Saying No

Saying “no” is hard. Often when I say no, I feel like I’m disappointing the other person, like I’ve somehow failed.

This probably sounds funny coming from someone who not too long ago wrote about her “no reflex” but there are two categories of no for me. There’s the reactive no–the one that just pops out because I can’t deal with change or spontaneity. I might feel momentarily bad but Β don’t get all twisted up inside over it.

The other no–the one that hides and cowers and wakes up the butterflies in my stomach with its nervous pacing–is the no that makes me feel like I’m failing. The hard no is often a result of tension between what the other person wants and what I can feel like I can reasonably do. It’s often tied in with adult social obligations, the sort encountered by parents, spouses, adult children, employees: the neighborhood book club, the PTA committee, the office holiday party, the class research project.

When people ask others to join, volunteer, lead or otherwise participate in something, they do it with such a hopeful, expectant tone of voice. The implication is “how can you refuse this excellent thing that we’re all counting on you to be a part of?” And so often, that excellent thing just feels like a burden to me.

Saying no, however, is going to lead people to make assumptions. I’m not pulling my weight. I’m standoffish. We’re not as close as they assumed. I think I’m better than other people. I just don’t care.

All of the other moms are on a committee. All of the other parents have coached a season of rec sports. All of the other wives will be there. All of the other cousins are going to the wedding. All of the other students in the department are attending graduation. All of the other neighbors are baking for the fundraiser.

Of course not literally all of the other ______ are doing anything, but that’s what the person asking will imply. Everyone else is doing it, what aren’t you? Or worse, not enough people are doing it, I’m counting on you to help me out.

This is peer pressure at its most insidious. The hints that doing this thing makes you normal or a better person or not a bad person are powerful, especially when you’ve been raised and socialized to feel like fitting in and being normal are a primary goal.

And here is where we come to the crux of the issue. Autistic children are often grow up with a strong desire to fit in, to be liked, to be normal and/or to not get into trouble. We aren’t necessarily taught that we have the right to decline activities that uncomfortable or that we can sometimes put our needs first.


Learning to Say No

No comes from different places for different people. Strong boundaries. Good social skills. Explicit instruction in saying no as a child. Good self-esteem. A general orneriness.

If no doesn’t come naturally or has been socialized out of us, we can still learn to say no. This is where scripts come in handy. Not only do scripts give us the words that we might find unnatural, they prevent us from accidentally saying yes when we mean no.

Social communication is fraught with code words and unspoken communication. If your no is too soft, it can be misconstrued as a yes. For example, if you mean “no” don’t say “I don’t think so” or “I shouldn’t.” This can be interpreted by the other person as an open invitation to persuasion, negotiation or further discussion. You may find yourself feeling bullied into a “yes” when you already thought you’d said no.

If you mean no, unless you clearly and unambiguously say “no” the other person may think you’re being polite or coy.

But how to do that?

Saying No 101

I’ve always secretly wished there were social skills classes for adults. Then, recently, I realized there is something very similar: etiquette. On a whim, I’d checked Emily Post’s aptly titled Etiquette out of the library. And guess what? It’s loaded with not just advice but scripts. Lots and lots of them.

Emily Post and the people who now edit her books have spent a great deal of time figuring out the polite thing to say in just about every imaginable situation. Did you know that saying no can be as simple as:

“Would you like to come with us to lunch?”

“No, but thank you for inviting me.”

That’s right, you can simply say “No, but thank you for [asking, inviting, including, thinking of] me.” No further explanation necessary! This was a revelation to me because I always thought I needed to provide an excuse when declining an invitation.

You can, of course provide an (honest) excuse if you have one:

“No, I have plans for this weekend, but maybe next time.”

“No, I can’t make it this time. Work/school is too hectic.”

When providing an excuse, be careful not to put off for the future something you have no intention of ever doing. Saying, “Work is really busy right now” opens the door to getting the same request next week. If the request is something you don’t want to do, remove the invitation for a repeat inquiry by saying, “My schedule is full right now. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

And for those of us with food sensitivities and allergies, here are a couple of simple, polite phrases for declining food offered by a host(ess):

For foods you don’t like, a simple “no, thank you” is fine.

For allergies, intolerances or diet restrictions, you can say, “________ is off limits for me, but everything else is wonderful.

Polite. Straightforward. Inoffensive to your host’s cooking. Again, no need to offer a lengthy explanation or get into why you couldn’t possibly put a single piece of creamed spinach in your mouth without dying of sensory overload.

Beware of Traps

Not everyone knows how to politely take no for answer. People often try to guilt or bully others into saying yes, even after they’ve said no. Don’t fall for mind games:

  • Just because someone compliments you, you don’t have to say yes to the request that follows. For example, Mary says, “You’re the best web designer/babysitter/cake baker in the world. I know this is last minute, but could you [do some task that you don’t have time or energy for]?” Instead of feeling flattered/guilted into saying yes, you can say, “Thank you, but I don’t have time right now.” Politely acknowledge the compliment, then follow with a firm unapologetic no.

  • Peer pressure doesn’t end in high school. If someone prefaces a request with “Everyone is . . .” or “You’ve got to . . . ” beware. Don’t cave in to the bullying–instead politely decline with a simple, “I can’t right now.” Repeat as necessary.

  • Don’t allow others to trick you into doing something by making you feel sorry for them. A simple “I’m sorry you’re feeling overwhelmed, but I have my own deadlines to meet” is sufficient for turning down an unreasonable or inappropriate request.

