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I often find myself in the following situation: a friend from work asks to borrow an object, such as a book or my bike or a piece of jewelry they might have seen me wear or money, to pay for food if we are eating out, for instance. I intensely dislike lending my possessions to others. Until recently, however, I always agreed to lend these things, and it would turn out they would forget to return to it, or return it much later than promised, or forget to give me a heads-up that they would return it later than promised, etc. It would make me very uncomfortable to ask them for that object back: I also observed that after such an interaction, that friend wouldn't initiate any conversations with me anymore.

I will admit that despite detesting lending my stuff, I did/do it because I want to be liked by others. I am looking for suggestions on how to handle the situation the next time someone asks for something, where my goal is to balance 1) being liked 2) saying no 3) not having to lie about why I don't want to lend something.

More context: I am in my early thirties and in grad school, and most of my friends are in their early twenties, having come here straight from undergrad. I also want to add that there are some things I am extremely generous for: I will happily share food I make, bring baked goods for friends, spend several hours helping people out with parts of their research that I am more of an expert on than them, sit in on their practice talks, listen to and give advice on any "life" issues they might ask advice for, etc. It's just things like my textbooks, bike, money, and clothes -- in other words, my material possessions -- that I strongly dislike lending.

We are all based in the USA, in northern California, if it matters.

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  • My first thought was, if you tried to just say no and they wouldn't like you any more, of course you'd loose the people you spend your time with. But this is pressure for you that puts you into an uncomfortable situation, so if they reacted this way would they really be friends to you? – puck Jun 7 '20 at 7:49
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    You said "until recently" you always said yes. That implies that recently you've been saying no. How have you been doing so, and what about that method hasn't worked? – Kat Jun 7 '20 at 20:38
  • @Kat I loaned something to a friend, and she promised to return it by a certain time on a certain day. An hour before the promised time, I texted her confirming she'd be there; to that, she replied that she was going to be delayed and would only be able to make it five hours after the promised time. To me, this was quite disrespectful; I understand delays can happen, but the onus is then on her to say it up front to me (and not wait for me to ask). So I replied, "I would have appreciated a heads-up about the delay, since you had promised X time". (continued...) – user1096863 Jun 8 '20 at 3:47
  • (continued...) Later, when we met, I felt guilty for having said what I said, and apologized to her. I now feel I shouldn't have had to apologize at all. It wasn't my fault in any way! So, what I meant was, "until recently, I would have simply let it go". But this time, I didn't, I called her out (very politely, imo), and even that made me feel terrible. – user1096863 Jun 8 '20 at 3:47
  • So, I want to learn how to be able to either say no or say yes and be firm about the time/logistics for return or say yes and, if they delay, then be able to assert that I am displeased with their behaviour, without feeling guilty about it. – user1096863 Jun 8 '20 at 3:48
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Your best approach here is to be honest but keep it about yourself instead of the other person:

I'm sorry, but it's my personal policy to not lend anything I'd be unhappy giving as a gift, and I wouldn't be happy to give this away, so I can't lend it to you.

A polite person will let it go at that, but if they try to insist you explain why or talk you into making an exception, follow up with something like this:

I'm really sorry, and this may sound a bit silly, but it causes me too much anxiety worrying about whether I'll get my item back as agreed. Even though I fully believe you have every intention of returning it, unexpected things outside of our control happen all the time. It'd put a strain on our friendship even if you did nothing wrong, and I don't want that.

There's nothing they can argue here or take offense to, because it's all about how you feel and not about whether they're trustworthy or not. I use this justification when people want to borrow my car. I tell them, "I'm sure you're a great driver, but what if it gets wrecked through someone else's fault?" They know they can't promise that won't happen, because they can't control it.

To soften the "no" and show your desire to help, suggest an alternative if you can. If they want to borrow your book, you could offer to let them use it while they're at your place, help them find a library that has it available, copy/take pictures of specific pages, etc.

For money instead of items, you can simply say "I don't have X dollars to lend, I'm sorry." If they insist that surely you do, just state that you don't. It's not a lie, you don't have that many dollars you're willing to give away, and that's the risk you take when you lend money. You don't need to give them that whole explanation though, just say you don't have it.

They probably won't be completely satisfied, but most reasonable people won't hold it against you unless you're refusing to lend things that most people would give as gifts. So if someone asks to "borrow" fifty cents or a pencil or that sweater you haven't worn in five years, just hand it over and mentally consider it a gift. If they do return it, great! If not, it won't occupy your mind or cause resentment, because you never expected it back anyway.

Note I said reasonable people won't hold it against you. However, there are unreasonable people out there who will ask to borrow multiple things from you, never return them, then throw a fit about you not trusting them or caring enough to help the best time they ask. It can be very difficult to say no to those people, but it helps if you keep in mind that they're using your good will against you, and you are doing nothing wrong. Stay firm, keep it about yourself, and don't justify it beyond the statements above. Agree with whatever they say and repeat that you won't lend it:

Of course I trust you, but I don't lend this item out, even to people I trust.

Yes, your friendship is important to me, but I don't lend this out even to my best friends.

I understand you badly need the book, but I can't lend you mine.

Regardless of what you say or how reasonably they react, you will probably still feel guilty at first. That should lessen as you realize people will accept it and still like you. It was a hard thing for me to do at first too, but it does get easier with practice.

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    I really love this response, and it is what I am going to use. It is 100% honest, it will ensure that I don't have to part with my stuff, and it (probably) ensures that I won't be disliked. Thank you, Kat!! Thank you also for sharing that you too felt guilty saying no at first. I am hoping I can get used to that feeling and eventually be free of it. – user1096863 Jun 8 '20 at 23:50
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The whole movement of "saying no" is overrated and quite robotic. Most people with actual human interactions have to deal with pettiness that their fellow humans exhibit when things aren't going their way. It's very okay that you're aware saying no can alienate you or make people dislike you. It's unfortunate but that's the world we live in.

I hardly say no to friends and family. What I do is I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, sometimes even more than once. My conscience is more important than the actual feeling others have about any transaction that ensued. So if I feel I've done my own part in a kind and thoughtful manner, and they reciprocated likewise, then we're all good. But if they reciprocate otherwise, then I'm still good, but then I know the kind of person they are, and I can safely refuse to help in the future without feeling bad. But this is where discretion comes in as sometimes you'll need to give certain people more than one chance. Don't worry you'll know which people.

But in the case where you have to say no, then here's my suggestion based on what I did recently. A friend asked to stay in my guest room for at least 3 months, this is what I did:

  1. I met in a restaurant, we caught up and had a drink
  2. I explained truthfully why I couldn't help
  3. I offered to go over other options
  4. I expressed sincerely that I was sorry I couldn't help
  5. I went home with a clear conscience, and I think they're not pissed at me too

That was a big ask, but the point still remains - explain why you cant help and if you know of a way that might help, offer it. It's not your responsibility to offer explanations, but it's your own responsibility to take care of your own emotional health. And there are people like us who aren't hard enough to say no and carry on with life normally, I find explanations and exploring other avenues with the person helps a lot.

Most likely the person understands, and you're all good. But if they hate you for this, then you've done your best and you can still be happy with yourself knowing you treated them respectfully and kindly. At this point you've known the kind of person you're dealing with.

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