Just Say No

As I write this post today, a family walks by the window. Mother, father, a baby in a stroller, and a small girl - a toddler, are walking to the lake. My concentration is broken by the girl sobbing loudly, "I don't wanna go!" She cries from her depth about her preference, no shame, censoring, or worry about what others will think. The parents bend down to attend to her, hopefully in a way that does not shame her attempts to establish autonomy. Unfortunately, we learn at a very young age that saying no is not acceptable in certain circumstances. We learn that stating our preference is perceived as selfish, contentious, or narcissistic. We learn that the truth of our distress is best contained within a socially acceptable package. Of course, children do need to learn about adjusting to disappointment and frustration, and they need to learn to stay away from the hot stove, but it is clear that issues of autonomy and authenticity develop very early. Can we say no and still be loved? Can we object, knowing that others might feel rejected? A child is dependent on her guardians for survival. In some families, it is not safe to say no, often because the parent takes it personally. They see their child as an extension of themselves, and so when the child resists or objects to what the parent asks, they cannot see the person in front of them, only an aspect of themselves, and the power struggle begins.

I am not talking about the no that accompanies the resistance that comes with pathological control and authority issues, but rather the natural desire to have one's own ideas and the normal development toward individuation. The persistent yes can be a kind of merging with others in an effort to please and acquiesce. This is the kind of dilemma I consistently see in the consulting room. In an effort to be liked, obtain approval, please, and avoid rejection, people will agree to do things they they would rather not do, or withhold the truth of their experience. No sets boundaries, says this and no more, draws a line in the sand, and says I do not agree. I sometimes remind people that they can say no without explanation. They are often shocked to learn that they do not need to give a list of excuses. I find that women in particular tend toward apologizing when they say no. It shows us the relationship between no and feelings of guilt. It's almost as if people feel that they are bad because they bow out, take a rain check, or make an opposing choice. It is the toddlers job to say no. It is a function of establishing autonomy. When adults misunderstand this, children can feel bad and guilty for simply being themselves.