Are you one of those people that everyone depends on; one of those creatures who just cannot say ‘No’ when the cry for help comes your way, even when you desperately want to decline your services? Are you the ‘Go To’ person when other people’s lives are in a mess? Do you spend hours on the phone, at the kitchen table, or in the cafeteria at work listening to other people’s problems? Whenever there is conflict at home, between friends, or in the office, are you the one who goes to the trouble of attempting to patch up people’s relationships? Are you the type who stays late at the office to help other people out, the one that friends feel they can call in the middle of the night because their cat got stuck up a tree? Do you forget to nurture yourself? Or could it be that you never have time for such ‘selfish’ pursuits?
If you aren’t of this personality type, do you know someone who is? A friend, a family member, a work colleague? Are you the one who is secretly guilty of taking advantage of this person’s good nature, or could you be someone who has urged them to say ‘No’ sometimes, especially when things get out of hand? Whether you are the ‘Can’t Say No’ type, or an associate of one of these people, have you any idea how DANGEROUS this personality characteristic is to the health? Are you aware you can actually DIE from this disease?
Before we get into the hazards of the ‘Can’t Say No’ syndrome, let’s first take a look at the surface characteristics of these individuals, and then have a look at why they could be the way that they are. After suffering this condition myself for a number of years, having a mother and an army of aunties who can’t spell the word ‘NO’ let alone utter it, clients by the bucketload, one dead grandmother (only 59), a few dead friends, and a massive research history behind me, I feel more than qualified to share this information with you.
The surface behaviours of these individuals indicate a real desire to serve the needs of others without any reward; they are the ‘Mother Theresas’ amongst us (this includes the men!), and often they unwittingly make us feel guilty for not doing even a tenth of what they do for others. If you have one of these people in your life, you’ll notice how they quickly perceive the weaknesses in others and seek to assist in those areas. They possess the qualities of loyalty and tenacity, focusing all their energy on a person in need until they are satisfied that they have done all they can. Their sense of self-worth appears to lie in their support of others; they are good listeners and naturally empathetic, which is why we are drawn to them. They never seem to want anything for themselves, and trying to reward them is often difficult. They find it a million times harder to receive love than they do to give it, and most importantly, nurturing their own needs is always the last thing on their priority list.
But as you breathe a deep sigh of admiration for these people who do so much for others, I’m going to ask you to take a reality check. Life is never as it appears on the surface, and as a human race, we have a tendency to deal only with the superficial, ignoring at our peril, the ideas and beliefs which motivate absolutely all of our behaviours.
Human beings, I learned in my counselling career, are influenced to different degrees by these four fundamental fears: the fear of rejection, the fear of powerlessness, the fear of chaos and the fear of loneliness. The fears that predominate are matched to the beliefs that we carry about ourselves and the world. In someone who ‘Can’t Say No’ their fears are of rejection and loneliness, and beneath them are beliefs which look something like this:
* I am not good enough. * I must please others for acceptance. * I must serve others to be a good person. *if I say ‘no’ to people, they will reject me. * people will only love me if i do things for them. * I must do good to earn merit in society. * I am a victim of a cruel world. *This is a cruel world. * People are generally good or evil. * The world would be a better place once people start sharing. * It is selfish to think of myself. * I must always think of others before myself. * Seeking recognition is a sign of vanity. * It is selfish to complain about my lot. * Others do not want to hear my problems. * Other people’s problems are always worse than mine. * i must suffer to pay for my sins. * The meek will inherit the earth.
The truth then is this: people who ‘Can’t Say No’ are not just good people. They are in fact very frightened people. Am I asking you to see their behaviours as a bad thing? Absolutely not. They are loving behaviours, and they make for a better world, if only we knew how to strike the right balance. And when it comes to balance, people who ‘Can’t Say No’ don’t get it right. When the ‘Can’t Say No’ contingent become physically and mentally over-loaded by their sense of duty to others, and yet still find themselves unable to say ‘No’, resentment sets in. This unexpressed resentment (these people would NEVER complain) has many implications as it builds and builds in the body.
As you saw in my article on the mind/body connection, our beliefs influence the delicate balance of the body chemistry. Resentful thoughts become emotional responses (chemical reactions in the body) and only when we exchange these thoughts for healthier ones does the balance return. When our emotions are not acknowledged, they find a way to make themselves heard through illness.