Even well meaning people sometimes have trouble taking no for an answer, as Mados vividly illustrated in her recent post “Parties & Irrelevant Pity“. Saying no can be a complex social exchange and one that requires a lot of practice to do well. Scripts like the ones Emily Post suggests are a good starting place, especially for those of us who struggle with how to phrase things as well as how to maintain boundaries.

68 thoughts on “Saying No”

  1. Gosh this hit home for me. I have a very hard time saying no, especially to people I care about or to invitations. I have not been diagnosed but I think I have some elements of an Aspie inside me…it is stressful for me to be around people constantly and I need breathers to restore myself. I tend to volunteer to do things that allow me to contribute in solitude…such as writing news releases for a charitable event or sewing costumes for a school play. Those let me be by myself as I work, happily humming along to my Ipod playlists and finding new ways to do the job more efficiently. One good response to people who ask me to do something that I don’t want to do: “I’d love to, but I can’t.” Another is “I can’t do that for you, but I’m happy to (fill in the blank with something that’s in your comfort zone.)” Great post!

    1. Volunteering to do individual tasks is a great idea! The fact that you see this as not only a way to contribute but a way to improve the efficiency of the job just screams “aspie” to me, BTW. That’s exactly how I’d think of it too. πŸ™‚

      Thank you for adding the suggestions for more ways to politely decline requests. It’s so helpful to have a variety of stock responses that are comfortable and effective.

    2. I found out as a child, when no was not an option, that if I avoided contribution or work I could end up assigned tasks that were beyond me. I learned to quickly volunteer to help in ways I could, even if it was minimal, to at least appear helpful.
      As an adult this helps in social situations such as an office potluck (my nemesis) where the consequence would be annoyance, I’ll-will and inability to participate. I usually jump in to bring sodas and paper/plastic tableware. Maybe cookies or chips. You will never see me bring a casserole, haha! I have even occasionally offered to contribute money to the organizer.
      It has back-fired on me a couple of times, by sharp-eyed people who feel its not enough, but at least it demonstrates a desire to try and be part of the group.

  2. Thank you! As I tell my students often, everyone needs work on social skills, not just them because they are on the spectrum. I bet this post and its advice are applicable to a large percentage of people, especially women, regardless of neural differences. I think it’s important to remember that although certain issues that come along with the spectrum are frustrating, plenty of neurotypical people are struggling with the same issues and not necessarily talking about them.

    I have the same experience that you have outlined and I’m not on the spectrum. So thanks for the advice! I often struggle with social situations in which I feel I am letting people down or making them unhappy at some level. And the result is that I do things or agree to things that make me uncomfortable or that I don’t have time or energy to do. I have used scripts for myself in other uncomfortable situations, like when parents ask me inadvertently to break HIPPA laws by talking about another child’s diagnosis, but I never thought of reading an etiquette book to give myself some scripts in those situations and it’s a fabulous idea!

    1. I think we forget that there was a time when social mores which much more intricate and people saw teaching social skills as an art form. Think of all those girls and women who were “trained” for years for their social debut! When I watch period shows like “Downton Abbey” I marvel at how intricate and well-defined the social rules were. It seems like there was a lot less guess work involved, though that may just be me romanticizing an earlier time from a distance.

  3. Oh my goodness YES! There ARE two types of NO for me too and you just aptly explained why the second one sometimes makes me angry- It IS peer pressure. Knowing that, I will have less time feeling guilty. My therapist has worked on boundaries with me- so I am being clearer in what I need. But the shame or guilt or feeling less than the people who are asking something of me- usually trumps the day. This post helped a lot! Thank you:)

    1. It’s funny to realize that this peer pressure we so strongly warn our children against succumbing to is part of our own daily lives as adults. It’s just more subtle now. Glad you found this helpful! I was excited to discover that there are such simple, socially acceptable scripts.

  4. For me, there are three types of no: The reflexively angry no (like when my parents pull the, “Hey, we’re dropping by for a visit in two hours hope you can put us all up!” phone call), the absolute-cannot-do no (“Trust me, you don’t want me to copy that over for you – I can’t do neat writing and it’ll look horrible,” or “I can’t eat that – I’m allergic. Thanks, though.”), and the I don’t want to no. It’s the last one is the one that’s hard for me.

    1. I think the “I don’t want to” no’s are so hard because we feel like we should have a “better” excuse than simply not wanting to. Why is it so hard to just say, “nope, don’t want to do that” and move on? But you’re so right. I’m much better at the reflexive no (which is often “oh hell no!”) and the you don’t want me to do that no. In my old neighborhood we had a neighborhood association and various neighbors kept asking me to run for the board. I had no trouble saying no repeatedly because I knew I’d be terrible at it and just said so.

      Our brains are very odd things.

      1. … Do you think there’s a chance it has to do with the don’t-be-rude + refusing-something-offered-and-or-not-saying-thank-you-even-if-you-don’t-want-it-is-rude lessons given to kids? I was taught that it’s rude to say you don’t want to, and it’s rude to refuse something unless there’s a “legitimate” reason not to (legitimate defined by what-my-parents-thought-was-reasonable – so, okay to say no to a party because my parents don’t want to drive me, not okay to say no because I don’t want to go… eeeven though it amounts to the same reason: someone doesn’t want to do it). I think that’s why I have problems refusing stuff unless it’s a cannot do thing or it’s a you really don’t want me to do it thing.

