Taking “No” For An Answer

Saying “no” can be enourmously difficult and there are even books to teach people the skill. For example the book by Sarah Knight “F**k No! is a bestseller that provides extensive information on the subject and may have helped many people to become confident in saying “no”

However, as difficult as it may be, when learning to say “no” it is also important to learn to take “no” from other people and, trust me, this one is a real challenge. Over the years of my practice as a psychotherapist I have observed that precisely the people who struggle to say “no” would also struggle greatly to take “no” from others. Such difficulty may present as fear of rejection and raise feelings of resentment, anger, sadness and cause a person to shut down and withdraw from a relationship. Anyhow, “no” is the word we don’t want to say and equally, don’t want to hear.

Anne,33 is a long term client of mine. She is always stressed, highly anxious woman. She puts a lot of effort into her relationships, always trying to please people, which is quite an impossible task, inevitably causing her more stress and feeding her anxiety. She says “yes” to almost everything. She overextends and exhausts herself, trying to be there for many people, trying to convert many people into close friends, but after repeated attempts she wonders why she is always the one who tries too hard. In short, Anne is a classic example of a “people pleaser” described in the Knight’s book. Hint: you don’t need to read the book to know exactly who a “people pleaser” is.

As our therapy with Anne continues, it becomes clear that learning to say “no” for her is simply not enough to tackle the problem. Of course, she can practice creating healthy boundaries in relationships, or practice to say “no” and limit her commitments to healthier levels, thus reducing her stress levels. However, the underlying fear of losing a relationship, missing out on something, or feelings of guilt remain strong. Essentially these fears will continue to drive Anne to saying “yes” more often than “no”. Humans try to avoid uncomfortable feelings at all costs, so in most cases, saying “yes” is just easier than tolerating the fear rising in our gut every time someone asks for something or invites us somewhere.

So how do we lessen, or better, remove the fear completely and free Anne from its unnecessary and ugly grip? Apart from a classic psychoanalytic exploration of her childhood experiences, which probably left her feeling insecure about herself and gave her an implicit idea that she needs to work hard to earn friendships and love, we turn to explore Anne’s own responses to rejection as they happen now, in her current adult life. Fear of saying “no”, i.e. rejecting someone, usually mirrors a person’s own fear of rejection, and our fear of hearing a “no” from someone else is exactly that.

Anne is just an example and a devised character of millions of people who struggle with the same problem. So, to help these people tackle the underlying fear of “no”, like I say, let’s turn towards their own fear of rejection and explore it further. What is the meaning of rejection for people? Why so many of us strongly fear it or, to say the least, dislike it. Furthermore, many of us don’t even ask for things for fear of hearing a “no”, many of us do not extend invitations to friends or colleagues or family, for the same fear of being rejected.

Why is that and how is it connected to adverse childhood experiences?

REJECTION MEANS I AM NOT WORTHY

In a “normal” scenario, babies are born into the world being warmly welcomed. As they are growing up they learn healthy “no” and healthy “yes” because parents and other caregivers do not repeatedly abuse or neglect or reject them. Thus rejection never raises a feeling of being unwanted and unloved. In an unhealthy situation where a parent is unable to provide adequate care and be adequately responsive to the needs of a child, we grow up bombarded by “no”, continuously dismissed and shut down. Later on in adult life, if we feel hopeful about a new friendship and our new friend rejects our invitation, we may be tempted to withdraw from friendship altogether, because a simple “no” is hard to tolerate. We immediately tend to assume that the person does not value us and abandon the relationship.

REJECTION MEANS I ASK TOO MUCH

We are born small needy and helpless, and we depend on other adults who provide ongoing care and assistance for several years until we are able to look after ourselves. In a family where children are not nurtured and supported enough, children tend to grow up fast and become independent in a young age. Later these adults are able to pride themselves on their independence, but they often have difficulty asking for favors. Hearing “no” is too hard. They avoid it as it is much easier to stay silent and help yourself than ask. How many people suffer in silence when they are unwell or simply need help but do not want to “burden” their friends!

REJECTION MEANS I HAVE NO CONTROL

Children of malfunctioning families, where they encounter abuse and neglect inevitably experience overwhelming sense of being in no control over their lives. They literally have no way of helping themselves or changing their lives for the better as they are simply underaged and cannot assist themselves until they grow older. As these children become adults, they often carry the need for control into adulthood and need for control becomes a strong feature of their personality.

Needless to say these people would hate hearing “no” from others. “No” from others shows the reality of how little control we have in our lives. We can do our best to work, study and move forward, but when we get a “no” in repose to an application, a promotion, a friend’s request, it is truly crushing.

Overall I find that working with hearing “no” from others and taking risks of rejection is what works best for people who want to become more assertive themselves. The world is ultimately very rejecting and not friendly, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid and hide from it. On the contrary, standing strong, taking “no” gracefully, continuing to strengthen relationships around us, despite their limitations is the true strength of character we can develop. Perhaps, read the book by Sarah Knight and think again!

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