Knowing what you want, and asking for it, is an important part of having a fulfilling relationship. Equally important is the ability to respond when other people ask for what they want. There’s a lot involved with responding to requests. If I respond to a request with “yes,” it is helpful to be aware of what is going on for me that motivates that response. Am I saying “yes”:
Because I feel obligated?
Because I’m afraid of how the other person will respond?
Because I believe I “should”?
Because I feel better about myself when I give others what they want?
Because I expect I would get pleasure from doing what is requested?
Because I believe I can fulfill that request with generosity?
Every response I give has an impact, not just on the other person but also on myself. Questions such as the following can illuminate the impact my response has on me.
Can I fulfill that request while still being in integrity with my own preferences and values?
How do I handle it if my desires conflict with the desires of another?
Does giving someone else what they want result in me feeling depleted?
After I fulfill a request, do I feel resentful?
Additionally, playing with requests brings up questions of worthiness, like these:
Do I deserve to get what I want?
Do I have to give others what they want before I can get what I want?
When someone else is willing to give me what I want, can I receive it?
Exploring these questions is an important part of the Surrogate Partner Therapy process. To help with this exploration, I do an exercise with clients where we make and respond to requests. We slow down and bring our awareness to what happens in every instant of the interaction, including our emotions and our physical sensations.
In order to give therapists an accurate representation of Surrogate Partner Therapy and how it works, I always demonstrate this exercise during my course “Collaborating with Surrogate Partners in the Triadic Model.” One of these courses was attended by a therapist named Erika. Erika and I had collaborated on an SPT case earlier that year. She agreed to demonstrate this exercise with me. As part of this demonstration, I asked her, “Will you come to my home right now and give me a hug?” She responded, “I am in the middle of a training, so no I will not.”
I was thrilled that Erika responded in this way, because it illustrated something quite common. Sometimes, instead of just answering the question, we give a reason for why we answered the way we did. This is particularly common whenever the answer is “no.” We might give a reason instead of saying “no,” or we might give a reason in addition to saying “no.”
There are many reasons why we might give a reason. It’s common for people to be uncomfortable saying “no,” so we might give a reason to avoid that discomfort. It’s common for people to be afraid of hurting others’ feelings, so we might give a reason to avoid that fear. If we are afraid of how the other will respond, we might give a reason in the hopes that they will be more understanding. We might believe it’s not sufficient to just give a response, but rather feel the need to justify or explain it by giving a reason.
The saying “’No’ is a complete sentence” reminds us that it is sufficient to just give an answer and that no justification or explanation is needed. Not only is giving a reason unnecessary, but it can actually be harmful, because it can result in unintended consequences. Therefore, I’d like to encourage you to be “unreasonable.” I am deliberately using this word differently than its dictionary definition. By “unreasonable,” I mean “being without reasons,” and not needing reasons to justify your responses or preferences.
“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving." Paulo Coelho
The following is an illustration of the danger of giving reasons with an example. This example is completely fabricated and fictitious, but it includes elements of truth that apply to many different real-world situations.
In order to create a context for this example, I want to talk about social conditioning for a moment. We’ve all received loads of messages about who we are, how we should behave, who is attractive, who is worthy of love, what is normal, and what is acceptable. We’ve received these messages from family, peers, school, religion, the media, and society at large. Many of these messages are based on the sex that was assigned to us at birth, based on the appearance of our genitals. When we receive these messages over and over, we may internalize them and start to hold them as our own beliefs. This is a process called cultural conditioning or socialization. Socialization is particularly powerful when we rely on these messages to determine our value.
One common “package” of messages I will call the “pleaser” socialization. Those who are socialized as pleasers have been taught to have their attention on the needs and expectations of other people. They have been socialized to believe that their value depends on their ability to keep other people happy. Pleasers generally don’t spend a lot of time prioritizing their own needs and desires. In fact, a pleaser may have never even considered what they themselves want or like.
Another common “package” of messages I will call the “achiever” socialization. Achievers have been taught that their value depends on what they accomplish. They have been socialized be competitive, to overcome obstacles, and to be “go-getters.” They have been taught to be focused and relentless in pursuit of their goals.