        This is why I think it’s important for adults not ask trap questions and accept no as an answer when options are given. If you (general you) ask for the kid’s opinion or preference, don’t punish your kid when they give an answer you don’t like. Likewise, if you let them choose whether or not to do something, let no be a legitimate option. If no is not a legitimate option, don’t phrase it as a trap offer, and instead phrase it as an order. It’s disingenuous to ask a kid to do something as if refusal is an option and then punish the kid for refusal. If you’re giving an order, phrase it as such. If you don’t phrase it as such, don’t be surprised if your kid interprets you literally, and don’t punish them for your inability to communicate clearly.

        I probably seem angry over such verbal habits. I am. When I was a kid, I couldn’t tell when, “Do you want _____?” meant “Do you want ____?” and when it meant “Please _____.” As such, I was often punished for what I perceived as honesty: Telling my father I don’t want to color the coloring book he just got for me, telling my mother that I didn’t want to wash the dishes, or telling my teacher that I didn’t want to go outside. It felt unfair, unjust and self-inconsistent: How can honesty be the best policy if I’m punished for being honest? Why is it wrong to be honest? Why can everybody else be honest with (seeming) impunity?

        As an adult, I view all such offers as potential traps (because when I was a kid, many of them they were), and fear reprisal if I answer honestly by refusing, and that is in large part why I get so stressed out over saying no.

        1. Yes, I think this has a lot to do with it. I don’t ever remember telling my daughter that she couldn’t express a dislike for something and as an adult she doesn’t hesitate to make her feelings known, positive or negative. She has very good boundaries and not a whole lot of guilt when it comes to saying no. I guess in that sense aspie parenting works well – she’s way ahead of me in this area. In our house we always tried to emphasize honest communication over politeness or deference or whatever you want to call that “saying no is rude” thing.

          A lot of what you mention here goes right to the heart of parent-child (or adult-child) trust. Those instructions couched as questions can be so confusing and really trip up kids, especially kids on the spectrum. My parents were very direct and directive oriented so I was never asked to do anything, simply told (for chores and such, I was asked if I wanted to do recreation and other optional things). The funny thing is, as an adult, when someone asks me something I always take it literally and rarely recognize that questions are often used as suggestive tools to get another person to engage in an activity without looking too bossy or controlling. So I completely get why you see those kinds of questions as traps – there are all sorts of places they can go wrong.

          1. Yeah, definitely. Kids need adults to be consistent, honest, as fair as possible, and transparent. They need to know what to expect from the adults in their lives, and if a misunderstanding occurs, they need to be taught why they misunderstood, not punished for it.

            And I pretty much never got that from the adults in my life growing up.

  5. No can be a liberating word. It can be hard to learn that it is okay to say no and how to say no politely and firmly. It has taken me a long time to learn that saying no is less stressful than stressing about what I just agreed to.

    1. Oh, that last part is so important. I think keeping that in mind would helpful for those of us who make decisions on a cost-benefit basis. Sometimes the cost of saying no is much lower than the cost of not saying no.

  6. Great post that I could totally relate to. When I was younger, it was a little easier because I always said that my parents said no. However as an adult, I am trying to learn to be confident in my own decisions.

    1. I used to tell my daughter that she could use me as an excuse if she felt she was being pressured into something she didn’t want to do so I think that’s a great strategy for young people if needed. The being an adult part is trickier. πŸ™‚

  7. Thanks for a great post… and for the tips with scripts for general etiquette. I bet Emily Post’s “Etiquette” will be very popular now… I know I am going to look for it! Etiquette scripts are extremely helpful in making it easy to establish boundaries and avoid wasting energy on doubts and on engaging emotional involvement where it isn’t necessary.

    I just came to think that it would be great to have an online database with “peer approved quality etiquette scripts” for numerous situations in different contexts… Social events, for parents (dealing with school and other parents et.c), engaging and disengaging conversations, communicating with clients, communicating with bosses… (as some scripts work in many contexts, there could be a tagging system as to categorise scripts across categories and quickly see which different contexts that script works for…).

    Ps. and thanks for the link.

    1. If you can find the book at the library, that would probably be best. It’s huge and most likely very expensive. I think a database that was well organized and searchable would really useful. I found some etiquette sites online while I was drafting this post and they were very hard to use (IMO).

      I’m happy to link to your excellent post. You captured a very close-up view of the issue and I felt like I was writing very broadly, so they go well together. You’ve also inspired me to tackle my unfinished drafts, with all the draft finishing you’ve been doing in the past month. I still have about 25 more to sort through, but everything I’ve posted in the last 3 weeks has been from drafts that were languishing for months.

      1. Thank you! Yes I’m also trying to get to finish more of my drafts… I wish my day was not cut into pieces time wise, that is the main thing that prevents me from finishing things, and it is very frustrating to have these almost-done things sitting for so long they become obsolete… (well, it always turn out they are not REALLY almost done when I try, but still…)

        Re. Emily Post, I had a look at the Emily Post website and they do have many of the courtesy scripts online… but not really with the sort of organisation I would want for an online script data base.

