A few months ago, I was at the airport awaiting a flight and needed something to page through. I had never been a regular reader of Psychology Today, but stumbled upon an issue that I found interesting: The Power of No. It discusses how confident people set limits in their relationships. In reading this, I felt that it was very meaningful and simple to convey (although much more difficult to fully embrace).
There are relational, biological, and psychological factors present when someone sets limits on another. In a broad sense, the limit-setter is demonstrating to the recipient that his or her needs are ‘winning’ over the needs of the other. This would include the needs for time management (“No, I can’t stay late tonight as I’m going to see my daughter’s play”), needs for resource allocation (“No, I was planning to eat that”), and needs for personal value affirmation (“No, I don’t like it when you say that”).
In terms of biology, the recipient of the word ‘No’ actually experiences a chemical release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. This effect triggers a fight-or-flight response and is driven by our primal brain. For example, if a hungry person is approaching food and is told ‘No,’ there is a small fear that they will starve. This example may seem dramatic, but keep in mind that the transmitter release is only temporary. Our brain will move on to our next collection of thoughts, emotions, and decisions. There also is a release of norepinephrine by the limit-setter. This is in preparation for potential backlash around limits. Within families with severe illness, personality disorders, or addiction, members often feel ‘held hostage.’ They are completely deterred from setting limits due to the emotional, or physical, violence that comes after uttering ‘No.’
From a psychological perspective, the dilemma of effective limit-setting has been described as ‘codependency.’ This term is actively used in the addiction-recovery field and involves family structure and their response to the narcissism of the addict or alcoholic. Family members often feel that accountability and limit-setting is impossible. Codependency concepts have some validity, but run the danger of being too generalized. Any caring parent who would sacrifice for the welfare of a child could be labeled as codependent. When I discuss this with my patients, my approach tends to involve simplifying the problem and working on something as specific as the use of the word ‘No.’ I would encourage you to pay attention to the next time you deliver and receive the word. Healthy use of limits involves the freedom to use all tools at your disposal, including this powerful two-letter word.