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  • Friedhelm (Counsellor)

Why can’t people say “NO”?

“My spouse just can’t say no to the request or demands of others.”


Have you heard this remark before? Does your spouse demand that you say “no” next time? Does he or she accuses you of neglecting him or her for the sake of pleasing others? Are you surprised by this?


When we can’t say “no” when we actually should, creates the risk that someday it may lead to a marriage breaking incident or crisis situation in the relationship.


There is a good chance that the reason why people can’t say “no” as adults, has to do with experiencing intense shame in childhood. Being in an environment which was disgraceful or shameful. Poverty, alcoholism, divorce, abuse, bodily shortcomings, or a dysfunctional family may all lead to moments of an intense feeling of shame. It gets worse when a primary caregiver like a father or mother is the origin of the disgrace. The child is placed in a position where he or she has to frequently cover up or hide this shameful behaviour of his parent.


What then is the connection between feeling ashamed as a child and an adult spouse that feels compelled to please others and can’t say “no”?

In trying to escape the discomfort of feeling shame, we do one of the following.


We adapt our behaviour to a default response of “yes” in order that others appreciate, appraise and love us and that we do not feel unworthy. This behaviour becomes part of the personality. To say “no” to others results in the opposite of this desire.



Another way of getting rid of the uneasiness of feeling ashamed, is that we adapt our behaviour so that we change stressful or potential dangerous situations where people may feel unworthy, into a more relaxed one. To achieve this, people become “jokers.” They let everybody laugh. Then tension diminishes and we all become acceptable.



Both the pleaser and the joker faces are masks of the true self. They are defence mechanisms needed when a child has to deal with intense felt shame. The problem though is that in adult life, this false self becomes a hindrance in marriage. This over the top behaviour has to be toned down so that the behaviour is an appropriate response to a specific situation.

Do you know “jokers”? Now you know why. And why they are prone to being abused.


Want to change that? Than you got to remember that no repremandment of: “You should have said ‘no’”, will achieve anything. It will rather aggravate their ("dog") feeling of unworthiness. Why not build up their self-esteem? People with high self-esteem and self-worth, do not allow others to abuse them. They don’t mind to say “no” when it is not in their interest to say “yes.”


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