The importance of saying no

JUST DON'T DO IT: Being accommodating all the time isn't necessarily a good thing.
JUST DON'T DO IT: Being accommodating all the time isn't necessarily a good thing.

Some people swear by the mantra "This too shall pass." Last year, mine was the less conventional, "Ah, to be hit by a car."

This would shock most people who know me. My default setting is a smile and a can-do attitude that can border on the robotic. But when years of soldiering on to meet the every need of bosses, friends and family made me feel as though I were being slowly strangled by a many-tentacled beast, I began thinking: screw a slow walk under a Caribbean sunset - a little hit-and-run is what I need. I could be whisked away to hospital with, say, a broken leg or two, just enough of an injury to render me blissfully incapable of looking after anyone else for a while ...

My friend Sharon*, a magazine editor, snaps me out of my reverie. She's not a one-up-you kind of gal, but her story about where being unable to say "no" landed her beats the pants off mine. After years of sleeping on her own floor to accommodate her parents (who would frequently pay her last-minute visits at inconvenient times) and attending social functions when she was exhausted (in order to appease pushy friends), she ended up with "pretty significant depression".

"I was miserable," she says. "I ended up getting counselling. I still find it really difficult to say 'no'. Even now, if I put my own needs first, I feel panicky and think people are not going to like me."

Why are so many accomplished and smart women driving their mental health into the ground in the pursuit of caring for others first? (I haven't even mentioned my social worker friend, whose first instinct after being robbed was to feel sorry for the thief, rather than feel anger that her jewellery and children's savings had been stolen.) Why is this happening now, 30 years since pioneering feminist texts like 'A Woman In Your Own Right' launched a thousand "assertiveness training" seminars?

British psychologist Jacqui Marson, author of the new book 'The Curse of Lovely: How to Break Free from the Demands of Others and Learn How to Say No', says the reason her London practice is teeming with people who suffer from the compulsion to prioritise others' needs over their own is because they were taught in childhood that unless they did so, they would be rejected or unloved. "Every one of my clients, when I say, 'You have the right to say no', they look at me like I'm from another planet. They go, 'Really?'"

This was Sharon's experience. "I was the child who was disapproved of, the bad child," she says. "And if you're disapproved of, you try harder and harder to get approval ... to make everyone like you."

I, too, learnt early that if I put my needs before my parents', I'd be shunned. When I once suggested to my mother that we didn't need to speak on the phone every day, but rather could chat when we felt like it, I was met with tears and a damning indictment.

The reasons these experiences lead to, say, depression or dreams of hospitalisation, says Marson, is because when such patterns of behaviour continue unquestioned into adulthood, we "lovelies" feel there is no alternative, that we must put others' needs before our own, always. So we end up feeling resentful of those who put demands on us, and indulge in "all-or-nothing thinking".

"Another common escape fantasy I hear is wanting someone to disappear off the planet so they can't [make any more demands]," says Marson. "What's the 1 per cent version of that fantasy? Ask yourself that and it begins to feel like you've got some boundaries."

One friend, Rebecca*, who lost her job and was dumped by her long-term boyfriend as a result of continually abandoning her responsibilities in order to look after her family's, tells me her 1 per cent strategy, which she developed after seeing a life coach. "Saying 'no' is so freeing," she says. "However, I always try to follow my 'no' with a statement of what I can do instead."

Personally, I'm sold on one of Marson's exercises, called the "responsibility pie". Geared towards helping people handle the demands of a loved one whom they feel guilty about not doing enough for, the exercise entails drawing a circle with the loved one's needs in it and then dividing the shape into segments, writing in each one the name of the person who "owns" that slice.

After putting a relative, a grown man whom I'd always been told I needed to take care of, inside a circle, I realised the burden I'd come to believe was mine alone was, of course, not. This meant that when he recently visited me - and after initially, on instinct, tending to his every request - and then seething inside that he offered little help to me, I stopped.

I then did what I could, said "no" to what I couldn't - and left it at that. The moment I did, years of built-up bitterness began to evaporate.

"Once you're able to say 'no' to someone, then your 'yes' is more freely given," says Marson. "It frees up the love." 

* Names have been changed.

The Curse of Lovely by Jacqui Marson is published by Hachette Australia.

- Daily Life