As an abuse victim, the first thing I was taught was that I had no say, no rights, no control. Meeting in my first support group, all of us were survivors, but we had each endured different types of abuse, usually in some combination, inflicted by a range of abusers from strangers to family members. How could we relate to each other? Saying that we were abuse survivors didn’t seem to be particularly unifying or edifying. I mean, who wants to join that kind of club?
We were uncomfortable and out of sorts. We wanted to connect without inadvertently stepping on any toes or invading anyone’s space. As we struggled to find common ground, while maintaining healthy boundaries, we discussed a variety of things we could do together or not. Go to movies together, or not. Go shopping together, or not. Go hiking together, or not. Plan activities together, or not. No pressure. Really.
“What? We have the right to say, ‘no?’”
Silence filled the room, then the group laughed and instantly relaxed. That was our common denominator. Not one of us had had the right to say “NO!”
Obvious. Deceptively simple. The essential, basic, starting-point tool:
JUST SAY NO
No, I was not put on this planet for you.
No, you can’t touch me that way.
No, you can’t make your choices my fault.
No, I don’t have to let you into my space.
No, I don’t have to do what you demand of me.
No, I don’t have to believe what you say.
No, I don’t have to listen to you.
No, I don’t have to accept your vision of who or what I am.
No, I don’t have to take responsibility for you.
No, I don’t have to lie for you.
No, I don’t have to accept your definitions of good and evil or right and wrong.
No, I don’t have to make you feel better.
No, I don’t have to dance to your tune.
No, I don’t have to make everything all right.
No, I don’t have to do anything for you.
No, I don’t have to think like you.
No, I don’t have to act like you.
No, I don’t have to be like you.
No, I don’t owe you my life.
No, I don’t have to protect you.
No, I don’t have to forgive you.
No, I don’t have to love you.
The truth is: You don’t have to do anything. We’re going on the premise that you’ve chosen life, because if you choose to die, you terminate ALL your other choices.
Once you choose to live, the choices become more complicated, but as long as you’re making the choices, there is the opportunity to move forward. You decide.
Acknowledging that you have chosen life can be incredibly empowering, and terrifying. That tape in your head will tell you that you can’t do it. Remember that tape is on automatic play whenever your true self makes an uncertain appearance. As your confidence in yourself grows, take note of what is happening to that tape.
Remember: Suicide is never a viable choice. Don’t make a miserable problem worse. If you succeed, then your abuser has won in their evil game to break you. And consider the possibility that you might not succeed. You could end up paralyzed or mentally damaged. Shots to the head do not always kill, and drug overdoses do not always end in death. The outcome is not your choice. Consequences are not yours to decide.
As to not having to forgive or to love, these will be discussed in later chapters. Know that in both cases, it’s about you, not them.
Saying no means establishing and defending a boundary. I was amazed to learn that you don’t have to set boundaries with people who are healthy. They understand and respect boundaries, with the understanding that theirs will be respected in return.
I remember when I began my friendship with one of my dearest friends. I was experimenting with being specific about my boundaries. As I went through my list, she agreed, without a qualm. It took me a while to realize that she fully understood and had the same boundaries.
In school they teach: Just say no to cigarettes, then just say no to drugs and alcohol, and then just say no to sex. They make it sound so easy. They make it sound like you’re stupid if you can’t do it. The problem is that the survivor of abuse was never allowed to say no in the first place. Saying no is not a given. It must be learned. So if an abuse survivor has never been allowed to say no, how are they supposed to say no to anything?
I remember when I first learned to really say no. I was in college. One of my abusers had made it a habit of exercising control over me by expecting me to do many things they could have done for themselves. If I loved them, I’d help them…
It was all I could do not to howl with glee the first time I said, “No.” I allowed myself to celebrate when no one was around, acknowledging the accomplishment to myself.
Then I started saying no simply because I realized I could. I used it, often, to teach myself the habit. Gradually, I learned to pick and choose when I said no and when I didn’t.
True, I’d still often say yes when I should have said no, and even now, it happens occasionally. Sometimes I have a knee jerk reaction and say no when I want to say yes, because of my fear of falling into the old habit of agreeing. But I’m learning and growing, and I like the direction I’m going. I’m facing God and slowly but surely turning my life over to Him. And yes, it still scares me silly.
For the record, I have also said no to God, i.e., no, I don’t want to do that. No, I don’t want to accept that responsibility. No, I don’t want to believe that. No, I don’t want to work that hard. No, I don’t want to go through that. No, I really don’t want to follow that path.
As my self-confidence increases, I am realizing I am a bit sassy. I freely admit it. And I like that about myself. Now that I’m “coming into my own,” I’m discovering all kinds of things about myself. Like the fact that it annoys me no end when God answers my prayers not with a “yes” or “no,” but with “wait.” I hate waiting. I’m not perfect. No surprise there.
I am learning that saying no to God is a recipe for disaster, for me. However, I do take a certain pleasure in saying, “wait,” to God.
Is it wrong? And if so, why?
Consider this: I grew up being taught that you never say no to God, ever. You always say yes. No matter what.
