Up Close With Dr. E

The power of no

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Today’s column is written with the hope that by teaching you one fundamental skill, you will, in turn, be able to use it to create healthier relationships. This skill is an essential ingredient for parenting, for building healthy marriages, and for creating friendships which grow, change, and evolve over time. What skill is this? The power of “No.”

When you assert your will and say “no,” you are standing up for yourself. You are also placing limits on the daily demands made by your family, your children, your spouse, or your friends. “No” gives you the power to stop others from walking all over you and of taking unfair advantage of your kindness.

Unfortunately, the skills required to assert yourself are not yet seen as tools to be taught to young children by their parents. Instead, cultural values have been the major force to shape and mold how human relationships are supposed to be. For example, women in America have historically been the ones expected to take care of the needs of their families. This job description often entails a disregard of women being able to identify their own needs. Today’s article goes into the details of how the skills of confrontation, or self-assertion, are done.

Here are the seven skills of confrontation:

Step 1: Learn to recognize the early warning signs that your personal boundaries have been violated. Example: Nancy, a 29-year-old married mother of two, is helping her husband load up their van for a family picnic at the park. Her sister, Karen, calls and asks if Nancy can babysit her twins. Karen, crying on the phone, is having marriage problems and a nasty fight has been raging all morning. When Nancy says “no” to her sister, what emotions will she have? Anger is fused with, “my own family needs time together.” Next comes guilt, which says, “my sister’s marriage is falling apart, I shouldn’t be so selfish.”

Step 2: Take a pause. Confrontations move at the speed of light, so you need to slow the process down. Do it like this: “Karen, let me call you right back.” Nancy, having pushed the pause button, can now discuss with her husband how best to say, “no.” She then executes her plan by saying, “Karen, I’m sorry but we were just leaving for the park, I’ll call you tonight.” Your pause can be short (minutes), medium (hours), or long (days or weeks).

Step 3: Prepare for guilt. After you have confronted someone, a tidal wave of guilt may wash over you. This is a natural and common side effect of self-assertion. Do not allow your guilt to change your mind.

Step 4: There are no short cuts. Confrontation is never easy, clean, or simple. It is messy, hard and exhausting. However, you are not required to assert yourself face-to-face. A letter, note or phone call are all good options.

Step 5: Confrontations activate underlying fears. After telling her sister no, Nancy breaks down and sobs. She then begins to worry. What triggered this worry? She and her sister grew up in a highly stressed family where her abusive father walked out on them, never to return. Nancy’s fear of losing her sister’s love is activated.

Step 6: Healthy confrontation uses specific language, and never contains words of rage or hostility. That night, Nancy calls Karen: “I needed time to be with my family, and I’m calling now to ask how I can support you.” Her sister reacts with rage: “You are selfish and spoiled.” SLAM, goes the phone.

Step 7: Learn to recognize the healing power of healthy confrontations. Confrontation produces growth in human relationships. But, just like the faint sunlight which at dawn, pierces the darkness of night, the benefits of self-assertion are, at first, hard to see. After her sister slammed the phone down, Nancy wrote this letter: “After Dad left us, I began to change. I stopped raising my hand in grade school because I feared being made fun of. I lived in constant fear. So, I never told anyone if they made me mad, or if they walked all over me. My fears paralyzed me. You, my only sister, were also deeply hurt. But you took it out on me, and I let you. Because I was so passive, our relationship never changed or grew. Now, as a sister who loves you, I must stop letting you dictate the terms of our relationship. When I said “no” to you today, it was the first time I ever said “yes” to myself.”

Here was her sister’s reply: “I already knew that all the things you said in your letter were true. I just didn’t know how to let go of my anger. So how about a new start? Let me babysit your kids this weekend, so you and your husband can go to that concert you’ve been wanting to see. Love, Karen.”

The content of this article is for educational purposes only, not treatment. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

 

Dr. Richard Elghammer contributes his column each week to the Journal Review.

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