        I bet my local library does not have “Etiquette 18th edition” which I think is the one you mention… They don’t have much. Also, I don’t like the local library. And I don’t intend to read & memorise every script in it anyway but read some of them to get into the thinking style and then use the rest as a reference base to find scripts for specific situations when needed… so that would require the book to be at handy needed = on my bookshelf. It costs $26.46 on Amazon right now with free shipping (prob. only if you live in the US). However, I had a look inside it on Amazon and can see that many of the scripts are not useful to me… like golf and wedding situations et.c, I don’t do those things… so I’ll probably try to find a similar script reference base or maybe build up my own? Maybe… It has started some thoughts. Thanks:-)

        1. Oh, I know what you mean about the “almost done, but not” drafts. I’ve been having trouble keeping up with writing because I’ve been sick so at least the drafts are a starting point, but they still need a good amount of work to be turned into something publishable.

          The Etiquette book has a lot of information I don’t think I’d ever use but I like that its thorough and comprehensive. And paper. πŸ™‚ I have seen the Emily Post site and it looks like they’ve taken snippets from the books to republish there. Which is helpful but not very easy to use or as specific as the books.

          1. Emily Post: no, and specific is the key… Handy scripts and user friendly ways to find the most useful one when needed without having to search through lots of other stuff first.

            Drafts: you are keeping up a nice steady flow of good published posts in general, so I’m presuming that you are a quite effective writer, good at organising ideas & completing your drafts:-)

            1. Actually, I panic a lot. πŸ™‚ I can write fast but I also get easily lost and frustrated so I end up with lots of unfinished stuff that I have to let sit until I can come back and figure out what’s wrong with it. I guess if it was easy it wouldn’t be fun.

  8. “All the other __________ are going __________” (like “if you don’t do it you are weird/anti-social/not trying”) has pressured me into heaps of situations that for me were nightmare-like and for others no big deal. I suspect that often the person inviting didn’t actually even particularly want me there or would talk to me at all if I came; it was just the standard pressure they felt they had to put on everybody in carrying out their task of inviting everybody with as high success rate as possible.

    Sometimes the “All the other __________ ” pressure is not even personal but implicit in e.g. a written invitation sent out to a broad amount of people at once (these days, that would be via email). That sort of invitations I don’t fall for anymore at least:-) Meaning that not only do I say no, I don’t feel guilty about it in any way.

    1. That’s a good point about how social pressure trickles down in sometimes impersonal ways. If someone is tasked with organizing an event, they feel pressured to make the best turnout or participation possible, leading them to resort to all sorts of social “tricks” to get people to show up.

      1. Yes… and I think they do it just out of inertia whether they think that person will actually enjoy that party or not… or be wanted there or not…

  9. This is such a great post. I have a ton of trouble saying “no”; I always think I have to have a strong reason that can’t be argued against, which is probably the result of having a bossy older sister. This is especially difficult because I also feel like a question needs to be responded to quickly, which is AWFUL for me because I would be able to communicate so much better if people were willing to wait for me to figure out what I want to say without thinking I’m a weirdo. So lacking the time to A) weigh the options and figure out if I want to say yes or no, and/or B) think of a good reason to justify my answer, I usually end up saying “yes” automatically without being entirely certain what I’m agreeing to.

    1. YIkes, saying yes by default sounds rough. πŸ™‚ It’s interesting that you can trace your need for a strong reason back to your sister. That makes a lot of sense and I hadn’t thought about the influence that siblings might have. I think there’s a lot to be said for families instituting a firm “no means no” rule.

  10. Sorry I’m a bit late to the party with this post. At the moment my whole head is split between being preoccupied with the bloody heatwave (BAD) and my shiny new special interest (GOOD!) so FeministAspie has been completely neglected. Anyway:

    YES. THIS. SO MUCH THIS. Especially recently. I tend to sort of freeze up and mumble a vague “um, okay, yeah, sure” or, at best, I don’t say anything at all. Luckily the people close to me recognise this and take that to mean “no”, but it becomes more of a problem with people who don’t know me so well. I often worry that the reasons for my “no” would sound really silly and pathetic to other people (HOORAY FOR NEUROTYPICAL PRIVILEGE EVERYONE), like sensory issues etc. On the plus side, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the general lack of peer pressure at uni; if you want to go out and get hammered every night, those options are most definitely available, but if you’re not into that then nobody’s judging you for it, thank goodness. I also have issues making decisions because I don’t want to make the “wrong” decision; this usually backfires, though, because people get more annoyed by my inability to make a decision, plus there are times when I genuinely have no preference and nobody believes me!! XD

    1. The heat is dreadful. But a new special interest! Do you mind if I ask what it is?

      It does feel harder to say no when our reasons are “nonstandard” because often people will come back with some variation of “it won’t be that bad” which is probably true for them based on how they experience the world.

      I know exactly what you mean about having no preference and people thinking it’s some kind of ploy! I get that a lot. Often I truly don’t care one way or the other and prefer that the other person choose so I don’t have to think about it. This seems to make people really suspicious, like I’m trying to trap them or something. IDK.

