On boundaries and friendship

Dear Susannah

I’m writing with a question about friendship. Last year, a new family moved into our neighborhood, and the woman — who’s a friendly person — joined our book club and biweekly dinner group. (Yes, we’ve got a very social neighborhood and it’s lovely.) My new neighbor is very social and has started organizing many other activities with our neighbor group — going to films, out for lunch, shopping trips, etc — and we’re all pleased about that too. My problem? This woman wants to talk on the phone almost daily or she wants to get together several times a week — and I just don’t have time for that. I’ve told her repeatedly that I still have part-time assignments and other family or friend commitments, but she either gets hurt or pressures me later. She has asked me if I am “avoiding” her when I decline her invitations. There are plenty of others in our neighborhood who will socialize with her, but she takes it personally when I am busy. This woman doesn’t work, has no children, and her husband works 12 hours every day, at least. For me, friendship is a slow developing process. I have a few besties who’ve been in my life for decades, and while I love meeting new friends, I am not able to socialize all day. I feel this new neighbor expects more time from me that I even have for my best friends of two and three decades. I am not sure how to explain that without hurting her feelings. She is a sweet person but very persistent. Any ideas?


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Dear Overwhelmed

You need to be prepared to hurt her feelings and you need to set some boundaries. Let’s start with the first bit…

Unless you’re a sociopath, nobody likes hurting someone else’s feelings. In fact, I’d wager most of us go out of our way to avoid doing that. None of us want to feel like the bad guy, because truthfully, when our actions make the other person feel bad, we also feel bad. We’d like to avoid that too, right?

Saying yes feels easier than saying no but the problem with saying yes when we’d rather say no is we end up hurting ourselves. There’s no good feeling being generated when we’re doing something we don’t want to do. We end up resenting the other person and they’ll feel that, whether they’re conscious of it or not.

Saying no can be really hard, I get it! I’ve become quite adept at declining invitations to work-related things — do I want to be interviewed for an online summit? No thank you. Do I want to take part in this free list building thing? No thank you. Do I want to do a TEDx talk in London? No thank you (that really happened and I really did say no). Saying no to strangers in my inbox is relatively easy but saying no to a member of my family? Hoo boy, that’s something else.

If we consider that inbox strangers and family members are the two ends of the spectrum, your persistent needy neighbour is somewhere in the middle. You’re a bit more than acquaintances but have yet to become close friends. She’s taking everything a bit too personally — more than is appropriate — so it’s time to start saying no to her. Kindly and firmly.

They say “no” is a complete sentence and it’s true. NO doesn’t have to be unkind or mean or rude. NO can be said with love and grace. It can said with a smile. It can come from the heart. A NO said with certainty and a peaceful heart is POWERFUL.

How other people choose to respond to a NO is completely on them. The important thing to remember here is you’re not responsible for her well-being, she is. You’re not responsible for keeping her entertained each day or helping her find purpose in her life, she is. It’s also not your place to try to communicate any of that to her so what you need to do is make this about you — because that’s the part of this equation you can control — and say no when you want to say no.

Boundary setting seems hard because it makes us feel like we’re being unkind or selfish or worst of all, unfriendly. We’re taught to be good girls and play nice with everyone. If you have any history of people-pleasing in your family dynamic you’ll be familiar with the guilt that saying no triggers. But setting a boundary, communicating it and upholding it is not only protecting your energy and time it’s also the antidote to misunderstandings.

How do you set a boundary? You start by clearly communicating your position. When she asks you to do something, say: “That sounds great but unfortunately I’m not free that day.” Or “Thanks for the invitation. Unfortunately I don’t have time to do that this week.” Full stop.

You uphold a boundary by reinforcing it when challenged. In this case when your neighbour asks again if you’re free you repeat: “Sorry, I don’t have time this week.”

The fact that she gets hurt, pressures you later and has directly asked if you are avoiding her shows quite a staggering lack of social awareness on her part. Most of us manage to pick up on cues from other people about whether or not they want to interact with us — your neighbour is lacking in this skill. At some point you may need to be more direct than I’m guessing you’re comfortable with. “Please stop asking me” feels harsh and I imagine will make neighbourhood get-togethers awkward, so I hope that by consistently refusing her requests she will eventually get the message. It might take a while.

When she asks if you’re avoiding her when you decline her invitations I’m wondering if perhaps you’re giving her too many reasons why you can’t do stuff together. Remember, you don’t need to give her any more information. You don’t need to justify how you spend your time to an acquaintance. If you genuinely enjoy her company and would like to build a friendship — at a pace that suits you — you can communicate when you ARE free and what you’re available to do together. If this week is hectic but you could spare the time next Wednesday for lunch, tell her that.

On the other hand, if you don’t want your relationship to go beyond an acquaintanceship, you’re going to have to get comfortable with the initial awkwardness of saying no kindly and firmly. Value your own time. Put yourself, your family and your inner circle first. You say your new neighbour is friendly, sweet and very social — I promise you, she’ll be fine!

Love, Susannah xo

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