Here’s the problem: Abusers know this rule, too, and have absolutely no problem whatsoever using it to their advantage. The news is filled with religious figures that have used God as their accomplice. I’m glad I’m not them when they must finally face God. I heard this quote over twenty-five years ago, and I don’t doubt it: “Hell is Truth seen too late.”
Another way I look at saying ‘no’ is found in a story I’ve always liked in the Bible (Matthew 21:28-32) about the man who asks his sons to help him in the fields. One says he will help, but doesn’t follow through. The other says he won’t do it, but then he decides to go and help, anyway. I’d rather be the latter than the former.
In my mind, it grants me the right to think for myself, decide for myself, and if God is allowed to say, “wait,” why shouldn’t I be allowed to say it? In truth, simply knowing I have the right to say “no” or “wait” to God is very empowering to me. I feel like He is listening, really listening to me. I have never felt like God was offended or impatient or angry with me. I am His child, and a rather immature one at that. He sees the potential, and is willing to nurture and guide and to allow me to learn at my pace.
This life isn’t about me proving anything to God; God already knows. I call it the Abraham and Isaac principle. God knew what Abraham and Isaac would do when He asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But did Abraham and Isaac know what they would do? So when God asks me to do something I think is hard, I wonder what He is asking me to prove to myself.
I’m headed fast for the half-century mark, and admit that it’s only been the last ten years or so that I’ve finally started to recreate my boundaries. The question begs to be asked: Why did I continue to live within the bounds set by my abusers, even when they weren’t around to enforce those boundaries?
I’d been told, “no, you can’t,” “no, you shouldn’t,” “no, you aren’t capable,” “no, you don’t deserve that,” and the like. And I believed it. I was told what to think, what to feel, what to believe, what to do. Having my own opinion was fine, as long as my opinion aligned with what I had been taught was acceptable. If I tried to choose something different, I was ridiculed and belittled and punished.
Ten years ago, my perspective on the world began to change. I began nurturing some new relationships. I was learning that in order to have any hope for healthy relationships, boundaries are absolutely essential, healthy boundaries, that is.
Again, you don’t have to defend your boundaries with someone who is healthy. It’s an unsettling sensation, at first. I’m blessed with friends like that, who do not question why I will or will not do something. They offer me an opportunity, and I accept or decline, with no explanations needed, and no ill will. It didn’t happen by magic. I was struggling to be the type of friend I wanted to have in my life. It worked.
Defining boundaries is only necessary when dealing with people who ignore them. I can still hear one of my abusers mocking me that they have boundaries, while they flaunted violating mine. When boundaries are dictated by one person, a person who does not respect the other person’s boundaries, sooner or later the relationship will become abusive. Both people have to be allowed to have and maintain healthy boundaries, in order for a relationship to thrive.
When I first started creating my own boundaries, I REALLY overcompensated. You know what? That’s okay. I needed to have that control, at first.
Once I had established that I could set healthy boundaries and maintain them, I knew I needed to learn to be more flexible. I wanted to be more flexible. Going the other direction, i.e., excessive boundary setting, is also limiting. That wasn’t what I wanted for myself. I wanted to be able to explore and become all I was capable of being.
I started working on breaking another habit: I began pushing beyond the boundaries created by others for me. I’m not talking about invading their boundaries. I’m talking about the boundaries they created for me to stay within. “You can’t do that because something bad might happen to you.” “You’re too optimistic.” “You’re oversensitive.” “You take things too personally.” (Can’t imagine why; maybe it’s because everything being said is being directed at me, personally.)
I’m the first to admit that some boundaries are desirable and necessary, but there are so many that aren’t. So, I learned to relish the opportunities to do a little stretching, and living adventurously. If it isn’t illegal, immoral, and does no damage, it has possibilities.
I started out small, really small — like going to my favorite restaurant and not ordering the same thing, but trying something new. Instead of going to a favorite restaurant, I’d try a new one. Yes, a lot of my experiments revolve around food. Food is one of the safer places to test my “comfort zone.”
Fortunately, I’ve expanded those experiments. I’ve traveled and met new people. I’ve had some wonderful adventures because I’ve learned to trust myself and the new friends I’ve accepted into my life, people to whom I learned it was safe to say, “Yes.”
I was in the midst of writing this chapter when the airport security body scanning and pat-downs became standard procedure. I was terrified. All I could think was that this was devised by a predator, who wasn’t interested in safety but in creating a new opportunity to abuse others. There are other methods that are more effective.
The right to say no to being seen essentially nude or to being touched intimately had been taken away from everyone. (Both things my abusers had done to me.) My first thought was that I would throw up on their shoes. No matter how they explained it, I knew how my mind would interpret it. Badly — and it’s only normal and healthy for abuse survivors to feel this way about an issue such as this.
What do we do, when faced with this situation and others similar to it?
Working out in your own mind the ways that you will handle a potentially unpleasant situation gives you the opportunity to work through a variety of responses instead of finding yourself backed into a corner with a knee jerk reaction. And if it never becomes an issue, or you are never faced with the situation, do not consider that rehearsal time wasted, because you’ve learned something about yourself, and who knows whether or not something similar will occur in your future; if so, your response is ready.