      1. YES. THAT. πŸ˜€

        As for my shiny new special interest, it’s more of a variation on a long-running theme of special interests, i.e. it’s just another band. Well, I say “just” but as you’ll probably know, special interests aren’t “just” anything – I mean, this one is the only logical reason for why I haven’t had a bazillion and one meltdowns over the last couple of weeks because asdfghjkl weather – but I’m still at that really early stage where I’m still pretty shy about it for no logical reason. Maybe I should write a blog post at some point, it’s been aaaaaaaages! XD

          1. YES. THAT’S EXACTLY IT. NAIL, MEET HEAD. Also because I sort of assumed Muse was the end of my teenage falling-in-love-with-a-new-band-every-10-seconds phase, so now it feels like I’m having an affair. Which is silly, because YOU CAN LIKE MULTIPLE THINGS YAY πŸ˜€

  11. Isn’t it funny how Aspies are portrayed as unfeeling and lacking in social graces, but we all sometimes agree to do things against our desire/self- interest in *social situations* AND we agonize over the times we do say no.
    I think, at least for women, Aspies have the same social problems with expectations that NT women have, even if our other symptoms and challenges are different or more extreme. I’m starting to notice that we take a lot of heat for choosing comfort over beauty (tight jeans, heels, makeup), for,those that choose this, or for not wanting to attend office parties, or for not joining the PTA, or for not wanting to be sexual, or for WANTING to be sexual— but guess what: All different kinds of women from all backgrounds struggle with this!
    I’m not saying we don’t have unique challenges, but when it comes to social obligation, we are quick to beat ourselves up and blame our “dysfunction”, if we don’t live up to standard expectations.
    Here is a description of early suffragists:
    “…[early 19th century films portrayed]…negative stereotypes of suffragistsβ€”these women possessed masculine features, created chaos and disorder when out publicly, neglected their children and family, oppressed their husbands, and terrorized their community.” -Kay Sloan, film historian-
    I think we should be kinder to ourselves over our unique personal choices.

    1. Someone else mentioned this being in part tied to gender roles and I don’t think I commented on that, but I totally agree. There is some intersectionality between gender and disability when it comes to the issues around saying no for aspie women. I’ve never really understood women in general and how to “be a woman” and I’m increasingly just letting go of that concept entirely. I think I’d much rather be a person.

  12. “No” is difficult for me too. Just as is hearing “no”.

    To me, before I ask a person something, I think it through, over and over again. If I think I’ll get a negative response, I usually skip it, not wanting to put them on the spot. So, I impute the same intentions when others ask me something. I assume they’ve given a lot of consideration to the subject, and that they are only asking me, as a sort of formality, since they would only be asking me if they were pretty sure I’d be for it in the first place… or something like that. πŸ™‚

    Two examples. One is that I worked for this older couple from 1988 until just last month. She used to play tennis and frequently asked if I’d like a few cans of tennis balls. I had no real use for them, but always said yes. Sometimes I gave them to the local HS, other years I gave them to my dad, and for a few years my nephews were playing tennis and I’d give them to them. She had her knee operated on, and didn’t play tennis for awhile, so I wasn’t offered any tennis balls. Then one day, she had a few cans for me, and I felt bad telling her “No, thank you”. I felt I had to explain why I didn’t want them.

    The other example was very difficult. My dad has many classic cars (maybe ten). Though I loved cars as a child, like Hotwheels, I just do not care much for cars as an adult. Many years back, I had casually mentioned that I liked the way a 1967 Cougar looked. Earlier this year he reminded me, and told me he had traded one of his cars for a very clean ’67 Cougar and he wanted to know if I wanted to have it at my house. I was completely nonplussed. I did NOT want it, but I understood what it meant for him to be offering it to me. Somehow I managed to politely say “no” and it was accepted… though he still brings it up from time to time, which I find vexing. I just wish people could accept “no” as well as I do. I may not like to hear ‘no’, but I know what it means, and don’t push further after hearing it.

    1. It’s interesting the way you describe how much thought you give to asking something of a person before you go ahead and do it. I think many people ask without thinking things through much at all, assuming that the other person will say no if they prefer or perhaps asking solely for self-centered reasons, such as to escape an obligation or please a third party.

      Your tennis ball story sounds like it could be a “Seinfled” plot. πŸ™‚ Once we say yes to something in that kind of casual offhand way, we can be forever obligated to keep saying yes to avoid social embarrassment, even when it makes little sense.

      I suspect your dad keeps bringing up the car because thinks you’re being polite by declining his generous offer. I’ve noticed that often when people say “I like X” or “That X you’re eating looks really good” it’s a roundabout way of asking for some of X. Perhaps your dad took your specific mention of that car as a way of saying you wished you had one.

  13. I am having a hard time with this lately. Specifically, with my husband’s family. More specifically than that, his grandmother.

    His grandmother is a “helper.” I put “helper” in quotes because she’s the kind of person who will do something to “help.” without asking, assuming that you’d like it. Or, more often, worse, she’ll do something to “help” that you’ve expressed that you don’t like, because “that’s just the way she/the family does things, and you’ll thank her later.” And then proceeds to get angry when you are not thankful later, and doesn’t understand why you’re upset. Then, the rest of the family is asking you, “Why are you burning bridges with grandma? She means well!” Is there any way to tell a person like this “No, thank you.” and not have it blow up in your face?

    The latest fight is because I had to ask my father in law to babysit my children while I worked last week. I was happy to walk to work, but it also would have been relatively easy for FIL to drive me there with my kids in the car, then go back to my apartment and unload them. For some strange reason, husband’s grandmother said that she wanted to give me a ride to work. I asked her why, as it didn’t really make sense for her to be coming to town just to give me a ride. She repeatedly replied that “she was going to be doing some things in town anyway, so it wasn’t a problem.”

