Most of us spend at least a little bit of time worrying about the thoughts and feelings of others – especially those who are important in our lives. I remember a time from my childhood, when my friend and her brother were fighting. I did my best to help them work out the conflict and, when all was said and done, their mother smiled at me and called me a “peace keeper.” That might have been the first time I was described that way, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
As the years went by, I continued to try to keep the peace. I didn’t always raise my voice when someone was hurting me. I said “yes” to more than I could handle when friends asked me to take on obligations. I let people push past my boundaries and I didn’t try to stop them.
This was all because I held a deeply ingrained fear of upsetting the peace. I wanted to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or preventing them from doing something they wanted to do. The comfort of those around me became my main priority and because it did, I started to suffer and so did my relationships, at times.
The problem is, when you don’t say “No” or you don’t set clear boundaries, things tend to get more muddled and less clear. Eventually, this can lead to bigger conflicts than the ones you were initially trying to avoid, due to feelings of resentment.
If we let someone cross one of our boundaries time and time again, when we finally ask them to stop they may feel confused and unsure. It was fine to cross the boundary before, what changed? The true way to avoid conflict in this instance is to be clear, open and honest about our where we draw our lines, rather than shrinking away from what we need to feel safe in a friendship or a relationship.
The Huffington Post covered a study by Georgia Regents University based upon 30 years of research, which actually found that we were more likely to be aggressive with those closest to us. It also found that relationships with friends tend to have more non-direct aggression (passive aggression). It’s another reason why clear and direct boundaries are important, because they can help navigate situations where someone is being passive aggressive. If you are honest and concise about your boundaries, there are fewer opportunities for someone to exploit your kindness or your limits.
There are situations that go somewhat deeper than this, when the conflict has already happened and someone feels the need to hold a grudge or lash out. I think this is actually the kind of situation where “No” may be the biggest act of love. This is when “No” takes on the meaning of “No, I will not fight back” and “No, I will not respond to your attacks” or “No, I will not be responsible for your pain or the hurt you are trying to cause.”
This is often the beginning of letting someone go. You may now realize that is time to set the final boundary and say “No” to continuing the relationship. It is times like these, where you show your love by stepping away and choosing not to engage in further conflict or toxic interaction.
It can be really hard, because at times, not responding may seem like you are acting out of apathy or lack of care. It is truly the opposite though. You are choosing to protect both yourself and the person who cannot let go of the conflict. Neither of you would be served by continuing to argue.
This is why “No” can be such a strong act of love. Because you are clear in what you need and what you want out the relationship – you are representing yourself honestly and without malice.