How the Fear of Saying No Can Handicap Your Life

Boundaries"May I tell you something embarrassing?" Robert asked me (Dr. Townsend). A new client, Robert was trying to understand why he had so much difficulty refusing his wife's constant demands. He was going broke trying to keep up with the Joneses.

"I was the only boy in my family, the youngest of four children. There was a strange double standard in my house involving physical fighting." Robert cleared his throat, struggling to continue. "My sisters were three to seven years older than me. Until I was in sixth grade, they were a lot bigger and stronger. They'd take advantage of their size and strength and wale on me until I was bruised. I mean, they really hurt me.

"The strangest part of it all was my parents' attitude. They'd tell us, 'Robert is the boy. Boys don't hit girls. It's bad manners.' Bad manners! I was getting triple-teamed, and fighting back was bad manners?" Robert stopped. His shame kept him from continuing, but he'd said enough. He had unearthed part of the reason for his conflicts with his wife.

When parents teach children that setting boundaries or saying no is bad, they are teaching them that others can do with them as they wish. They are sending their children defenseless into a world that contains much evil. Evil in the form of controlling, manipulative, and exploitative people. Evil in the form of temptations. To feel safe in such an evil world, children need to have the power to say things like:

  • "No."
  • "I disagree."
  • "I will not."
  • "I choose not to."
  • "Stop that."
  • "It hurts."
  • "It's wrong."
  • "That's bad."
  • "I don't like it when you touch me there."

Blocking a child's ability to say no handicaps that child for life. Adults with handicaps like Robert's have this first boundary injury: they say yes to bad things.

This type of boundary conflict is called compliance. Compliant people have fuzzy and indistinct boundaries; they "melt" into the demands and needs of other people. They can't stand alone, distinct from people who want something from them. Compliants, for example, pretend to like the same restaurants and movies their friends do "just to get along." They minimize their differences with others so as not to rock the boat. Compliants are chameleons. After a while it's hard to distinguish them from their environment.

The inability to say no to the bad is pervasive. Not only does it keep us from refusing evil in our lives, it often keeps us from recognizing evil. Many compliant people realize too late that they're in a dangerous or abusive relationship. Their spiritual and emotional "radar" is broken; they have no ability to guard their hearts (see Proverbs 4:23).

This type of boundary problem paralyzes people's "no" muscles. Whenever they need to protect themselves by saying no, the word catches in their throats. This happens for a number of different reasons:

  • Fear of hurting the other person's feelings
  • Fear of abandonment and separateness
  • A wish to be totally dependent on another
  • Fear of someone else's anger
  • Fear of punishment
  • Fear of being shamed
  • Fear of being seen as bad or selfish
  • Fear of being unspiritual
  • Fear of one's overstrict, critical conscience

This last fear is actually experienced as guilt. People who have an overstrict, critical conscience will condemn themselves for things God himself doesn't condemn them for. As Paul says, "Since their conscience is weak, it is defiled" (see 1 Corinthians 8:7). Afraid to confront their unbiblical and critical internal parent, they tighten inappropriate boundaries.

When we give in to guilty feelings, we are complying with a harsh conscience. This fear of disobeying the harsh conscience translates into an inability to confront others -- a saying yes to the bad -- because it would cause more guilt.

Biblical compliance needs to be distinguished from this kind of compliance. Matthew 9:13 says that God desires "compassion, and not sacrifice." In other words, God wants us to be compliant from the inside out (compassionate), not compliant on the outside and resentful on the inside (sacrificial). Compliants take on too many responsibilities and set too few boundaries, not by choice, but because they are afraid.


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