Labeling people as pleasers or achievers is, of course, a generalization. We all hold many different ideas about ourselves, even those that contradict each other. We are all encouraged, to some extent, to be achievers and, to some extent, to be pleasers. The specific amounts of these messages, and so many others, come together to contribute to our own unique self-concept. Although unavoidable, any kind of socialization is harmful because it interferes with us expressing our true authentic selves.
I will now proceed with my example. Suppose you have two people, one who was predominantly socialized to be an achiever, and the other who was predominantly socialized to be a pleaser. Although either type of socialization can be demonstrated by people of any gender, for the sake of simplicity, I will use the name Kelly and he/him pronouns for the achiever and the name Angel and she/her pronouns for the pleaser.
Suppose Kelly wants to ask Angel out on a date. Angel doesn’t want to go out with Kelly but isn’t comfortable saying “no.” Maybe she’s afraid to hurt his feelings. Maybe she’s afraid he will respond to her “no” with anger, and she doesn’t want to deal with that. Instead of saying “no,” or possibly in addition to saying “no,” she responds by giving a reason. She might say, “I have friends visiting from out of town and I’m really busy with them.”
This can be a problem because when Kelly hears a reason, he doesn’t hear a “no,” even though that is what Angel intended. Instead, he interprets the reason as an obstacle to overcome to get to “yes.” Because achievers are socialized to overcome obstacles, he may put a lot of effort into trying to overcome this obstacle. He may address the reason for the “no” instead of actually hearing the “no.” This can happen even if “no” is explicitly stated along with the reason. He might ask, “How long are your friends in town?” with the intention of asking her out again after they leave. Other examples of how someone might attempt to overcome a reason are illustrated below.
As this example demonstrates, the danger in giving a reason instead of a direct “no,” is that the conversation becomes about the reason. The achiever might put a huge amount of effort into addressing the reason, anticipating that the response will turn to “yes,” only to discover that the answer remains a “no.” The worst-case scenario is that one person thinks they are negotiating while the other person is a “no” and has been all along, right from the beginning.
Let’s assume Angel’s original intention in avoiding a direct “no” was to try to avoid hurting Kelly’s feelings or “making” him angry. However, sometimes avoiding a direct “no” is more likely to result in hurt feelings. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, giving a direct “no” is usually safer than giving a reason.
If they choose to, both Kelly and Angel have ways they can prevent such a misunderstanding. In order to do so, they each need to overcome some part of their cultural conditioning. Kelly needs to be willing to hear “no.” He needs to be open to letting go of his agenda. He can also benefit from realizing why Angel might be hesitant to give a direct “no,” and by communicating to her that she won’t face undesirable consequences for being honest. Angel can benefit from being clear and direct in her response, without trying to soften or justify it by giving a reason. She can be more “unreasonable.” It would be helpful for them both to know that their desires and preferences are okay, even if someone else wants something different.
“No is a complete sentence.” Just saying a simple “no” is (or should be) sufficient, but if Angel wants to give more information, framing her response in terms of her preferences rather than objective reasons is more effective. Here are some examples.
No thank you. I’m not interested.
No. That doesn’t work for me.
That doesn’t feel right to me.
I’m not comfortable with that.
Objective opinions tend to invite discussion and debate. Everybody has opinions and many people feel entitled to express them. Some even attack others who have different opinions, and this results in polarization. On the other hand, preferences, like feelings, can’t be argued with because they are part of internal, personal subjective experience. No one can legitimately say I shouldn’t feel what I’m feeling or that I shouldn’t prefer what I do. Nobody can disagree with a preference, and any attempt to do so is a boundary crossing. Someone else can have a different preference, but they have no right to try to convince me that there’s anything wrong with mine.
Reasons can be argued with or seen as an obstacle to be overcome because they appear objective. In contrast, because preferences are subjective, it’s pointless to argue with them. If you say, “Broccoli sucks,” that’s an objective opinion that others might disagree or argue with. On the other hand, if you say, “I don’t like broccoli,” nobody can disagree. That’s why it’s more effective to express preferences rather than reasons.
In summary, when someone wants something from you, it’s okay to say “no” without having to explain or justify. You don’t have to give a reason. It’s empowering to be “unreasonable.”