    I planned to walk home from work. I left my work, only to see her parked outside, ready to give me a ride home that I hadn’t asked for, and she hadn’t offered previously. Confused, I asked her, “You are still in town?” She proceeded to tell me everything my kids had been doing all day. After she’d dropped me off earlier, and after I had asked her what she was in town for, she’d turned right around and went back to my apartment to “help” FIL with the kids.

    I called her later that night, and told her that I was upset, because she hadn’t told me that she was going to be there, and I need her to start asking me if these things are okay. (I don’t like things not being the way that I thought they were going to be! With most things, but especially my kids and my home.)

    This has lead to a lot of defensiveness on all sides, to me being told by my mother in law that I must not understand how families work, and to me being told that I shouldn’t burn bridges with her, because she “does a lot for everyone.” But, what if I don’t LIKE things being done for me? At least not without the person asking, and being okay with it if I say “No, thank you.” Somehow, not liking things being done for me, without asking, as “help” is being taken as “I think grandma is a terrible person who will hurt my kids, somehow, and also I don’t understand families, because if I did, I’d be fine with this.”

    And, that’s why I’m asking this question on this post. What do I do, when “No, thank you.” turns into, “You don’t understand how families work, and you’re burning bridges with grandma?” Have you ever had to deal with things like this?

    1. Oohhh that’s a horrible situation! Obviously grandma doesn’t (or isn’t able to) respect other people’s boundaries, but it becomes your fault for not dealing with (aka ignoring) that. Maybe a change of tactics is the best thing (that, or moving to another country). This is not going to change because nobody in your story has a motivation to change, except you. So maybe you can start responding like “Oh that is such a great idea, spending time with my children! Maybe you can tell me ahead of time next time so I can appreciate it more?” So you’re “acknowledging” that it’s all your fault (which it isn’t but you’re going to get blamed anyway so what do you have to lose?) while at the same time trying to show the others what they can do to “help” you not make that same mistake again.

      It’s horrible and enabling and not very activisty but sometimes you just have to deal with the fact that some people will never accommodate you willingly.

      I would love to hear other thoughts though.

      1. I wish that I thought she was the kind of person who would take a graceful “hint” like that, and change in the future. But, I’m afraid that she’d just take it as me saying, “That was a great idea! You should spend more time with my children. Tell me more about it next time!”

        I guess, I know that I won’t win with grandma. And, I think FIL understands to some extent–heck, she’s his mother in law! But MIL kept repeating to me, “I just don’t understand. I guess I’ll never understand.” no matter how politely I tried to put it. Even when I explained that, if grandma had just asked me first, I probably could have been talked into it. I just hate to have things like this sprung on me, and to feel like I’m not given a choice in the matter! Ahh!

        Then again, she is the person who I tentatively approached with a, “Hey, I’ve been thinking that I might be on the spectrum…” and, in return, got a laugh, a “no, I really don’t think you are” head-shake, and a story about how someone’s daughter that she knows has Asperger’s, but who is very “obviously slow” (said with a knowing chuckle.) So, I can’t even approach this with a “Yes, I’m crazy. That’s why I don’t like this. But, you’re stuck with me, so deal with my craaaaaaaazy dislike for surprises and things being taken out of my control!”

        1. Liz,
          Two things.
          First, you opined, “Is there any way to tell a person like this β€œNo, thank you.” and not have it blow up in your face?” The answer is “no” with certain people. My mother is that way. So, when I suspect she’s about to go down “that road” again, I just jump to the logical end of the conversation, and “invite” her to “blow up” if she’s going to. I hate that dance.

          Second, I’m guessing that I just didn’t read your story correctly, about the grandmother, I didn’t detect the intrusion and I felt sad when I read it. I’m guessing she’s at least 40, if not 50 or 60, years older than you are. Her entire productive life is well in the rear view mirror. No matter what it may look like from the outside, if she’s willing to change her day, at a moment’s notice, to spend the day with your FIL (her son) and your kids, that indicates a dearth of meaning in her life. Unless she is destructive, I think it far more compassionate to give her all the latitude she wants. She won’t live forever, and you could choose to see it as a benefit… even if it grates on you in the short term. πŸ™‚

          1. I will say, that I understand where you’re coming from, but what you’re described isn’t her. She is an incredibly active woman. Friends, parties, bridge club, golfing, days spent with neighbors, her 6? 7? children, and her other dozens or so grandchildren (my husband is her grandchild). She is a very strong-willed, stubborn, active, lively woman, and I can easily see her continuing in this way, active and busy, for another 20 years. πŸ™‚

            I met her four years ago, and have had a fairly distant relationship with her in that time. I don’t know her very well, and have stayed distant because of her intrusiveness when I allow her to become closer. When it comes to the babysitting, she has forced herself along on babysitting occasions for my oldest child before. I had wanted her home, in a familiar environment. She’s a very picky eater, and I had prepared food that she would eat, and had left my home set up so she’d be very comfortable being babysat. Grandma came over after I had left, packed her and my MIL up, drove them to her house, and tried to feed her all sorts of random things. Because they didn’t listen, my child was not fed while I was gone, because, as I knew, she would refuse to eat, rather than eat something unfamiliar. So, she didn’t eat for half of a day, while food I had prepared for her sat in my refrigerator, untouched. So, that is why I am sensitive, especially, about her inviting herself along for babysitting.

