When you ask most people what advice they’d give to their younger self, you tend to hear a lot of words from the self-affirming end of the spectrum: be more confident; trust yourself; be proud of who you are; be true to your own beliefs. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
When Michelle Lee, a feature writer with New York’s Allure magazine, asked Dame Helen Mirren the same question as part of a press junket for her new movie The Leisure Seeker a couple of years ago, she was probably expecting something equally inclined to the gently persistent art of self-validation.
What she got instead was, in true Mirren style, something much more direct, though no less heartfelt:
“I’d advise her to tell people to fuck off more and stop being so bloody polite.”
Quite apart from the delicious sense of mischief that pervades her answer – behaving counter-intuitively to others’ expectations of her is, of course, a trait long associated with arguably the popular favourite among British theatrical royalty – there’s also a refreshing honesty in that response.
After all, you don’t become a pin-up for feminism by playing it safe with your public persona. And anyway, isn’t there a difference between going full Anglo-Saxon to strike a blow in the name of equality and opportunity, and simply being vitriolically boorish in a Russell Crowe kind of way?
When Mirren gave that response, she wasn’t talking about being pejorative for the sake of it. She was talking about having the balls to stand up and say ‘No’; to refuse to take the predictable, emasculatory bullshit that women the world over put up with every day – and that she put up with as a young actress setting out on her career; to call people out – men and women – for the unsavoury truth of how they behave or what they represent.
And I think that’s something from which we can all learn.
As another hero of mine, the novelist, satirist and poet Erica Jong, once said: ‘Women are trained to be uselessly nice.’ Except it’s not just women, of course. As Brits we have a whole cultural history of niceness that dates back to Tudor times and applies to the male and the female of the species equally.
Most of the things that we might define as being terribly British can also be defined as being terribly nice. Queueing. A disinclination to cause a scene. A morbid fear of being seen to complain. An expectation of an upper lip that’s as stiff as one’s collar.
Here in the UK, we’ve turned taking other people’s shit into an art form, and we certainly don’t tell people to fuck off when their narrow-minded purview conflicts with our broader sense of social acceptability.
At the risk of paging Captain Obvious, that doesn’t mean you should walk around being a grade-A 1980’s ass about everything. This isn’t a clarion call to ride the wave of an ongoing ego trip. Nor is it a call to arms to instantly develop a superiority complex – which in any event is nearly always an inferiority complex with a wig on. I’m a great believer in kindness, it’s an incredible life-hack and quite frankly the world needs far, far more of it. I’m also a believer that if being kind to someone else means being really unkind to yourself it’s an absolute no-go.
This is about boundaries. It’s about identifying what yours are, establishing them and then being brave enough to have the conviction to defend them.
I like to call this being ‘boundary-fit’.
Without ‘boundary fitness’ you’ll end up emotionally and/or physically spent, twisting yourself into a people-pleasing pretzel, potentially on-your-arse broke and in all sorts of situations that, if you took the time to properly assess and rationalise, you would never do in a million years.
Using a rare day off to carry cardboard boxes up and down 6 flights of stairs to help someone you don’t even like that much to move house? No. Tell them, metaphorically, to fuck off, instead.
Sleep with someone because you felt sorry for them and didn’t want them to ‘feel bad’? No. Tell them, metaphorically, to fuck off instead.
Listen to someone spouting the kind of misogynistic crap that wouldn’t seem out of place coming from the current occupant of the Oval Office? No. Tell them to fuck off. Literally.
And this boundary-setting needs to happen early in life. It’s the stuff we should be teaching our children because although, when we’re younger, we generally have energy to keep the corrosive effects of compulsive people-pleasing at bay (and we can shape the reasons why we do it into instantly more pleasing justification), it can chew you up hard as you get older.
I have got to the point in my life when I would rather have ‘honest conflict’ than ‘dishonest harmony’.
I talked earlier about our inclination toward phrases and thinking that is positively self-affirming, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong in living by principles of home-spun philosophy that keep you emotionally insulated.
But however much velvet you encase them in, your boundaries must be enforced with an iron fist and an iron will.
Because if the elephant in the room isn’t addressed – if you’re not true to yourself, to go back to a phrase I used earlier in this piece – then we can quickly find the elephant has become part of a herd that wreaks havoc on its stampede through your psyche
In a relationship with healthy boundaries, you often won’t have to set boundaries. I have many friendships and business relationships which have never required me to set a boundary. Yet I’ve had other relationships where boundary setting has been necessary. In those cases, after an initial wrangle, we’ve worked it out.
And then there have been the relationships where I’ve set a boundary, they’ve ignored it, I’ve reminded them or I’ve reneged because I felt guilty about setting a boundary (we women can be great at majoring in ‘feeling guilty’), and then the boundaries have been ridden over roughshod until I’ve run out of patience.
And then? Well, then I’ve had no option other than to be firm. And those are the times when it really is okay to tell people to fuck off.
That doesn’t mean you have to say the words. You can be gracious or you can do it by not responding or engaging. But when someone seriously violates your territory or constantly then anger is actually a wholly appropriate response, and clear, unequivocal language is absolutely necessary.
And yes, in some cases where someone won’t respect the line you’ve drawn then sometimes the boundary has to be: You are no longer in my life.
When is it okay to tell someone in no uncertain terms to cease and desist in their behaviour?
1. Anyone who tries to ram conspiracy theories down your throat are always ripe for direct communication. These people suck time and emotional space, have an inclination to infect your own sense of self, disrupt your moral and ethical compass and generally vacuum your goodwill. One thing we don’t need in this world of ours is more paranoia
2. The people who won’t listen to or abide by your polite, kind or gracious declinations of whatever it is they want, are selling or are angling for
3. Absolutely anyone who gives you unsolicited for advice on your life or body. Just point to the wastepaper bin and say: The suggestion box is over there
4. Anyone – and I mean anyone – who has shown themselves to be untrustworthy or disloyal to you. It’s perhaps obvious, but treachery says a good deal about how a person feels about you and the respect they have for you and your needs.
5. Anyone who tells you how you are feeling. It’s fine for someone to share how they feel with you, but when they presume to know how you feel and, worse, how you should feel, then there’s trouble in town.
6. Anyone who falls into all five previous categories. This is pretty much limited to politicians and high-interest loan companies.
A shorthand for deciding who should get your verbal hairdryer treatment is to pay attention to how they make you feel. If someone is making you feel something you don’t want to feel, then the chances are they’re overstepping a boundary.
At that point, set out the boundaries you want them to observe, ask them politely to observe them and, if they don’t? well you have my full permission to go all Helen Mirren on them and tell them to fuck off.