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Taking the Sting Out of No

If your parents did a poor job of saying no to themselves when they needed to—with food, alcohol, material goods, etc.—you got short-changed on two counts. You missed out on having role models that teach self-restraint as part of good self-care, and you likely failed to receive appropriate comfort when you were told no or guidance and support when you were expected to restrain yourself. These deficits put you at a disadvantage in adult life, where saying no is as necessary a life skill as saying yes.

Let’s face it, when we’re told no as children, it hurts. Our will and desires are pitted against those of powerful parents. We have little or no idea what’s good or bad for us, but we sure do know what we want. We’re not using the cognitive part of our brains when we cry for this or that, only our impulses and irrational desires. We don’t consider consequences or what getting everything we ask for might mean in terms of becoming a mature adult. All we know is how much we desperately yearn for something—a toy, food, freedom, attention, having our way—and the fact that it’s painful not to get it.

And therein lies the rub, the pain that being told no brings us. Emotionally healthy parents can say no to themselves or tolerate hearing it from others because self- and other-denial don’t cause them enormous distress. They recognize the broader context of restraint and can soothe themselves so they don’t feel deprived or bent out of shape. Emotionally unhealthy parents, on the other hand, cannot self-soothe adequately and get so distressed over self-denial that they either fail to say no to themselves or challenge others when they’re told no. They do this not because yes is good for them, but because the internal turmoil they feel seems unbearable.

Where does that leave you as an adult who has difficulty saying no to yourself or hearing it said to you by others? The key is to put no in context and comfort yourself to make restraint tolerable. This involves finding a yes in the no—refusing to buy something you don’t need but badly want when you’re on a tight budget says yes to savings and self-care, limiting food beyond fullness says yes to pride and improved health—as well as soothing the hurt, deprivation, anger, frustration, and unfairness you feel. You can remind yourself that emotional discomfort will pass, that you can tolerate frustration, and that you’ll be perfectly fine even if you don’t get what you desire. Self-soothing is key to returning to a rational state so that you can think out what’s best for you long term. When you say no to yourself, make sure it’s accompanied by finding the yes in no and by comforting the distress that often goes along with self-discipline.