I Got Fired For Saying NO.
The very first time I said NO to a client, I got fired.
Picture this: South Philly, 2003. I was running my brand new dog walking business. I was 24 years old.
Boundaries were a hazy concept. When it came to my business, I had almost none.
If someone wanted to hire me, I took the job without hesitation and bent over backwards to accommodate their every request.
I did this because I was afraid of losing business.
But also because I wanted people to like me.
I was hustling for approval.
I wouldn’t have called it that back then. 24 year old me was simply offering “excellent customer service.”
But my sense of self-worth was tied into being liked by my clients and that, my friend, was not about customer service.
That was about my own worthiness, as a human being, becoming tied up in external validation.
I wanted to please everyone. But especially the people that were hard to please.
So when anyone wanted to pay me to take care of their pets, I said YES.
Even when my gut was ringing the drama-alarm, warning me not to take the job.
My gut set off a 10-alarm warning the day I met Maxine.
Maxine (not her real name) had a Chihuahua that couldn’t be touched. The dog walkers that she hired in the past were, according to Maxine, unreliable idiots. She wanted to hire me.
MY GUT: “Oh come on. You know the other dog walkers aren’t the issue, right? She’s the problem.”
Maxine said she heard that I was the best. That I was amazing with shy dogs. Would I please, please take care of her little guy?
MY GUT:“OMG. You’re not actually falling for this are you? Do not take this job!”
Maxine told me that sometimes it’s hard to find her dog, because he likes to hide in her giant piles of dirty laundry. She showed me the piles.
MY GUT: “GET OUT.”
I did not get out. I took the job.
My gut was NOT shocked when every boundary I tried to set with Maxine – my payment policies, my scheduling policies, my common-freaking-courtesy policies – were steamrolled.
She typically called me at the very last minute to pet sit. This drove me nuts. I complained about her a lot. Sometimes to her dog.
Then I had my first professional boundary breakthrough:
Maxine was never going to change her behavior. It worked for her. She got what she wanted.
I couldn’t change her, but I could change ME.
I could stop saying YES to her last minute requests. I could stop hustling for her approval.
It felt risky. But I vowed that the next time she called me to pet sit with zero notice, I would say NO.
So there I was, walking through the Italian Market on a sunny afternoon, when my cell rang.
Maxine needed me to pet sit for her.
She was already in her car, driving out of the city to see her brother.
The pet sitting job started right now.
I stared hard at a mural of cheese (this is South Philly) and drew strength from a giant wedge of Parmesan.
NO, I said, I’m not available.
The screaming began immediately.
I was terrible person, she said. I didn’t care about her.
I didn’t care about her dog. Or any animal.
I was greedy. I only cared about money.
I was an asshole. Now she couldn’t visit her brother.
Did I know he was a veteran? And sick?
Did I hate America?
Uh, NO. I stuffed a soft pretzel in my mouth to keep from folding.
Maxine, sensing her tactics weren’t working, turned to tears.
She thought we were friends.
She really depended on me.
She needed me.
NOPE. NOPE. NOPE.
And then she fired me. We never spoke again.
I had never said NO like that before. I had never been fired. I was both nauseous and exhilarated.
This was the day I began to love boundaries.
I said NO more often. It was hard and sometimes painful.
But it was worth it.
I learned a lot of important lessons during that time:
- No matter how much I give, it will never be enough for some people. I have to decide what “enough” looks like for me.
- I am responsible for my own behavior. I am not responsible for the choices other adults make.
- Sometimes my worst fears about setting boundaries do come true, but that doesn’t mean I made the wrong choice.
- I can survive being disliked and being fired.
- Difficult clients sap all of my energy, leaving me with less to give to my lovely, respectful clients (why am I punishing the good ones?!).
- I can have a thriving, fully-booked business AND take time off.
- Clients who truly value my services have zero problems respecting my limits.
- People absolutely KNOW what they are doing when they ignore my boundaries. I won’t make excuses for them or play their games.
But boundary work is never done.
When I started working in an animal shelter, my old boundaries weren’t enough. The stakes were higher and I struggled to set healthy limits. This led to burnout and compassion fatigue.
Since then I’ve worked hard at understanding and upholding my boundaries – learning new lessons about myself and what setting limits means for me in different situations.
I believe that boundary work is one of the best gifts you can give yourself.
You can’t take care of yourself without them.
And you can’t create healthy boundaries until you learn to listen to your gut and face your fears about setting limits.
Also, it helps to have a script.
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