For myself, as far as the airport security issue is concerned, I have decided to say ‘no’ to being embarrassed. I will wear clothing that fits me snuggly, not baggy clothing. They will not be allowed to take me into a “private” room. I want witnesses. I will not be a silent victim, again.
My role-playing isn’t about the event, it’s about practicing ways to say “NO,” including when no isn’t technically an option.
Part of saying no is not accepting a responsibility that belongs to someone else. I’m still working on figuring this one out when I hear it. Sometimes it’s blatant, but a lot of times, it’s subtle.
An innocuous example was the time someone I knew cooked a cake in a glass pan and almost burnt it to a crisp. I mentioned that a glass pan cooks hotter than a metal pan. “Why didn’t you tell me? If you’d told me I wouldn’t have burnt it.” Suddenly the burnt cake was my fault. I hadn’t even been present when the cake was mixed or put in the oven. Never mind the fact that it was written clearly on the box, along with the directions for making the cake. The person had abdicated all responsibility for even reading directions and laid sole blame for the outcome on me, a wholly innocent bystander, in every way.
Another example is this classic abuser’s line: “I wouldn’t have hit you, if you hadn’t made me angry.” Hitting someone because you’re angry is unhealthy behavior. I find it baffling that abusers blame their victims, implying that their victims have power over them, while at the same time teaching their victim they are powerless. Logic states that one of those concepts is a lie, because they both can’t be true. The truth is that both concepts are lies. Abusers lie, to themselves and to everyone else.
Do things people do make me angry? Absolutely, but I decide what I do with that anger. Hitting someone, except in self-defense, means I’m out of control. It isn’t an excuse.
Still another example of accepting responsibility that didn’t belong to me was when I was a child, and I was punished for blabbing a secret. Who doesn’t know that children like to be in-the-know? Adults do, too. Laying that burden at my door was unkind and unhealthy.
There is a more concerning problem with this scenario: Do you really want to teach your child to keep a secret when that secret might be that they’re being abused? I like what one of my friends taught her kids: Secrets are meant to be shared, so are surprises, but surprises sometimes have to wait for the right moment.
The abuser will do things and expect the victim to apologize for it. For example, they’ll delay leaving until you’re late, and you are the one expected to apologize for being late. Why are you apologizing for someone else’s behavior? Did you know you can’t really? An apology from someone else for someone else, over whom you have no control, is a lie. If you apologize for them, then they aren’t accepting responsibility. If they won’t accept responsibility, then they won’t change.
A particularly insidious tactic of some predators is that they actually do know what “buttons” to push. “Your lips says no, but your body says yes,” is one phrase that I truly feel violent about — I want to scream and hit something.
Are there people out there who are teases, and like the game of yes/no? Is it a game that’s perfectly fine between people who know each other and understand and accept the rules of the game? Yes. But it’s completely different when it’s used against a victim to justify a perpetrator’s behavior; that is evil.
God created the human body to be able to give and receive pleasure. It is evil through and through to use that gift against someone, to take advantage of them.
At five years old, yes, I liked being touched. It felt good physically. I also knew on some level that it was wrong (not because I was taught this verbally, because I wasn’t). I regretted when my molester was caught, because I knew that the attention to me would end. I also accepted it.
But then came the dilemma when I was told that I was never to let it happen again, and if it did happen, I was to tell! From a child’s point of view, it meant I had to tell on myself! And to make matters worse and more confusing, when I wanted to go to the store, I was told that I could only go if my molester accompanied me, because I was too little to go alone. I chose not to go. I had to protect myself.
Just for the record, a rape victim can have an orgasm, so can a child, but that doesn’t mean it was wanted. It only means that the pervert knew how to manipulate the victim’s body. Because then they can claim that you not only wanted it, you liked it. The victim isn’t only betrayed by the perpetrator, but — it feels this way to the victim — they’re also betrayed by their own body. It’s difficult enough to go on living after being violated, without also living with believing you somehow caused it, or wanted it simply because your body responded as God had intended — but He had intended it for a very different and beautiful situation.
The abuser chose to abuse before it happened. The choice was made in a million belittling comments, leering glances, and inappropriate “innocent” touches, all manifesting the thoughts that filled their mind. The action is simply the evidence of a choice already made — the choice to disrespect another human being.
THE BOTTOM LINE ON SAYING NO
It isn’t easy. Saying no isn’t about them; it’s about you. You are allowed to change your mind; being wishy-washy isn’t the same thing. This is about respecting yourself and respecting others. This is about accepting responsibility for yourself. This is about setting boundaries for yourself, and protecting those boundaries. Saying no takes practice, lots and lots of practice. There are always going to be people who will push and try to take advantage, and sometimes they’ll fool you, but it isn’t about them. This is about claiming and embracing your power to be your best self.
© 2010 The Project: The Tools I Wish I’d Known About Sooner / My Abuse Survivor’s Basic Toolkit by Judy