No Is a Complete Sentence


I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure which is: Try to please everybody.

~Herbert B. Swope~

Sometimes the best thing we can say to someone is no. We have focused on understanding others’ needs and responding to them the best we can. But we sometimes go overboard meeting other’s needs and forget about our own.

We are not machines and do not have endless resources. Sometimes we are exhausted or just tired. We have our own stress. Sometimes we just need to take a break. Codependence is a term from the chemical dependency field which has taken on wider use in our culture. It means going beyond our limits to take care of others, helping them avoid taking responsibility for themselves. In the process, we do harm to ourselves. Another way to put it is being too helpful.

We have physical, mental and emotional limits. Our bodies can do just so much before we become worn out. Mentally, we may not know how to help someone in a given situation. Emotionally, we can become overwhelmed by someone else’s needs, leaving us feeling helpless.

Why would someone feel the need to go to such extremes to help others? Some of us have come from families in which our own needs were not met on a physical or emotional level. We may come to see it as our mission in life to meet others’ needs at all costs.

Some of us came from families where we had a loved one who continued to struggle with issues such as alcoholism, despite our best efforts to help. Having failed to save our loved one, we may go on to find others to save. This may account for people marrying a series of alcoholic spouses, despite swearing they would never marry someone like their alcoholic parents, or feeling they learned their lesson when their first marriage to an alcoholic failed.

Some of us took on the role of caretaker in our family while we were growing up, seeing it as our job to take care of the rest of the family or to rise to the occasion when anyone needed anything.

Melody Beattie in her book, The Language of Letting Go, gives us daily exercises to help us feel okay about ourselves. In another book, Codependent No More, she helps us learn that we don’t have to depend on others for approval. Our self worth is not dependent on how helpful we are to others. We don’t have to overreact to everything in our lives and we don’t have to fix everything, especially if we did not break it.

This is not to suggest that we should forget about everyone else and just take care of ourselves. We should look for a balance in our lives, taking care of ourselves first, and then looking at how we can help within the boundaries of our ability. In looking to help others with their needs, we should also consider whether we are capable of helping them, whether they really want or need our help, and whether they will appreciate our efforts.

Action Steps

  • How clear are you in setting limits with others?
  • How good are you at accepting others’ boundaries?
  • Do you know when you efforts are being wasted?
  • Can you protect yourself from others taking advantage of you?
  • Learn to balance generosity and self protection.

Selection from my book, Navigating Life: Commonsense Reflections for the Voyage, available at Amazon.

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