Is it challenging for you to say no without feeling bad, anxious, and uncomfortable? If so, you may be taking unhealthy responsibility for others. Doing so exhausts you mentally, physically, and emotionally, and gets you stuck in depleting relationships with people who fail to take enough responsibility.
Unhealthy responsibility is not about being too loving or too giving. You can be very supportive and generous to others and still be responsibly healthy. Unhealthy responsibility for others comes into play when you start believing that you are responsible for controlling how other people react when you say ‘no.’
The ‘no’ could be something minor or something major. It could be your saying to your girlfriend ‘no, I don’t want to go out to dinner tonight,’ or saying to your child ‘no, you can’t have an iPhone,’ or saying to your mother, ‘no, we’re not coming at Christmas this year,’ or saying to your spouse, ‘no, I don’t want to be married to you anymore.’ These ‘no’s’ may bring a range of reactions, from ‘sure, no problem’, to ‘I hate you,’ to ‘if you divorce me I will make your life hell forever.’
But ask yourself: Does it make sense for you to be responsible for how others react to your ‘no’? Let’s explore this idea. Imagine if your neighbor knocked on your door and told you that he is so hurt and upset whenever you close your blinds that he is going to throw a rock through your window every time he sees the blinds are closed. What’s more, he says, it will be your fault for shutting him out like that.
If you agree with his logic, you are in a bind. You can leave your blinds open and feel uncomfortable and unsafe in your own home, or you can close your blinds and be the one to blame if you get rocks thrown through your window.
Ridiculous, isn’t it? But that is exactly the crazy distortion about responsibility that you might get pulled into within your relationships. Breaking your patterns of unhealthy responsibility means challenging those distortions and becoming clear about what is your job, and what is NOT your job:
It is your job to decide when to say no.
It is your job to say no when it reflects your careful consideration of your own needs and the needs of others. For example, your thoughts may be that ‘I don’t want to go to Christmas at my mother’s, and neither do my children, but my mother wants us there. This year I’ll say no, and then perhaps next year I’ll say yes.’
It is your job to say ‘no’ in a direct but kind manner.
‘I deeply appreciate the invitation for Christmas, but we are not going to be coming this year.’
It is your job to listen to your mother plead her case and to carefully consider her preferences, such as if she says ‘this year is important to me because it is the last year in this house.’
If this is new information, you may reconsider your decision in light of these facts. If it is not new information, or if you still want to say ‘no,’ then it is your job to say ‘I understand your preference, but we are not coming this year.’
It is your job to listen to your mother’s reaction and interpretation of this ‘no.’
‘I guess you just can’t be bothered with your mother anymore,’ she might say. It is your job to then clarify your own feelings: ‘I do love and care about you, but I also am not coming to Christmas this year.’
It is your job, in the case of telling your child ‘no’, to help him or her to learn strategies to manage their reactions to getting ‘no’ for an answer.
It is your job to get the support that you need to take care of yourself emotionally and physically, and protect your children, if and when there is danger from a person reacting badly to a ‘no’.
At that point in time, it is time to let go.
In the example of telling your mother ‘no’, she might be angry and hurt. She may choose to never invite you to Christmas again. She may decide to drink herself into an alcohol stupor. She may decide to tell your siblings how awful you are. But none of this is your responsibility. The way she interprets your ‘no,’ and the choices she makes following your ‘no,’ are not your responsibility. Instead, it is your job to let go of that responsibility.
Letting go is hard. It is painful to have to deal with someone you love being angry with you. It is painful when someone you love is in pain. It is painful to watch someone you love make destructive choices. It is scary to let go of trying to control their reactions.
If you continue to feel responsible for how others react to your ‘no,’ however, you are agreeing to be a part of an unhealthy relationship that is based in distorted concepts of responsibility. Your only hope for a healthy relationship is to continue to work toward breaking your own patterns of unhealthy responsibility.
Fortunately for those who want to transform unhealthy responsibility into healthy responsibility, there are internal signals that alert you when you are possibly falling prey to misconceptions about responsibility. Two of those signals are guilt and resentment. Guilt and resentment often reflect an anxiety around saying no that comes from feeling responsible for the other person’s reaction. When you feel guilt and resentment, you have an opportunity to reflect on whether you are fulfilling your responsibilities in saying ‘no.’ If so, you must try, try, try, to … let go.
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t change your patterns of unhealthy responsibility quickly. While the idea of saying no and letting go may be simple, carrying it out in real life is messy, sticky, and confusing. But with some motivation, some work, and support, it can be done, and the liberation and strength you gain along the way can help fuel your process forward.