            When it comes to compassion, there is one thing that I have realized in my life: I can’t be responsible for other people’s happiness. If I can do something that DOES make another person happy, and it makes me happy too, that is a wonderful thing. But I cannot sacrifice my own happiness for someone else. Because, then, who will be responsible for my happiness? Nobody.

            1. Liz,
              When reading my comments to you, about the grandmother, I can see that I was projecting. I was imagining that I was the “grandfather” (instead of grandmother) and just wanted to hang around [hey, I’m a nice enough guy]… not truly factoring in how difficult some people insist on being.

              My mother has a very similar streak in her. As an recent example, she (66) just sold her house and moved from the area. She offered to give us her refrigerator, which we accepted, but I knew it was going to come with a headache attached. I’m 48 and she wanted me to ask my brother (43) to go way out of his way to move it. Since the refrigerator issue was really between her and my wife, and told my wife that I was not going to lift a finger to move it. I’m old now, and that fridge is huge. We needed a professional mover. So, my wife found one, but then my mother started in with her noodging… asking if he was insured, and more headaches, and our mover decided to decline the job.

              Finally, she decided to see if her mover (also uninsured) would bring it to our house. Well, it took three strong professionals to get it here… still, the best part of the story was when she was giving me some of her refrigerated food. She had some shredded parmesan cheese. I was happy to have it, but somehow she made a point about it being shredded, and I told her that “I prefer grated parmesan”. She was so incensed, that she told me I couldn’t have it since I was then going to refine it to grated. I took in stride, but had to laugh. Then, a few days later, when the fridge was delivered, she showed up later, with more food, that I had originally declined, singing the praises of each condiment, including the grated parmesan cheese. She looked bit bedraggled (probably from the strain of moving) and said, “here, you take the parmesan, I don’t care if you grate it or not.”

              So, in short, if the grandmother in your story is anything like my mother, I completely see why you don’t want to be sucked into her tractor beam. πŸ™‚

              1. It’s rare that I truly laugh out loud to something I’ve read online, but I had to about your grated cheese story! That absolutely sounds like grandma, too. Every year, she migrates to a warmer state for the winter, and some family member gets to have a similar awkward conversation about perishables and condiments. Last year, I inherited three half-used containers of salad dressing (I’m not a salad eater, and neither is husband), along with some expired guacamole that I had previously refused. πŸ˜‰

        2. This does sound unwinnable–especially with the way your MIL is framing it as you being ungrateful rather than asking for your boundaries to be respected.

          Honestly, Grandma sounds lonely. Her helpfulness might be a way of filling up her days, which is actually kind of sad, but also frustrating for you because she’s backing you into a corner by simply doing what she wants to do rather than asking you about it first. Family is so hard to deal with at times.

          It sounds like the thing that bugs you most is the unexpected changes of plans? And she probably thinks that being bothered by something like that is “silly” or trivial so it will likely be hard for her to understand why you’d want her to ask before doing something helpful. Would it be possible to have your FIL talk to her? Maybe he could communicate to her that you find it stressful when plans suddenly change, regardless of how helpful the change is, and you need her to ask you in advance about changes. Maybe even say that your therapist recommended it? Sometimes people will respect something if they think it’s coming from a professional rather than from a relative.

          Your MIL is obviously not helping by making your one specific request into a giant family issue. My strategy there would be outright avoidance because I’m not that optimistic about changing people who behave like that.

          1. I did talk to my FIL. It turned out that he had been under the impression that I had invited her along, too, and that he had been frustrated, as he had been happy to babysit on his own. Next time, he’ll be glad to tell her “No, thank you,” also. So, that is one problem solved! Although, it doesn’t solve the “burning bridges with grandma” debate, I think I will solve that by enforcing distance, again. That is how things usually are for us–frankly, I don’t even know her that well. And, I think, if MIL brings it up again, I will tell her that I don’t want to talk about it, or don’t want to put her in the middle.

            Yes, the change of plans bothers me. But also feeling like things are being done for, to, around me, without me having any say in the matter. Effectively, I need a chance to say “No,” if I need to. I’m a pretty reasonable person, and can often be talked into saying “yes,” to a plan, or to “help,” if a person finds it very important. But, I really, really need that chance to accept or decline. I balk absolutely at feeling controlled, especially by people that I don’t know that well! I did try to explain that to her, that I needed to have a chance to decide whether I needed the help or not, as that really is the crux of my issue, but she became very defensive….so, I agree, that I likely won’t be able to change it. Hopefully, avoiding will work, as it did in the past!

            1. I think “I don’t want to put you in the middle” is the perfect response to MIL! It sounds like you’re being considerate of her and subtly hints that it’s actually none of her business.

              Oh, I know what you mean about that feeling of not having control. Yuck. Grandma sounds very domineering. I guess with some people the best you can hope for is avoiding or ignoring.

              1. Thanks! I’ll definitely stick to the “I don’t want to put you in the middle,” then. I feel like I have to take lessons on how to be kindly passive-aggressive to survive in this family! LOL

                Domineering is definitely the word. And, I know she isn’t cruel, or unsafe, or another other number of negative things. But, it doesn’t matter how good her intentions are. When she comes at me that way, I just want to run!!

