As long as I remember myself I found it hard to say “no” to people – whether it was helping them with their school essays, giving endless rides, translating documents or taking care of their children. The list could go on and on – I just couldn’t bring myself to let anyone down. As nice as it is to help others, looking back I know a lot of it came at the expense of my own time, my own priorities and what I really wanted to do with my life. With time, I could see I was not alone and there were other people also living in a similar reality. So my questions became – how can we continue to give to others while also taking care of ourselves and how can we be ourselves at all times without building any resentment and without ruining any relationships.
Today I have invited to join our discussion someone who is truly passionate about helping people find the courage to be themselves. Cenk Matalon registered clinical counsellor and psychotherapist is here to share his insights with us.
- Is it safe to assume that inability to say “no” is a common problem?
- I believe it is pretty common. Most of us are not taught about healthy boundaries – our parents are not the best role models for this behavior and the school system doesn’t necessarily teach it either. It’s through pain and suffering that many people arrive at the understanding that something isn’t working in their life. Things frustrate us – we don’t speak up and in the meantime, we grow resentful. The other extreme is – we do speak up, but it comes across in a way that destroys our relationship. If we are not taught about healthy anger, we don’t know how to express ourselves the right way.
- Why is it so hard to say “no” – are we making ourselves feel better by always “being nice” or is it solely for the sake of others?
- It comes from our conditioning – it could be the culture we are brought up in, or it could be our gender. Women, for example, are more commonly expected to focus on helping others. It may also be influenced by our birth order. Maybe your mother needed help and as the eldest of 4 siblings you took on the responsibility. Children who grow up in these dynamics end up resenting their parents later in life. They might also have feelings of not having had a childhood – they feel they had to grow up too fast. Sometimes we are overly attached to the image we are trying to portray. It’s especially true for those of us who grew up receiving praise only when we helped others. It may have become our unconscious assumption that we are only liked when we are helping.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single reason because usually, it’s a combination of different reasons. When I work with a client, I help them see that what is not working in their life is the same thing that isn’t working in many other areas of their life. And by looking into their past, you will see that the pattern they show right now, may have persisted their whole life.
- What happens to us when we can’t bring ourselves to say “no”?
- If deep inside I want to say “no”, but I am saying “yes” instead, I am betraying my own truth, I am not being authentic. The long-term effect of this betrayal is catastrophic: I end up living a life of not who I really am. We have to find a way to connect with our core values, live in an alignment with them, and most importantly, communicate them to others. That’s when healthy anger can help. Who am I outside or everyone’s expectations? What do I want beyond what society wants from me? We need to find the answers to these questions so that we can create a life we truly enjoy.
- On our path to creating that life how can we teach ourselves to say “no” when needed?
- The shift has to happen on an emotional level. We have to address the root cause. There are three main emotions involved in this and we need to take a closer look at them – fear, shame, and anger. Maybe there is fear of hurting people – am I afraid of coming across as a callous person? Maybe I don’t think I deserve to express my needs? That comes from shame and guilt. Or maybe, when I do express my needs I start yelling and shouting – in that case, we have to work with unhealthy anger.
- Is this a skill we could teach others in our life as well?
- The best way to help others is to work on ourselves, become aware of our patterns and turn them around. That way we are teaching by example. Part of it is owning our patterns and not blaming anyone else for them. Otherwise, our energy goes outside instead of helping ourselves. It’s very empowering to look within and try to understand oneself. It’s not an easy or quick process – but it’s absolutely worth the time and energy we put into it in my opinion.
- What’s the #1 benefit of learning to say “no”?
- Think of it this way: if I don’t have the capacity to say a full, unapologetic “no”, then I will never be able to give a whole-hearted “yes” either. To be a trustworthy individual it’s a must to have that capacity. If people close to me got to know me as a person who can’t say “no”, then what happens when they ask me a really serious question and my answer is “yes”? Is it a definite “yes” or is it just another positive answer given to please them or to avoid conflict? We need to understand we cannot avoid all conflict in our relationships – or else those relationships become dead. They might look good from afar but this kind of harmony and peace are superficial. True connection makes room for healthy conflict and confrontation. This is how passion is kept alive. Conflict is embraced rather than avoided – this is not easy to do but absolutely necessary. Otherwise, we live half-lives, continuously betraying ourselves. We have to learn how to be real without being aggressive.
- So how can we create a balance between being a helpful person and setting healthy boundaries?
- Balance can be different for everyone – inside, each of us would feel the right balance for us. Prioritize your own needs and don’t think that doing so equals to being needy or selfish. For example, if you are tired, get some rest, show self- compassion and self-care. Prioritize yourself and don’t deplete yourself to give to others.
- Doesn’t it sound somewhat selfish?
- This is being selfish with wisdom, and not in an egotistic way. I am only helpful to the degree I can help myself. If we are always giving to the depletion of ourselves that leads to anxiety, depression, and stress – this is usually called burnout. Here is a little challenge for you and our readers – take a risk with someone close to you and be yourself in a moment when you normally wouldn’t. Make being real and honoring your true feelings more important than your desire to please them. This can be done in a respectful way. Instead of giving in to the other person’s expectation of you or your habitual pattern, do something different and see what happens.
Do you ever have a hard time saying “no” to people in your life and how do you achieve a balance between your own needs and helping others? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.