Culture

A guide to rejecting people respectfully

Sex educator Karen B.K. Chan on how to turn people down directly and why it's important.

Sex educator Karen B.K. Chan on how to turn people down directly and why it's important

Not all people want the same things. Therefore, rejection is a necessary part of social life. This is obvious in the abstract, but on an interpersonal level some people are so uncomfortable rejecting others that they'll, procrastinate, or even go along with things they don't want just to avoid having to say, "I'm not interested."'

Sex educator Karen B.K. Chan, recently featured in the CBC Docs series Brief but Spectacular, thinks that avoiding rejection doesn't help anyone. It's awkward for the person doing the rejecting and it's disrespectful to the person being rejected. We talked to her about why rejecting others can be so difficult and she broke down some of the strategies most people use to avoid it, then gave us some advice on how to get over our discomfort and learn to reject people responsibly and respectfully. 

Why we avoid rejecting people and the ways we often choose to do it

Part of the reason that rejecting people is difficult is that it's likely to hurt them. "Witnessing somebody in pain is very difficult," says Chan, "especially when that pain is connected to something you do or to something you feel or something you don't feel but wish you could." 

In addition to the unpleasantness of witnessing other humans in pain, there's also the guilt. Many people feel very uncomfortable when anyone around them is unhappy, especially if they're the cause of that unhappiness. Such people "take on [other people's emotions] and they believe that they are a really terrible person for not liking someone that likes them," says Chan.  This tendency is especially common in women, says Chan, and "is connected to the feeling that 'I want to be good and nice and well-received, and if I do anything disagreeable, then I'm not nice.'"

According to Chan, some of the most common strategies for avoiding these uncomfortable feelings are:

Procrastination: Perhaps today isn't the right time, but postponements can add up. "Some people stay in marriages they don't want to be in for 20 years, because their spouses' feelings would be hurt," Chan says.

Avoidance: This is when people reject the person, but then avoid explaining or talking about it at all costs. "They'll say: 'There's no reason,' 'It's not you,' 'I don't want to talk about it anymore,' 'It's too hard to see you,'… or they just disappear to avoid having to engage at all," says Chan.  

Dissociation: It's also common for people to shut down and dissociate when they're rejecting someone, often becoming excessively formal with the people they're rejecting. Chan says they become like an awkward doctor giving a difficult diagnosis.

Over-rationalization: In order to prove to themselves that they're totally justified in rejecting someone and, therefore, not a bad person, some people "over-rationalize and come up with 22 reasons why they have to do it," says Chan.  

Lying: Often, this means giving someone a reason for rejecting them that is a "good" reason, but not true. People might say "I already have a partner" because saying "No, thank you. I'm not interested" is too difficult. 

Sabotage: "Sometimes people will sabotage their relationships. That way I don't have to break up with you, because you'll break up with me," says Chan.

Blame: Another common tactic is to blame the rejected person. "They make it about the other person. They say 'it's your fault,'" says Chan.

Say "yes" when they mean "no": In some cases, they find they hate saying "no" so much that they will go along with things they'd actually rather not do. This is often combined with blaming others for making it hard for them to say "no".

Some of these strategies (blame, sabotage, over-rationalization), try to deal with the guilt of rejecting someone by foisting it on the other person. Others (lying, avoiding, sabotage, etc.), attempt to hide or mitigate the fact of rejection. None face-up to the simple but uncomfortable fact that one person doesn't want what the other person wants them to.

Even though people tell themselves they're trying to spare the other person's feelings, Chan thinks that dishonesty makes things more difficult for both parties. This is especially true in existing relationships. "When we deceive people in any kind of relationship," says Chan, "it puts a wedge between us… I start to watch what I say. I start to distance myself from you emotionally." Trying to protect them from the truth also denies their agency. "People are resilient. When we take responsibility for their feelings for them, we deny them agency in their own lives. The truth already is what it is," says Chan,  "I don't have the power to protect you from it. I can only drag it out."

You're going to break hearts, so get used to it

Rejecting people is necessary to maintain personal boundaries and control over one's own life. Not wanting what someone else wants does not make you a "bad person." "The truth is that you're bound to hurt people's feelings," says Chan. "Don't do it on purpose. Don't do it for the hell of it. But you can't avoid it, so deal with it responsibly." 

Chan's primary piece of advice is "Tell the truth." Don't procrastinate or dissimulate. Don't get angry at them for being more interested in you than you are in them. Try to tell people what you (don't) want clearly, slowly, and stick around long enough to be sure they got the message. Unless they don't want you to stick around, says Chan, then don't.

If rejection doesn't come naturally to you, practice. "My tolerance for that moment when that guilt starts to rise has to be built," says Chan, "I can't rationalize my way out of it." Simply knowing in your mind that not liking someone is no reason to feel guilty doesn't always make it easier to tell them. If you find saying "no" difficult, Chan suggests: "Practice telling the truth in small ways. If someone offers you something you don't want, say that you don't want it instead of taking it and then throwing it out behind their back." Eventually, you'll be able to tell that live-in partner you can't stand to start looking for another place. 

Chan says that learning to deal with other people's pain will actually improve the relationships that are important to us. "Witnessing somebody who's in pain is… one of the most important skills for connection. You can't be very connected to me or anyone if you can't face that reality." 


Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.

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