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Learning to say no – the conceptual underpinnings

Do you know this situation: Someone is asking you for a favour, and your initial gut feeling tells you to say no but you still find yourself saying yes? What is going on there? Many clients tell me about similar scenarios. Often, they explain their behaviour by calling themselves 'people pleasers'. As some of you may be able to guess: I don't particularly like this label. It has a negative connotation for me, especially when it is served with an apologetic smile. And I feel my inner lioness roaring whenever I see my clients making themselves small! So, let's try to unpack this: What may be driving us in a given situation to say yes when we want to say no?


Based on a range of client conversations I have had over the years, a number of different factors can be at play. Personality differences seem to be a major one. Research shows that a large section of the population is relationship orientated and may prioritize getting on well with the people around them over other needs such as being right or being successful. Time and time again, clients tell me how a genuine word of praise or recognition, close friendships with colleagues or the chance to coach or mentor someone can make their work more meaningful than a promotion or pay rise. In the context of this relationship orientation, saying yes to a request from a friend or colleague, even if we already feel overloaded, may fit into the bigger picture of deepening relational bonds, expanding our social network or getting energy and motivation from helping others and experiencing their gratitude.


Our upbringing is another important factor. In a multitude of ways, the families and cultures we grow up in teach us a range of values. It is often only when we are confronted with a different environment that challenges these values that we become aware of them. Birth order also plays a major role. As the oldest child, we are often expected to be a role model for younger siblings and may even take on a parental role. With such responsibility being handed to us at an early age, we may learn to put our own needs to the back. We may have learned that we are expected to say yes when a younger sibling or a parent needs our help.


In school, we may be told that sharing is caring and that it is important to be kind and helpful to others. This is all the more emphasized by different faiths that promote generosity and self-sacrifice. Just to make it clear, I am all for generosity and sharing with others, especially when we have more and others have less, but I am also for not giving up on ourselves in the process. How often have I heard clients tell me that we mustn't be selfish and that we need to aspire to selflessness – whatever that means exactly...

I would like to argue that there is no such thing as complete selflessness and that whatever we do, we are getting something out of it. So, let's be honest about what that is. I start: As a therapist, I am getting a lot out of making a positive contribution to people's lives. Helping people find a way out of crisis and difficulty and seeing them blossom and recognize their potential makes me feel good about myself. It enables me to combine my values and beliefs with my work and gives purpose to my life. However, I also believe that I can only be a good therapist if I take very good care of myself.


Self-care is a particularly hot topic in the helping professions, and understandably so. Who is caring for the carer? is a question we often ask in the therapeutic community, and it is also a question I like to put to my clients. Whether we are caring in a professional or personal capacity, such as looking after children or an elderly family member, unless we also give some care and consideration to ourselves, we are likely to run out of steam pretty quickly. And how can we be mentally and emotionally available to those who depend on our care when we are continuously going beyond our limits and using up all of our inner resources?


Especially for those people who are inclined to consider others before themselves, I like to put forward the Buddhist concept that everyone is of equal value. This concept implies that every human being has the same right to exist and be happy, irrespective of their ability, age, race, gender, worldview or position in society. This includes ourselves. For some, this may sound straightforward, for others, this may be a difficult concept. Either way, I would like to encourage you to reflect on your own conceptual stance. If we subscribe to this view, we are able to consider our own needs not before or behind but alongside the needs of others.


If we acknowledge that we have needs and that we are getting something out of what we do, the focus tends to shift from the external to the internal. Rather than chasing what we imagine others expect of us or blaming our environment for our problems, we start to become more honest with ourselves and notice that many of our struggles actually reside within us. It then often becomes a case of weighing up our needs for relational harmony or living in accordance with our values with our other needs, for example those for sleep, exercise or alone time.


Wherever you trace the roots of your struggle to say no, understanding the conceptual underpinnings is crucial. For instance, if I am holding a hierarchical view of society that gives priority to certain groups of people, for example based on their gender, class or age, this will of course influence my ability to say no to representatives of these groups. Similarly, if I have been accused of selfishness in the past when considering my own needs, it will be very hard for me to do so now when being asked for help.


Once I have a better understanding of the factors that influence my ability to say no, I can decide what I would like to do with this insight. Maybe I accept that certain values or beliefs are so ingrained and dear to me that I will continue to prioritize corresponding requests for help. If that is the case, I may still wish to consider if there are any limits to my willingness to give. Maybe I notice a contradiction between my philosophical stance and how I am behaving towards others in everyday life, and I decide that I would like to change this. And maybe I come to the conclusion that certain views are more those of my parents or the culture I grew up in and no longer correspond with my own position. Whatever the outcome of this reflection, understanding opens the door to change, even if the only things I may be willing to let go of are dismissive labels or apologetic smiles.


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