Healthy Parent / Healthy Child, Part Three: Saying no (kindly) and then let go

Danielle B. Grossman, MFT
Special to the Sun

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; Part two of this series explored the importance of taking responsibility for managing your own emotional experiences in increasingly mature and competent ways. This article focuses on the flip side of emotional responsibility and#8212; the importance of modeling the psychological skill of not taking responsibility for how other people manage their emotions. Taking this type of unhealthy responsibility for others exhausts you mentally, physically, and emotionally and gets you stuck in depleting relationships with people who fail to take enough emotional responsibility.

To be clear, unhealthy responsibility is not about being too loving or too giving. It is not about being too helpful or too caring. Healthy responsibility may in fact involve giving a lot of support and attention for others. Unhealthy responsibility for others comes into play when you start believing being good to others involves being responsible for controlling the way they react when you say and#8216;no.and#8217;

The and#8216;noand#8217; could be something minor or something major. It could be saying to your girlfriend and#8220;No, I donand#8217;t want to go out to dinner tonight,and#8221; or saying to your child and#8220;No, you may not have an iPhone,and#8221; or saying to your mother, and#8220;No, weand#8217;re not coming at Christmas this year,and#8221; These and#8220;noand#8217;sand#8221; may bring a range of reactions, from and#8220;sure no problem,and#8221; to and#8220;I hate you.and#8221;

But ask yourself, does it make sense for you to be responsible for how others react? Imagine if your neighbor knocked on your door and told you he is so hurt and upset whenever you close your blinds he is going to throw a rock through your window every time he sees the blinds are closed. Whatand#8217;s more, he says, it will be your fault for shutting him out like that.

If you agree with his logic, you are in a bind. You can leave your blinds open and feel uncomfortable and unsafe in our own home, or you can close your blinds and be the one to blame if you get rocks thrown through your window.

Ridiculous, isnand#8217;t it? But that is exactly the crazy distortion about responsibility into which relationships might pull you.

Breaking patterns of unhealthy responsibility means challenging those distortions and becoming clear about what is your job, and what is not your job:

It is your job to decide when to say no.

It is your job to say no when it reflects your careful consideration of your own needs and the needs of others. For example, your thoughts may be and#8220;I donand#8217;t want to go to Christmas at my motherand#8217;s, and neither do my children, but my mother wants us there. This year Iand#8217;ll say no, and then perhaps next year Iand#8217;ll say yes.and#8221;

It is your job to say no in a direct but kind manner. and#8220;I deeply appreciate the invitation for Christmas, but we are not going to be coming this year.and#8221;

It is your job to listen to your mother plead her case and to carefully consider her preferences, such as, and#8220;This year is important to me because it is the last year in this house.and#8221; If this is new information, you may re-consider your decision in light of these facts. If it is not new information, or if you still want to say no, then it is your job to say and#8220;I understand your preference, but we are not coming this year.and#8221;

It is your job to listen to your motherand#8217;s reaction and interpretation of this no. and#8220;I guess you just canand#8217;t be bothered with your mother anymore,and#8221; she might say.

It is your job to clarify your own feelings, and#8220;I do love and care about you, but I also am not coming to Christmas this year.and#8221;

It is your job, in the case of telling your child no, to help the child learn strategies to manage their reactions to no for an answer.

It is your job to get the support you need to take care of yourself emotionally and physically, and protect your children, if and when there is danger from a person reacting badly to a no.

Then? It is your job to let go.

In the example of mother, she might be angry and hurt. She may choose to never invite you to Christmas again. She may decide to drink herself into an alcohol stupor. She may decide to tell your siblings how awful you are. But none of this is your responsibility. The way she interprets your no and the choices she makes following your no are not your responsibility. Instead, it is your job to let go of that responsibility.

Letting go is hard. It is painful to have to deal with someone you love being angry with you. It is painful when someone you love is in pain. It is painful to watch someone you love make destructive choices. It is scary to let go of trying to control their reactions.

If you continue to feel responsible for how others react to your no, however, you are agreeing to be a part of an unhealthy relationship based in distorted concepts of responsibility. Your only hope for a healthy relationship is to continue to work toward breaking your own patterns of unhealthy responsibility.

Fortunately for those who want to transform unhealthy responsibility into healthy responsibility, there are internal signals that alert you when you are possibly falling prey to misconceptions about responsibility. Two of those signals are guilt and resentment. Guilt and/or resentment often reflect an anxiety around saying no that comes from feeling responsible for the other personand#8217;s reaction. When you feel guilt and/or resentment, you have an opportunity to reflect on whether you are fulfilling your responsibilities in no saying. If so, you must try, try, try and#8230; to let go.

As you become increasingly experienced at saying no (kindly) and then letting go, you create a solid foundation for your family, built on healthy ideas about emotional responsibility. With less energy depleted by taking on and#8216;stuffand#8217; thatand#8217;s not yours, you have more strength and energy to invest into taking care of your family. Your children learn healthy responsibility by watching how you relate to others, and how you handle saying no to them.

Donand#8217;t be discouraged if you canand#8217;t change your patterns of unhealthy responsibility quickly. While the idea of saying no and letting go may be simple, carrying it out in real life is messy, sticky, and confusing. But with some motivation, some work, and support, it can be done, and the liberation and strength you gain can help fuel your process forward.

and#8212; Danielle B. Grossman, California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, specializes in relationships, loss, anxiety, codependence, and addiction. She consults by phone for mental health professionals nationally. Contact her at 530-470-2233 or

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.