When I was in elementary school, we had a regular substitute teacher who would appear when one of our regular teachers was out sick. Mrs. H. wasn’t the lackadaisical type whose presence would instigate a free for all, though. She wore a permanent frown, was super strict, and made even fun classes like art and music seem like punishment. She also didn’t like to give students permission to go to the bathroom, and required absolute silence from every single kid in her class before she’d let us go to lunch.
I told my mom about Mrs. H and her refusal to let us eat or pee in a timely manner, and my mom told me that if I was hungry or needed to go to the restroom urgently, I had her permission to leave the classroom without Mrs. H’s approval.
So the next time Mrs. H graced my third grade class with her presence, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the woman wasn’t letting us head to the cafeteria because two or three kids in a class of thirty wouldn’t stop snickering. My nine-year-old tummy was growling, so remembering what my mom had told me, I nervously approached the conservatively dressed, stern-looking teacher at the front of the room to explain that I was going to the cafeteria anyway, per my mother’s instructions.
But all I could get out was “Mrs. H, my mom told me — my mom said –” before my shoulders slumped and tears gathered in my eyes and I muttered a defeated “never mind” before retreating to my desk.
I had chickened out for fear of getting in trouble with my regular teacher and the principal, and although we did eventually make it to lunch (with about a whopping 10 minutes to shove food down our throats), that memory always stuck in my mind as one of the first times I didn’t have the guts to set boundaries or stick up for myself.
Because let’s face it – saying “no” or standing up for yourself is hard – especially if you have anxiety. And after being the metaphorical doormat for thirty years, breaking that habit seemed impossible.
But one of the things I’ve learned in EMDR is what actually setting those boundaries means. Therapists (and even friends and family) have tried to impress this importance on me for decades, but I simply couldn’t put the plan into action. I was afraid I’d get in trouble, lose a friend, hurt someone, offend someone, or miss out on an experience if I declined an invite to a party or explained that I couldn’t lend or donate $100.
Luckily, after years of practice and EMDR allowing me to actually change my thought process . . . I’ve been able to kick the “fuck it bucket” and concentrate on my wants, needs, feelings, and life.
Yes, I still do things for and with people. Yes, I probably actually still do more than I should.
But I’m learning to say “no” without feeling guilty, and for someone who’s had my type of mindset for so long, this is a HUGE step.
Just last week, my uncle invited me to dinner at his house because my cousin from out of state was coming home. I told him I probably wouldn’t be able to make it because I had a doctor’s appointment on the other side of town. Instead, I invited my cousin over to my place on a different day of the week.
But my uncle texted me THREE MORE TIMES to make sure I was still coming to his dinner. Each time, I told him no. And guess what? I didn’t feel guilty about it at all! I already had plans, I saw my cousin on my own time, and contrary to what my uncle may have thought, it wasn’t anything personal.
Now that I’ve been practicing this “boundaries stuff” for close to a year now, it’s amazing how even little things are so much easier!
When those pesky door-to-door salespeople come to my house, I let them talk for a minute or two, then politely explain that I’m not interested or don’t have time to talk. If they keep going, I smile and say, “I’m sorry, I really don’t have time right now. Have a nice day.” And shut the door. (BTW, how are door-to-door salespeople still a thing? What year is this? 1957???)
I’m also able to say “no” to fundraisers if I’m truly not interested or don’t have the money without feeling like crap. And I no longer have a mini panic attack at the hair salon when they try to “up sell” overpriced products to me. Instead of making of some weird excuse, all I have to do is say “no thank you” or “I’m not interested.”
Saying these words sounds SO easy – but again, with anxiety, they are some of the hardest phrases to utter!
But just like most things in life, after you do it the first few times, it does get easier!