Anxiety and Assertiveness: Why It’s Okay to Say No

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” -Lao Tzu

Why We Can’t Say No

A good portion of my clients struggle with saying something that seems so easily and simply expressed: no. That word is anathema to them, as repugnant, or even more so, than any conjured curse word; and like them, it doesn’t exist in their vocabularies. Those who struggle with self-worth struggle with saying no, as their gratitude far exceeds the value of their internal image.

But what are we really grateful for? Why should our gratitude lead to an unwillingness to assert our boundaries? In the context of trauma, our level of gratitude is understandable. Some of us had less than desirable upbringings, which, in turn, caused us to distort our own images. For those of us who’ve been made to feel like we were less than, any semblance of attention and affection can effect a puppy dog-type sense of ecstasy, as though we’re being saturated with the warmth and glow of love for the first time. We look for hints of it in others, and jump for joy at their expression.

The flip side of the coin is the fear of being left, of being made to feel like we’re less than all over again. So, we distort ourselves in our relationships to fit the molds into which our partners shape us. Love is a curious emotion that makes us do crazy things, but the sense of being undeserving of it can completely shatter our identities.

Treatment for People-Pleasers

One of the best parts of my job is the chance to work with women in toxic relationships with controlling partners. As treatment progresses, they invariably ask: Has he gotten worse or am I just finally noticing how bad it’s been? The answer is usually the latter. And the common denominator is their gratitude; these men were their shining lights, bringing with them the hitherto unexperienced love that they never expected to arrive. Therefore, they had to hold on desperately, of course.

But, the turning point usually occurs when they start to express their own needs and desires, as they begin to say no. The reactions are often similar: “You don’t love me anymore;” “Why did you change?,” and “I don’t know who you are.” Essentially, the spotlight is redirected to their partners in their attempts to transform themselves into apparently helpless children; this engenders a sense of guilt in their spouses. And the trick often works, for when a woman is raised to be a caregiver, setting her needs aside is automatic; she is her man’s giving tree. But through open dialogue, they begin to question their husbands’ tactics, asking themselves how well their relationships are really going.

A Better Way to Receive Love

When it comes to control, those who seek to manipulate us take advantage of our abandonment anxiety and our tendency to feel guilty. So, we tend to give in, and convince ourselves of the goodness of our partner. Low self-esteem is a bitch, being the foundation of gratitude’s dark side. Yet, despite its perniciousness, we can begin to overcome mistreatment by asking ourselves if we’re happy with our partners and if the relationship is worth saving. Sometimes, we discover that we’re accepting the bare-minimum because it can’t get any better (in our minds, at least). At others, we believe that it’s our duty to care for our selfish partner, regardless of his viciousness. And most often, it’s a combination.

If love is life’s most significant feature, then why accept its watered-down version, which is only a mere reflection, and a poor one at that? If saying no is a prominent feature of autonomy and identity, then why should you accept a partner who only loves you because you meet his expectations?

These are some of the most important questions to ask, in addition to what you’d actually be losing if you lost your uncompromising partner. I’ve argued elsewhere that self-esteem is correlated with relationship standards, meaning that we put up with less bullshit when we feel better about ourselves. So, the work that needs to be done involves fostering a healthier self-image while reducing one’s sense of gratitude.

If you want to know whether your partner is or isn’t worth holding onto, try saying no, and see how he reacts. A relationship worth developing allows for freedom of thought and independence of expression. Anything less is mere deception, a mirage that pales in comparison to love as it truly is.

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