The anxiety starts in my chest and then blooms, smothering my lungs and filling my belly: a guy has just asked me out. Oh no, I think, panicked. Am I interested? How do I turn him down?
I’m not a character in a preteen novel, with butterflies in her stomach because she’s never been asked on a date. It’s definitely not my first rodeo. I have, however, had bad experiences of being asked out by men who couldn’t take no for an answer — including one guy who harassed me online for two years after I declined a date with him. With 81 percent of women having experienced some kind of sexual harassment, I’m definitely not alone in this anxiety.
But even for people who haven’t experienced harassment, turning someone down can be pretty, well, awkward. Walking the line between clarity and tact can feel like a serious high-wire act. This can be especially true for women, who are often trained to prioritize other people’s feelings over our own boundaries.
So what’s a person to do? To find out, I consulted the experts: Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., an Ohio-licensed professional clinical counselor and Talkspace therapist, and Olivia Harris, a consent educator and Incoming Executive Director of Speak About It, a nonprofit group that uses performance to educate high school and college students about consent.
Here’s what they had to say about why turning down someone’s romantic attention can be so darn tricky, and how you can learn to assert your boundaries with grace and aplomb.
Saying “No” Can Be Difficult
Whether we’re asking someone out or turning someone down, most of us want to be kind. “The vast majority of people don’t want to be jerks or hurt somebody,” says Olivia Harris.
However, harmful cultural messages about gender and consent, like the idea that a woman’s “no” is sometimes a coquettish “yes,” can make turning down a date particularly difficult for women, whose “no’s” often aren’t listened to or respected. These cultural messages often result in the expectation that women should be responsible for making other people feel good, even at the expense of our own boundaries.
“Feminine people are taught to read the room and do the emotional caretaking of everyone’s feelings,” Harris says.
Dr. Rachel O’Neill agrees. “Often times, people, and women in particular, are socialized to put others’ feelings above their own,” she says.
Practice Articulating Your Boundaries
In the face of these cultural messages, saying “no” can take some practice.
It may feel uncomfortable at first, but according to Dr. O’Neill, a little discomfort is worth it. “I’m a big fan of embracing the awkwardness,” she says.
When it comes to turning someone down, Dr. O’Neill advises embracing the awkward by simply being direct. “First and foremost, your primary responsibility is to firmly establish that you’re not interested,” she says. O’Neill also suggests simply saying that you appreciate their interest, but don’t feel the same way.
Like everything else in life, practice makes perfect. Dr. O’Neill suggests practicing saying no in lower-stakes situations: not answering a non-urgent work email after hours, for example, or asking to reschedule when you don’t feel like going out to dinner with friends. That way, when faced with a more high-pressure situation, you’ll feel more comfortable expressing exactly what you’re comfortable with.
Consent isn’t just about saying “yes” or “no” to someone else’s suggestions, it’s also about knowing yourself and what you want. From dating to sex, “you have to learn how to drive your own car,” Olivia Harris says.
You can reflect on your own desires and boundaries by journaling, talking with friends or a therapist, or using a “Yes, No, Maybe” checklist like this one from sexual health website Scarleteen. Knowing what you want out of dating and sex, before you find yourself in a flirty situation, can help you figure out whether you really want to go on a date with that cutie at the bar.
Finally, no matter the romantic situation, you always have the right to say no, and to have that “no” respected.
Learn to Accept Rejection
Learning how to reject someone is just one half of the equation. What about the person who’s getting rejected?
Dealing with rejection is an important part of consent. By shifting the onus of respectful behavior from the person being asked out to the person doing the asking, Harris says, we can establish interactions based on healthy consent. This can help take the pressure of navigating boundaries off of women.
Because of cultural stereotypes around masculinity and consent, this can be a particular challenge for men. “The first step is teaching folks to listen and respect other people’s boundaries,” says Harris, “I think particularly what we’re seeing over and over again is men and masculine folks are not recognizing when they’re hitting boundaries — they’re not taught to.”
To change these attitudes, Harris advocates flipping the script from understanding someone’s “no” as a challenge to viewing it as a boundary that needs to be respected. That requires viewing the other person as a complete human being, rather than viewing them through the lens of our desires. It also requires learning not to take rejection too personally.
Quoting a line from Speak About It’s performance, Harris says, “If you’re the person who’s asking and gets rejected, we can guarantee you it might hurt, but you won’t burst into flame.”
Better Communication Leads to Better Relationships
Learning how to articulate and respect boundaries isn’t just important in turning someone down, it’s fundamental to healthy relationships.
After all, if someone asking you out won’t take no for an answer, they probably won’t be a very respectful partner. Conversely, being able to communicate your own boundaries isn’t just helpful with people you don’t want to date, it’s a fundamental skill in building healthy relationships with the people you do want to date.
For Dr. Rachel O’Neill, learning to embrace the awkward and express our boundaries clearly, even when that means navigating rejection, is key to romantic happiness. “After all,” she says, “aren’t all great relationships built on communication?”