What Every Two-Year-Old Knows– The Power of “NO”

FayPsych Staff

"The word no must have a place in our lives if we want to live as healthy, happy, mature adults..."

A friend of mine had been experiencing a particularly bumpy few weeks and I invited her to lunch to blow off some steam.  She was troubled by her role as treasurer with a fundraising organization she had belonged to for the past several years.  Squabbles within the group’s leadership over the past few months had come to a head, and she felt torn between wanting to contribute to the group, and her desire to remove herself from the stress and anxiety of being exposed to all the bickering, along with the burden of the job of treasurer itself.

As we talked over a light lunch at our favorite restaurant, she recounted to me the three emails she had already received that morning related to the group’s latest saga.  “I’m
at my wit’s end with this – I have a full-time job I can barely keep up with as
it is.  I just don’t need this drama in my life. ” She said in exasperation.  I think
I’ve finally had it.”  The group’s dysfunctional ways were often the topic of our lunches, so I was not surprised to hear about this latest turn of events.

She was absolutely right. She didn’t need drama in her life. She had a very demanding career, as well as young children and a husband at home who needed her time and attention. As we talked, I reminded her that she had practically been made treasurer at gunpoint two years ago, and that it had not been enjoyable for her at any point since she had begun the job.  She had taken on the position with great reluctance, and it had proven to be as time-consuming and politically charged as she had feared.  She had hoped initially, that the good the fundraising organization did for the community
would outweigh the heavy toll the position took on her.  Over time though, it became clear that was not the case.

“I’m seriously thinking of resigning.” She told me.  “It’s just not worth it.”  She shook her head in frustration.  “I knew I never should have taken on this position.”

She had reached a crossroads, but on a journey that could have been avoided altogether with just one powerful little word – NO.  Had she had the courage two years prior to say no to the nominating committee (and she clearly knew she shouldn’t take the position back then), the stress and anxiety she had experienced over these last
two years could have been completely avoided. She would not have spent hours away from her family and her work, thanklessly trying to please the fundraising committee’s board, had she uttered that one small word– NO.  She knew she should have done it at the time, but she just couldn’t bring herself to say it.

It’s amazing how difficult it is for most adults to utter a simple two letter word.  I think of how often I have witnessed a toddler in a fit of two-year-old zeal throwing around
the word no as effortlessly as they might a toy.  At this stage of development, when a child is discovering his own sense of self and separateness from other people, he
delights in telling other people no as loudly and as often as possible–  especially if things aren’t going his way. He is learning how to establish boundaries and use language to make those boundaries clear.  While adults are reluctant to use the word no, a two-year-old relishes the word.

As we grow older we learn to be much less self-centered than our two-year-old selves, like my friend, who is a very caring and compassionate woman in every way.  This turn toward a more selfless outlook is a natural and necessary part of our development, but it can have a downside.  Our concern for others may make us vulnerable to suffering at tasks or in situations that make us miserable, or do damage to our relationships and sometimes even our health.  As we grow up, shame and guilt also enter our lives and become powerful motivators for our behavior.  We may make decisions based upon our fear that we are “not enough” or are “not living up to expectations.”  We find ourselves saying yes to things we are absolutely clear are not healthy for us, but we feel powerless to conjour up that two-letter word that holds the key to releasing us.

When we become disconnected from the ability to say no, out of misplaced altruism, guilt, shame or fear, we allow others to hold us hostage and use us for their own purposes. We may also wrongly believe that we are acting out of love when we fail
to say no to a parent’s, child’s, spouse’s or other family member’s requests,
when in fact, that failure to say no may be the most un-loving thing we can do,
both for that individual, and ourselves.

It’s easy to slip into the failure to say no trap over and over again;  it happens when we
over-indulge our children by not saying no (teaching them that they can expect to have whatever they want, whenever they want in life),  when we let our own parents
run over us with unreasonable expectations or demands (leaving us to simmer with silent anger at them while we limit our own life choices or our own family suffers from our misplaced loyalties),  when we let a friend coerce us into spending time doing something we don’t want to do (when we know it will make us anxious and cause friction at home), when we let our spouse’s desires overwhelm our own needs time and again (until resentment builds to the point of damaging or destroying our marriage).

The word no must have a place in our lives if we want to live as healthy, happy, mature adults with strong and enduring personal and professional relationships.  Without establishing appropriate boundaries with this powerful tool, we set ourselves up for lives filled with anxiety, depression and other psychological maladies. We also set ourselves up to fail as parents and as romantic partners; we doom ourselves to raise children with unrealistic expectations that the world will never be able to meet, and we assure that we will never give our partners the best of ourselves.   If we truly want to be loving, we must demand the best of ourselves, and for ourselves, and we cannot do so without the power of no in our lives.

My friend and I talked some more over dessert and she decided she would tender her resignation that afternoon.  I could see she was tense about having to talk to the board’s president about her decision. When we said our goodbyes I reassured her that her decision was sound.

I spoke to her the next afternoon and she told me she had officially resigned.  She also said the president had begged her to take another position on the board.  I asked her what she told him.  “No,” she said simply.  I could hear her smile and her relief over
the phone.

Over the next couple of weeks we caught up by phone several times, and the sheer delight she expressed at the free time she now had on her hands along with the stress she was not experiencing was almost contagious.

Copyright © 2011 Fayetteville Psychotherapy Associates, PLC

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