We were two months into being empty nesters when our youngest son started sending me a flurry of texts. He was attending a college nearby and desperately wanted my car for the weekend. Instead of responding with a simple, I’m sorry but I already have plans, I kept trying to think of ways that I could accommodate his request. My mental gymnastics led to frustration and anger for both of us.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is written by author Anne Lamott: No is a complete sentence. This appeals to me in its simplicity but also because as my interaction with our son reveals, it’s sometimes hard for me to say no. I don’t think that I’m an outlier here.
Why Is Saying “No” so Difficult?
As least for me, fear is the number one reason. Fear of missing out, fear that others won’t accomplish the task according to my specs, or fear of being rejected or abandoned if I disappoint someone.
Personally, I hate disappointing people – particularly those who are closest to me.
The reasons are complex. Growing up, I received an abundance of criticism and a deficit of affirmation. Desperate to be loved and accepted, I became the consummate people pleaser. Since I didn’t understand what it meant to be loved unconditionally, I worked doggedly for approval, respect, love, and friendship. I thought that the more I did, the more I would be loved. Because I’m a highly sensitive person, it was easy for me to intuit others’ needs and meet them without being asked.
People like me are valuable employees, excellent friends and dutiful parents. No one could ever accuse us of being lazy.
A Costly and Misguided Philosophy
This philosophy has very real costs. We may end up feeling run-down, worn out, resentful, bitter, depressed, cranky and angry. That’s a short list.
Years ago when my husband and I were part of a vibrant, urban church plant, policy dictated that all parents serve twice a month in the nursery. The problem was that my husband led worship each week, which meant I spent considerable effort getting our kids to church only to spend the morning taking care of other people’s babies. Additionally, I was already volunteering with several high level ministries, working part time, homeschooling, and dealing with a mysterious health issue.
When I asked for a month off, the 20s-something kids’ pastor reprimanded me and told me I needed to evaluate my priorities. I blew a gasket – a rare occurrence for me. My anger told me to pay attention and thankfully, I listened. The following week I informed her that I would be taking the next six months off.
But it was more than insecurity that motivated my relentless activism. I also believed that following Christ meant seeing others needs as more important than my own (Phil 2:3). I wanted to be a good and faithful servant (Matt. 25:21). Don’t we all?
Here’s what I know now that I’m almost 60: our service to others has to emerge out of the knowledge that we are loved by the creator of the universe. Furthermore, our impulse to serve has to be balanced with an awareness of our needs and our limitations. Until fairly recently, I didn’t know it was acceptable to be needy or limited.
As demonstrated by human development, God created us to need. Babies would not survive if they did not communicate their needs. And even when we can dress and feed ourselves, our neediness does not go away. By design. God wants us to bring our needs to him and others. He intends for us to be inter-dependent.
Rather than live in peace with this reality, most of us tend to deny, avoid or ignore our needs. Not only does this behavior prevent us from getting our needs met, it also results in loneliness and discouragement.
The Role of Disappointment
One of the most important lessons that God has been teaching me over my 26 years of parenting is that I can’t be afraid of disappointing people — perhaps especially my kids. The truth is, we simply cannot be everything to everyone.
The late pediatrician Berry Brazleton once wrote, “The mark of maturity is how children learn to deal with disappointment.”
We are not helping our kids grow up if we eliminate disappointment from their lives. We need to help them recognize what it looks like, learn from it, and then teach them how to be resilient in the face of it.
It goes without saying that our kids will be disappointed over minor issues: No, you can’t have more cookies. No, you may not have more screen time. And highly significant ones: No, you may not go out on a date with someone five years older. No, you can’t have the car this weekend.
If they don’t learn how to process disappointment as 2- or 3-year-olds, it will be much messier and more dramatic when they’re older. The teenage version of a temper tantrum is truly ugly.
When we’re aware of our needs and limitations and when we’re not afraid to disappoint others, it’s much easier to set and hold to wise boundaries. (Any sane person would have agreed that I needed at least six months off from serving in the nursery.) This will not only allow us to be around for the long haul but help us to give and serve more joyfully.
I don’t think I’ll ever like disappointing my sons but increasingly, I’m realizing just how holy my “No” can be.
Dorothy Littell Greco is an author, writer, photographer, mom and wife – but never all at the same time. When she’s not working, she loves to walk in the woods, bike on flat surfaces, and kayak slow rivers. She lives with her husband of 29 years and their fluffy cockapoo outside Boston.