This is very confusing for a child, and sets us up for a lifetime of confusion about how to set appropriate boundaries. It could be the boss or co-worker who “just assumes” you’ll do extra work. It could be the father or uncle who keeps making inappropriate remarks. It can be ongoing physical abuse from a spouse or lover. It can be a friend's unreasonable expectations. Those of us who were abused often find it hard to say no or to draw a line.
First I think it’s important to identify and understand what we are feeling. In me, it’s the helpless voice of my inner child that says, “There’s nothing you can do. He’ll get his way. You have no power.” I remember a time when I had obtained a huge grant for my department. A male colleague stepped into my office to ask for money, and as he towered over me, I felt afraid that I’d have to say yes, even though objectively I had the power in that situation. I felt small and shaky inside, although in fact I handled the exchange professionally.
After we identify the old feelings, we can begin to realize that we are no longer powerless and to take the steps to say no. I start by talking with my inner child and reassuring her that things are different now. However, I’m not saying it’s as easy as a simple inner conversation turning things around. It usually takes the long-term help of a good therapist as well as some serious inner transformation before we can stand up and “just say no” to those who violate our boundaries.