    2. My parents are both very much like that – they will “help” whether or not I want help and rarely in the way I actually want to be helped on the occasions I do want help. They would never talk to the school growing up about how I was receiving no support regarding my bullying, but they would buy me entire wardrobes of clothes I hated and then force me to wear them to try to “help” me fit in. The key for me came in observing the way in which they “help” and using that to my advantage: They like to “help” by buying stuff and running errands but without doing anything that would actually involve arguing with authority figures. So, buy me clothes instead of arguing with the principal that it’s not okay for the school to ignore a situation that’s leading to our kid coming home in tears every day. And initiate justifications for that reasoning – she’s too sensitive or looks funny and that makes her a bully magnet or whatever.

      So I usually devote time before they visit to finding some ways they can feel “helpful” whilst getting my boundaries respected and offer that as a compromise. “No, I don’t want a drive because I like exercise, but if you could take care of [minor errand] for me while I’m at work, I’d appreciate it.” They get to feel helpful, I get my boundary respected. Win-win.

      The downside is that I have to draw up a list of errands they can do “for” me when they visit, and I’ll be honest that it only works because I live in a different province and so have time and energy to draw up that list and rehearse the script for it.

      1. That “buying clothes” vs the help that you really need sounds frustrating–and familiar! That is actually a good idea, even if not used on “grandma,” but even for other people who want to “help,” to have a little list of other things I may actually need help with, that don’t cross boundaries of what I’m comfortable with, to divert from whatever they’ve decided that they want to do. Maybe it is best to just pass over the entire conversation about why I’m not comfortable with some things, (because if they are comfortable with it, there will be no explaining why I am not) and just ignore it, politely diverting to something I would be comfortable with. (At least, this will work for the people who DO ask!)

        1. I find the diversion sometimes works even for those who don’t ask.
          NT: Here, I’ll give you a drive.
          Me: Actually, I’d like the exercise today, but if you want, you can give me a drive next time it’s raining.


          NT: Hey, I’ll organize your cupboard! You have it all wrong.
          Me: Actually, I have a headache and don’t want to hear stuff banging around. If you want, you could sort the laundry, though.

  14. The Emily Post part really hit home for me β€” I remember wondering as a child why EVERYONE didn’t want to follow this wonderful resource. It was like a handbook to all the things that made me uncomfortable.
    I’m still thinking about checking out a diagnosis because so much makes sense and just to see if this isn’t me being totally delusional, but there’s one big piece of the puzzle that’s missing β€” I don’t have trouble with empathy; I’m cripplingly empathetic to the point where it sometimes feel like other people’s pain can hurt me more than they feel it. It often feels like I’m absorbing other people’s feelings, which I actually had dreams about doing as a child. And that just seems like such a non-aspie trait that I’m not sure everything else couldn’t just be a coincidental part of my personality/just random sensory sensitivities.

    1. I was the same way as a kid. I obsessively read Ann Landers and Dear Abby for clues on how people should interact.

      The idea that people on the spectrum have no empathy is a myth. Some of us have difficulty with cognitive empathy (figuring out what other people are thinking or experiencing) and others with affective empathy (responding appropriately emotionally to others) but few autistic people have no empathy at all. Also, what you’re describing sounds more like an alexithymic trait–difficulty modulating your emotions–which is very very common in people on the spectrum. I would recommend reading these two posts (and the comments on them) if you’re interested in learning more about the different ways we experience empathy and about alexithymia: and

      I hope this is helpful! What you describe is actually a common experience for adults on the spectrum, although few of the “experts” talk about it.

      1. Whoa. Alexithymia is definitely a good description for something I didn’t know had a word. It really seems like the more I learn about autism, the more I realize that everything I knew about autism was basically incorrect and incomplete, which is pretty unfortunate, because no matter how a diagnosis turns out for me, learning about all this stuff has improved my life so much. Just learning about stimming and becoming a more “conscious” stimmer (I never noticed how much I did it until I had a term for it) has helped me deal with social situations that usually would make me go home/hide in a bathroom, and I’ve realized that a lot of the unexplained physical reactions I had to certain things are probably sensory sensitivities. (Ever since childhood, anything with the texture of bananas/papayas/avocados has made me literally gag and feel nauseous, despite not being allergic to any of those things and liking their tastes. I never knew what it was, so I would always try to eat them anyway just to prove to myself that I could, which in hindsight is really silly.) Once again, thank you so much for helping me to put words to whatever the heck it is that’s going on in me.

        1. I felt the same way when I first discovered alexithymia and stimming! πŸ™‚ Just knowing these things exist and have names are actually *things* makes a huge difference.

  15. I wish I found this last week! I’ve not long been diagnosed with AS, but I’ve never been able to say no. My ex mother-in-law backed me into a corner last week about having my youngest overnight (shared custody, ex is on an Interim Supervision Order and she has to stay with him). It was so much more than I could handle at that point due to stress from court proceedings and my family being a little (a lot) overbearing. I felt like I didn’t have a choice and ended up having a huge meltdown and have potentially destroyed any friendship left between me and my ex (10 years, my best friend). I really feel like I was manipulated and he’s on her side (of course). I’ve now taken to just saying no, period. But reading this has really given me a sence of how to do it properly, without sounding like a complete b*tch! Thank you πŸ™‚

  16. I haven’t read the comments so apologies if this is covered there. What about if you don’t realise that you need to say no and don’t say it? I can see times in my life when I have said yes, not knowing that actually no was what was best and only realising later (weeks, months, years…). I dont mean that “on reflection no was the better option in hindsight…”, i mean, “no was what i wanted at the time but wasnt aware of this”. I put this down to alexithymia.

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