I live close to a church and, as I watch the congregation flock to the doors on a Sunday morning, I wonder how many of them show up because they feel they should, rather than because they want to.
My mother had a strong faith which had been handed down to her by her father. With my elder brother and sister showing no interest in church, aside from my brothers brief spell in the choir, it fell to me to pick up the mantel. As I got older and loosened the grip my mother had on my free time she would ask me “Are you coming to church this morning?” Every part of me screamed “No” simultaneously with my hearing the word “Yes” coming from my mouth. The discomfort of disappointing her was far stronger than that of disappointing myself. All I could do was find small rebellions which made little difference to the overall picture. Like the day I wore a “Black Sabbath” t-shirt to mass my mother said that God didn’t mind what you showed up wearing.
It is one of the strange ironies of therapy, a specific act of prioritising ones own needs, that so many of the people who engage in it struggle to put themselves first.
We don’t find it hard to say no because we are unclear about what we want. We find it hard because we feel so certain about the likely consequence, and we don’t believe we can cope with it.
My own fight with saying no came about from the belief that my literal safety was dependent upon doing what other people expected of me. As a child, trying to understand adult issues though my inexperienced eyes, I cobbled together the notion that love from my mother was conditional on her approving of what I did. If I had been right (I wasn’t, of course) I could not have survived by charting my own course, only from following hers, which I did with astonishing tenacity.
As children emotional abandonment is like a death because it is here that we learn about our own value. If we feel we are not valued we will move heaven and earth to do whatever is necessary to fix it. If we can’t fix it we carry the same doubts about ourselves into adulthood, still resolutely trying to be valued by others in order to fill the space created by the self doubt.
When “No” is not an option our needs become less important. When our needs are less important we confirm our own sense of low value, creating a disastrous self fulfilling prophecy.
For those who struggle to say “No” self value is often a zero sum game. To say “yes” to others is to rightly value them above us. To say “no” to others is an act of selfishness. If we believe that any degree of self interest is narcissism it is no wonder we avoid it.
When you can’t say “no” it is because at some deeper level you believe you are not sufficiently worthy of saying it, or because you fear the awful consequence of doing so. What makes this sorry situation so difficult to deal with is that the only way of disproving such a flimsy theory is to test it, and to test it requires that you risk triggering the rejection and abandonment you work so hard to avoid.
I remember how disappointed my mother appeared when I’d eventually found the strength to say “no” to her. But it was partly a monster I had created. By refusing to change we make change impossible. Years later, on the occasions I’d sit with her in the third pew from the front on the right of the aisle, it was because I’d chosen to. My mother was happy and, most significantly, so was I.