Ask Dr. Debra
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How do you say "no"? All my life I've bent over backwards for my family,
trying to be a good wife and mother and daughter. Now, they just assume
that I'll do whatever they want, even when it's hard for me to do so.
They show absolutely no regard for my feelings. So I how do I reclaim
my life, short of walking out on my family?
Dear Mrs. Yes,
Sometimes walking out might be a good strategy, and may be a way to
get their attention. After years of giving in, you are going to have
to take a firm stand with your family, which won't be easy for you.
Being a good wife, mother, and daughter doesn't mean giving in to your
family's demands. Sometimes, this self-sacrificing behavior actually
makes you a bad mother. It's a sure way to create spoiled kids,
who have an unrealistic sense of entitlement.
Some people have personalities that are naturally more supportive and
less assertive. These people have a hard time standing up for themselves
and putting their needs first. They are often taken advantage of by
family members, friends, and co-workers. One of the most difficult things
for this personality type is to say "no." They tend to go along with
what the other person wants, even if they don't want to. Or, they easily
give in when there is opposition. They often have a hard time creating
space for their own needs and pursuits because that would mean saying
"no" to others. And they tend to make everyone else's needs more important
Without realizing it, you've probably been reinforcing the behavior
of your family members, especially if you don't speak up for you own
needs, say "no" to them, or give a token protest. Let's say your son
wants a pair of expensive, designer tennis shoes, which means you won't
be able to buy the new outfit you needed for work. You say the shoes
are too expensive, but he argues, "My old shoes are too small, and they
hurt my feet. Then he switches to, "All my friends have these shoes,
and they'll tease me about wearing cheap shoes.'' Not wanting him to
suffer with his friends, you give in. You're a bit resentful about not
getting your new clothes but rationalize that you can make do with your
What have you just taught your son? 1. To argue with you. 2.
Use a combination of need and guilt to get his way. 3. To
spend money frivolously. 4. He's entitled to expensive things,
even if others have to do without. In addition to spoiling him and
increasing your own difficulty in parenting him, I doubt his future
wife is going to thank you for the self-centered attitudes you've installed
Of course, kids are always going to argue. But if you are firm and consistent,
they know to stop after a few minutes because it doesn't do any good.
(It helps if you start this behavior when they are toddlers.)
In addition to the values you are encouraging in your son, you also
are building up resentment every time you don't want to do something
but allow yourself to be overruled by others. Feelings of resentment
are unhealthy and can have negative consequences. Your resentment can
cause angry outbursts, depression, over-eating or abusing alcohol and
drugs, passive-aggressive behavior, feelings of dislike for your beloved
family members, and feelings of victimization.
Here's another example: Imagine that you have a new puppy. You put him
in another room, say the kitchen, where he can't pee on the rug, and
close the door. He starts to whine and bark, and you let him out. You've
just rewarded his barking and whining. The next time, you tell yourself
that you'll stay firm. But after ten minutes of whining and barking,
you can no longer resist and let him out. He now knows that ten minutes
of whining and barking works. Next time you hold out for twenty minutes
before giving in. Now he's a twenty-minute barker. You're created your
own problem dog.
You can fix the problem of the puppy, but it won't be easy. The solution
is to stand firm and not give in. The puppy is going to increase his
barking and whining behavior long past the twenty minutes he's done
before. If you give in, you will only make the situation worse. Hold
out. Eventually he will stop, and then you can wait a few minutes and
let him out. This way, you reward him for being quiet. Continue this
for a few days because it will take several days to a week for the lesson
to sink in. If you aren't consistent and slip up on any one of the days,
you will not only undo all your efforts, you will make the behavior
that much more entrenched. Remember, whether adult, child, or animal,
the behavior will first increase before it decreases.
You have to be strong enough to stand your ground.
Use the following six steps to:
1. Figure out what you want and how you traditionally give in--what
are your weaknesses? Do you speak up for your needs or stay silent?
Do you give up at the first sign of opposition? Do you give in if someone
starts to argue? Do you cave in if you get a guilt trip or the silent
treatment? Does someone intimidate you into backing down?
2. Visualize the outcome you want, practicing it over and over in
your mind. Mental practice helps set you up for the automatic way
you want to respond. You also might have to figure out how you'll reinforce
your decision, such as walking out of the room when someone starts to
argue. When you feel confident with your reaction, then it's time to
put it into practice.
3. Clearly make a statement about what you want. For example:
"I need some help around the house. I'm no longer going to do both the
cooking and the cleaning up. Husband, I need you to do the dishes after
dinner and clean up the kitchen." If he objects, calmly say that if
he prefers to cook, you'll clean up. But don't give in.
4. Enforce consequences. You might need to refuse to cook for
a while before your husband will take you seriously. Another example
of consequences is: if someone doesn't give you the uninterrupted space
you requested, you leave for a few hours. However, make sure you are
responsible. State where you are going and how long you'll be gone.
5. Be consistent. Remember that giving in, even one time, will
only sabotage your efforts, making everything worse.
6. Ignore the grumbling and bad attitudes of your family members.
As John Gray (Men Are From Mars) says, men use grumbling as a
way to help them switch their brain from what they originally wanted
or were focused on to what you want them to do. Women take grumbling
seriously because we don't grumble unless something is really wrong.
Most of the time, male grumbles aren't serious . Don't give in
just because of grumbles and bad attitudes. They will pass.
Saying no will become easier over time.
Feel free to
write me with your questions.
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist
who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.
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