What Do You Actually Owe Other People?

Picture yourself walking down the street. Behind you, you hear an unfamiliar, but cheerful voice call out. “Hey there! Can I have a moment of your time?”


What thoughts go through your mind in this hypothetical scenario? How are you likely to react? Will you stop and look behind you, put your head down and walk faster, turn and greet the individual, or turn and tell him/her to leave you alone using a series of expletives?


Many of my patients struggle with telling people no, even when saying yes harms them. They loan money to friends and family when they are over $100,000 in debt. They accommodate their boss by staying at work for 12+ hours while knowing they will not be paid for anything beyond 8 hours. They bend over backwards to accommodate every desire of a romantic partner while never getting to do the things they enjoy. They feel obligated to the parents that horrifically abused them. They are easily crushed by the snide comments of others and desire nothing more than to be loved and accepted by most people. If any of this sounds familiar, this blog post is intended for you. If you fell for my fake sales pitch at the beginning of this post, you also need this.


It may sound harsh but being unable to say no communicates that you are worth less than other people and that it is relatively easy to take advantage of you. Let’s break down my fake sales pitch to illustrate this. The three things usually required for a salesman to make a successful sale are trust, value, and familiarity. In other words, consumers tend to buy things from people they like that give them a decent price on something of superior quality or reliability. That is why companies spend billions of dollars building and maintaining brands that transcend business to become cultural icons that are associated with memories and nostalgia. By being receptive to the stranger’s sales pitch on the street, you are communicating “I trust very easily and can probably be manipulated into accepting the words of a con artist posing as or citing an authority figure.” In other words, to someone with antisocial tendencies, your receptivity to the sales pitch of a stranger communicates that you are a suitable candidate for a con.


Let’s go back to the patient examples I described. Often, the inability to say no stems from rules tied to low self-esteem that people have established for themselves unconsciously. Without conscious awareness of these rules, they cannot change them and are doomed to repeat them. In the loan example, the individual may believe that others are more deserving of money than he/she is or may believe that he/she is obligated to help friends and family no matter what. Being taken advantage of by a boss may stem from an unrealistic fear of being fired, a fear of disappointing an authority figure, or a sense of constant obligation to an employer for the privilege of having a job. The urge to be a chameleon in romantic relationships is often tied to beliefs that his or her romantic partner won’t love the “real” them or will leave and find someone better if he/she doesn’t continue living as the ideal romantic partner. Abusive parents often overtly teach their children that they owe them, they need to keep their secrets, and that no one else would love them if they knew the flawed person they raised.


For individuals that struggle with saying no, the first step in establishing healthy boundaries is learning to love and value themselves. At the end of the day, if you don’t value who you are, why should anyone else?


The thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of Dr. Lee only. Nothing in this blog should be construed as representing official FDA policies or views.