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Are You Always Last on Your Own List?

With these 5 tips on how to say No, you can start living a more fulfilling life today


by Janice Holly Booth

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We all want to be thought of us as people who will help out when asked, whether it’s leading a Boy Scout troop, writing a letter of reference, or donating to a good cause. And granted, as members of the human community we should look past our own needs and focus on the needs of others. But some people take it to an extreme: they do and give everything that’s asked of them, volunteering to take on burdens that are in no way theirs, and in the process depriving themselves of the same attention they lavish on others. Sound familiar? Life Reimagined asked Deb Corbett, licensed professional counselor at Dovetail Services in Charlotte, North Carolina, what’s up with that?

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What is the psychological basis for a person’s inability to say no, even if it might put the person in a bad spot, like co-signing a loan for someone who is likely to default?

Some people have never learned to say no. Perhaps it was never allowed and saying no was not an option. The value or priority was about being agreeable. To say no is to risk rejection or to fear being unnecessary or not needed. I also believe a disconnection from self and a sense of unworthiness will drive what seems like the most illogical yes. A person seeks love through the approval of others. This is exaggerated when the person lacks a sense of self-worth or self-identity. That person will insatiably seek from others and will compromise boundaries to win approval (love).

For people who know better but can’t seem to help themselves, what do they need to know about the consequences of this behavior and why they should make the effort to change?

Recognize the lies associated with saying yes and trying to make someone’s life easier. Perpetuating helplessness [by always coming to the rescue] helps no one. When people do not set boundaries, they create chaos in their lives, which is painful, but pain can be one of the strongest motivations for change. Often, setting boundaries seems mean or selfish when in fact setting boundaries is healthy and is about self-compassion.

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Do you have any tips to help people start putting themselves first?

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (and that is everyone else), the courage to change the things I can (and that is only me), and the wisdom to know the difference (and that is often hard).

Practice saying no aloud (and only no). Then listen in your mind to the rest of the story that wants to jump off your lips. Awareness of your inner beliefs will help you to examine whether they are distorted.

Reframe “no” as an example of authenticity. “I trust our friendship enough to say no.” The fear of rejection will be ever-present until you start to challenge it. 

Recognize that the inability to say no is about an attempt to control beyond your means. Letting go of control by saying no is a way to acknowledge that much of life is beyond your control, and that’s okay. 

Consider that saying no opens the opportunity for another person to step up. By doing so, you’ve helped that person grow. If you always jump in to help, you’ve prevented someone else from the experience of learning and growing.

Say no and leave the explanations at home. Explaining creates defensiveness and the defense does not score runs.

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Putting yourself first may feel selfish in the beginning, but it allows you to think and act in a way that honors your own feelings, desires and needs. This can mean resting when you’re tired, declining requests when you are overburdened, and asking for help when you need it, instead of always being the one everyone else runs to for support.

Photo Credit: Sally Anscombe/Getty