It’s okay to say ‘no.’ Choose when to say ‘yes.’

“All the mistakes I ever made were when I wanted to say ‘No’ and said ‘Yes.'” — Moss Hart

“But, if I say ‘no’ they won’t like me!” Julie recently told me.  We discussed what makes it hard for her to say ‘no.’  She told me it is her responsibility to put everyone else’s needs before hers.  I asked if she feels the need to please others before taking care of herself may have anything to do with the current addiction she is suffering from. She noted that she hadn’t thought about it before.

The need to please others is something that is common, especially in females.  While there are many reasons why clients have a hard time saying ‘no,’ one of the most common reasons I hear is that they believe friendship is based on doing things for other people.  There is a belief that the friendship isn’t really about being with a person, but is more a way to get needs met. They look for people that can give them what they need and then do favors for them, expecting to get their own needs met.  For people who don’t drive, they may befriend a person with a vehicle.  They start doing favors and giving the person things so that they can get the ride when they need it.  This ‘banking of favors’ does not usually end well.  Often, when they have a need and expect the favor in return, it is met with rejection.  Since they have based the friendship on balancing of needs, when they are let down by someone they end the friendship and go looking for someone else who will be able to meet their needs.  This becomes a perpetual problem.

Another reason is that they feel their needs are secondary to other people.  They justify how their children’s or spouse’s needs are more important than theirs.  Minimizing their own needs leads to resentment.  When they do express a need and it is rejected there is a reinforcement that their needs are not important enough to be met.  One of the things I discuss is how in a healthy family system, everyone’s needs are equal.  There can be negotiation and compromise, but denial of anyone’s needs is never acceptable.  When someone has sacrificed their needs for the family it is often difficult to start saying ‘no.’  One of the things I discuss is starting to set better boundaries with other people.  Boundaries are not cutting people off, but are new agreements that can get made between two people.  It is respecting the new agreement so that everyone’s needs are met.

When I worked with Julie, one the things I had her work on was to set a goal to make at least one person mad each day.  If she made more than one person mad in a day that was a bonus!  I asked her to consciously choose whether she wanted to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  It took a lot of courage for her to start saying ‘no.’  She told me that after I gave her this challenge, she got a call from her brother asking her to babysit her niece.  She told me she had other plans, but before would have rearranged her plans.  She got up the courage to say ‘no,’ fully expecting him to be mad at her.  She discussed how surprised she was that he just said, ‘okay.’  It was empowering for her to realize that he still liked her!

Setting boundaries and choosing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is a gift to yourself.  Other people will respect you more when you negotiate agreements to get everyone’s needs met.  Don’t be afraid to say ‘no.’  People will still like you!

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