yourself; use your own judgement. Don’t feel like you have to agree with him just because he’s yelling at you.