Many of us, if we’re honest, tend to base the criteria for whether we feel good about ourselves on how other people respond to us. Without realizing it, we operate a little like this:
I am a good person if I make other people happy.
I am a bad person if I hurt other people.
However, there are several problems with this system of self-evaluation. You can make someone happy by promising something you ultimately can’t deliver on. And, you can hurt someone and be a true friend. So, saying “No” and hurting someone does not make you a bad person. It means you need to dig a little deeper.
You will hurt people in this life. The question isn’t if that makes you a bad person. The question is what kind of hurt are we talking about?
Hurting to Heal. When a doctor performs surgery, she has to make an incision. She has to hurt you before she can heal you. As with that doctor, sometimes the hurt you cause will be a form of kindness, the result of doing something brave. You might be called to speak up honestly in ways that are good for another person that they cannot see. For example, when you say “No” to your child in a loving, firm way, you teach them how to tolerate healthy boundaries. They might hate it in the moment. But, they will be so much better off in the long run.
Or, if you say “No” to toxic behaviors early on in a relationship, you might hurt someone you care about. Yet, that “No” that you say may well be the healthiest, most God-honoring action you’ve taken. It may help that person see something important about themselves, that no one else has had the courage to say. I can remember a few times as a young adult when an honest person said “No” to me in this way. It hurt in the moment. But, I am forever grateful for the way their “No” helped develop my character.
Hurting out of Human Limits. Other times, you will hurt people simply because you are a human with limits on your time, capacity, and ability to be present. Maybe you have to say “No” to a friend or a colleague because you are swamped with other priorities. You are not doing anything wrong, but your “No” might evoke some pain in the other person. This is an extremely hard reality to face, and one that keeps us humble before God. You simply cannot meet every need or soothe every pain. Your “No” might cause pain, but it’s a “No” that is their responsibility to take.
Hurting out of Fear. You can also hurt people by indulging them or leading them on out of fear. For example, you may see a lot of red flags in a relationship, but continue to stay in it out of fear of hurting the other person. Instead of speaking up honestly and risking hurting their feelings, you continue to hide what you really feel. Over time, that person is blind-sided when you finally hit the eject button. It might have been kinder if you had “hurt” that person earlier on with an honest, “No, that does not work for me.”
Hurting out of Pain. Sometimes, you might hurt someone because you feel angry at them. Maybe they have hurt you, and you want to get them back. You might be aware that you are trying to cause pain in the moment, or you might realize it after the fact. If you are reading this and finding yourself in this category, good for you! It is never too late to own it, grieve your action, and turn from it (repent). You are not a bad person. You are a human who has experienced the good kind of hurt God brings when he gives us the gift of conviction (see “Hurting to Heal”).
If you see yourself in either of these last two categories, you are not a bad person. You are someone who is working hard to get honest with yourself as you heal and become more whole with God’s help. Remember, that learning to say “No” may well be the best way forward in your desire to stop hurting others out of your own fear or pain.
Why is it So Hard to Say “No”?
In order to say “Yes” to the life God has for you, you will have to learn to say “No”. You will need, at times, to tell your spouse, child, friend, or colleague:
- “That is not a behavior I will tolerate.”
- “I’m not going to make it this weekend. I’m taking time for myself.”
- “I’m not available to help you with that.”
- “I’m not going to be able to show up for you in this way anymore.”
If the “No” you are facing feels impossible, ask yourself this key question:
What am I afraid will happen if I say “No”?
Notice your honest response without judgment. Typically those fears fall in one of three categories:
Fear of What They Will Think
In this case, you’re basing too much of your worth in what they will think about you. There’s no shame in that, but it’s important to notice. Start asking yourself deeper questions like these:
- What does God think?
- What do I think of me?
- What do people I trust think of this situation?
- Where did I learn that what they think of me is more important than what God or I think of me?
Don’t rush to quick answers. Instead, start to notice the messages you’ve believed. These messages have likely been with you for a very long time. It’s going to take some time to change it.
Fear of Retaliation
If you’re afraid of retaliation or repercussion, get curious about that. What can this person actually do to harm you? Can they fire you? Harm you physically? Slander you to other friends? These are very real concerns. I get it. Don’t take them lightly. Get support in these cases. That being said, fear of retaliation is a good sign that a “No” needs to be said.
It’s incredibly hard to stand up to abusers and bullies. Arm yourself well and get the support that you need first. But don’t let your fear drive your decision making. Instead, let it alert you to the kind of person you’re up against.
Fear of Causing Pain
If you are sensitive to the feelings of others or high in empathy, the fear of hurting someone is very real. You may sense their hurt before they do. It’s excruciating to be the one to cause pain.
For those high in empathy, the pain that comes from hurting someone is often more profound than that of being hurt. Stay with it. You are not a bad person. A part of you is just human, and that part of you that can not be what the other person needs or desires is worthy of love, too. That part of you needs God’s love and your understanding. Hurting other people (when done with integrity) is a reminder of our humanity. We are not meant to play God. We are human.
As you consider your fear of hurting someone with your “No”, remind yourself of these truths:
Telling someone what they want to hear isn’t good for anyone.
You can speak honestly without being cruel.
Being clear about what you will and won’t do shows respect for yourself and for other people.
Your “No” is a profound form of kindness.
“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” —Prov. 27:6