My father was a womanizer, a sexual and physical abuser, and a weekend drunk. My mother (dedicated to not saying ‘No’) pretended she was happy. Her rage was internalized and she almost died of a perforated ulcer (hidden anger). She always suffered from heartburn, and body pain. She constantly suffered from sore throats and flu. She was a very angry mother to her children.
My grandmother’s resentment was deeply-rooted. She married into a different culture at a young age, became the family slave (cultural issues), feigned ignorance when her husband womanized, and had six children to a man whose only attention to his kids consisted of beatings. This culture ‘forced’ her to to play the ‘good’ woman, which meant she smiled through all the hardship, never said ‘No’, and she did this to perfection. She died of cancer at only 59 years of age.
A friend of mine for whom ‘No’ was a swear word, took over her mother’s role as family ‘head’, had four children, looked after her brothers’ children (she had four of those, with lots of kids each), kept house, worked like a drudge, took orders from her fanatically religious brothers who reduced the idea of fun to a sinful act, didn’t realize even one of her dreams, and died of breast cancer just like her mother did at exactly the same age (45).
I have so many other stories like these to tell, but if I wrote them all down here, you’d still be here next week. If you start observing them closely, you’ll see that the long-time ‘Can’t Say No’ sufferers in your life are not truly happy, and they are not healthy either. If they haven’t got serious illnesses, then they’ll have myriads of minor ailments that over time get more serious. So what is the answer here? The obvious answer is to tell them to ‘Just Say No’, but then you’re talking to someone who has deep underlying beliefs about their own lack of self-worth. The solution is to start as I did, with a very simple process, which, as results are seen, brings changes to the belief structures of the person who ‘Can’t Say No’.
The process I show below is one used in assertiveness workshops, and is a very useful tool to people who do not like to hurt others, want to show love and respect, but need to say ‘No’ at the same time. After I started using it, everything changed. I still kept most of my friends (some went, but then those who used me were never friends anyway) and I started to feel better about myself. There are three distinct phases to the conversation:
I UNDERSTAND/I’M SORRY…
MAY I SUGGEST/WHY DON’T YOU…
Here’s how my conversations went in my past life as a ‘Can’t Say No’ sufferer:
Friend: Hey Yaz, could you babysit tonight? I know its short notice, and you’re always so good…
Yaz: I’m sorry (kindness) you can’t find a babysitter, but I can’t do it tonight, as I’m just so tired (you give your reason and you take care of your own health). May I suggest that you (make a suggestion: be helpful) ask your sister, since she lives just next door? I know she’s free this evening.
Friend: But she’s not as good with the kids as you are, and she’s got her own life. I’d much rather you were there. You could rest up with the kids and watch TV or something.
Yaz: I understand that the children love me, and I love them. However (nice way of leading to ‘No’) I’m tired and want to spend time with my husband (repeat your message). Why don’t you call your mother, or if you can’t find a sitter, tell yourself it’s meant to be and go out another night.
Friend: Okay, Yaz.
Not all so-called friends will hear ‘No’ at first. Not if they’ve never heard it spill from your mouth. So you’ll have to be persistent. And some will be downright pushy, like this:
Friend: Tell your husband he can come too. I’ll buy his favourite beer.
Yaz: I understand how much going out this evening means to you, however it means a lot to me to stay home with my husband and get a good night’s sleep. I really hope you find a sitter. Good luck.
Friend: What’s the matter? You never say no to baby-sitting. Have I said something? Have I done something? You’re making me feel bad, Yaz!
Yaz: I’m sorry if you feel this way, but you shouldn’t. I love you a lot and this isn’t personal. But I realize that I also need to look after myself. I’m important too, and I sometimes forget that. I know you’ll understand.
Using this process, and following the steps outlined in my last article which demonstrated how to identify and work with your beliefs, will be the start of your healing journey. That is, of course, if you are a ‘Can’t Say No’ casualty! Remember that all of us are human beings with the fundamental human right to be loved, be respected, be heard and be valued. We all have the right to say ‘No’ even if we don’t have a reason. I learned that if I didn’t want to be treated like a doormat, then I shouldn’t send out the message to people that I’d do anything for them at the cost of my own well-being. The people who truly love us, love us for who we are and not for what we do for them. It’s a hard concept to believe for some, but if we look for the evidence, the truth will reveal itself.
And if you find it perfectly easy to say ‘No’, make sure you know how to hear it from others too! Please pass this on to the people in your life who need it. You may just end up saving their lives.