Change the Way People Treat You, Starting With One Word

Allison Vesterfelt

My life has been full of people who have treated me poorly. I’ve had bosses who expected too much and took advantage of my time and assumed I would work long hours beyond my pay. There have been boyfriends who gave very little and took far more than I ever wanted to give, and still had the nerve to act like it wasn’t enough. I’ve had friends who waltzed into my world, wrecked havoc, and then disappeared.

In fact, at certain times it has seemed like people did this to me on purpose — like I was some kind of target for those just waiting to inflict more hurt.

And in a way, I was.

The first time I heard someone say the words, “We teach people how to treat us,” I didn’t want to believe it was true. If it was, then much of the pain I had suffered over time was my fault as well as the fault of those who had inflicted it. That reality seemed painful and unfair. But at the same time, I felt the tiniest glimmer of hope at the sound of these words.

Because if they were true, if I could really teach people how to treat me, then there was hope of a world where people would treat me with the respect and care I deserved. So I decided to give it a try.

*Photo by sboneham, Creative Commons

For me, it started with the word no. This wasn’t a word I had used very often, so I had to practice. In the mirror. Literally.

No, you cannot have my phone number.

No, I won’t go on a date with you.

No, I can’t stay late this week.

No, I can’t help you with that project.

No, I won’t have a conversation with you when you’re angry.

No explanation. No defense. No justification for why I couldn’t do the thing someone else wanted me to do. Just the simply exerting of my power into the universe to choose what I wanted, to draw a boundary around myself.

It didn’t come naturally at first. I had to exercise it, like a muscle.

In fact, as I started to practice, I realized there were several lies I had been believing for so long, they had been preventing me from using the word no. I had to confront these lies and uproot them as I went along. They went like this:

• When I say “no” I’m being mean
• Wanting things is selfish
• Other people deserve to get what they want more than I deserve to get what I want
• I owe people an explanation for my actions

Sometimes I would try to explain myself and I would get tangled in my explanations, and feel like I had to backtrack or justify. Other times I would say “yes” when I meant to say “no” and I would have to go back and change my answer. It wasn’t always pretty. I hurt people’s feelings. I disappointed them. I lost friends, not because I was being mean or malicious, but because I wasn’t giving the things I had given so freely for so long.

• • •

But something wonderful started to happen when I said the word no. I realized I had the power to teach people how to treat me.

Three things happened:

1. People who cared more about what I was giving them than they did about me — went away. It’s amazing how fast people’s true motives are revealed when you cut them off from what they were stealing from you.

2. People who loved me, changed. It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t seamless or easy, but those who really cared about staying in relationship with me changed the way they related to me. The best part is, many of them actually say they like me better now! Some of them say it’s like the real Ally came to life.

3. Even those who don’t know me treat me differently. It’s weird. It’s almost like I carry myself differently. I don’t have this figured out perfectly, but the feeling like I was a magnet or target for people who wreak havoc has disappeared.

It took me a long time to come to this place, probably about five years from the time I first started practicing “no” to the way I feel now — like I am not a victim to my circumstances or relationships, but that I’m a mutual participator in my life.

I only wish I would have started sooner.

• • •

What is one word you wish you would have started using sooner? Why?

Allison Vesterfelt

Allison Vesterfelt

This is a post by Allison Vesterfelt, one of the Storyline Contributors. Allison is a blogger and the author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage . You can find out more about her on her website and make sure to follow along on Twitter (@allyvest) for regular updates. To read more of her posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.