Your Mom calls up from wherever she is and says in a happy, bubbly voice that she’s coming to visit and isn’t it great, she can come next week and stay for a month! 

You feel panic begin to creep in but you shove it off. You can handle this, your inner voice says. You’ve been practicing saying No. Mom is a particular challenge. She has a hard time remembering you have a life separate from hers even though you moved out twenty years ago. You know you have a battle ahead because your first “Sorry, mom, but it’s not a good time for me”, will be barreled over, as will the second and third. She is expert at wearing you down. She raised you to be a people pleaser and damn if she isn’t excellent at punching that button.

Some people just won’t take No for an answer. 

We are often related to those people. Not always, but they are often our Mom. 

How do we learn to say No to our Mom and not feel terribly guilty? I’m going to tell you how. Brace yourself because it isn’t easy, it’s going to be uncomfortable but if you stick to the plan it does get better.

First acknowledge that you are probably a people pleaser. That means that from a very young age when your brain was emerging from its pre-adolescent goo, you were taught that if you pleased Mom you would be rewarded. Your brain lit up when Mom smiled and sang your praises any time you did her bidding. It’s pretty much as simple as that. Positive reward is so attractive it makes you high so you do it again and again. 

At some point you do what most healthy humans do, differentiate. That means we begin to realize “Hey! I’m a separate person from Mom! She likes pistachio ice cream, I like salty caramel (OMG who doesn’t?). I like to hike, she likes to shop. I want to hang out with my friends more then hang out with her.” 

Parents might feel a little pang when this happens to their little mini-me but they go with it, even encourage it, because it’s the right thing to do to help your kid develop  good boundaries. For the Mom who can’t take No for an answer it’s another story.

What are Good Boundaries?

When two people have good boundaries they can disagree without it being a threat to the relationship. Differences are appreciated as much as similarities. You can be you and I can be me and all is well. You see why this is important for any relationship, right? 

So when Mom disregards your boundaries and declares that she’s coming for a visit and staying with you for weeks without even asking if it’s OK, we’re talking Defcon 5 Warning, Warning! 

The Mom Call

Mom: Honey, isn’t it great? I can come on Friday and stay until the end of the month! We’ll have so much fun!

You: Oh, Mom, I’m sorry. I can’t. I have work.

Mom: That’s OK, sweetie. I’ll help out. You go to work and when you come home I’ll have dinner all ready for you.

You: Um, sure, um, that sounds great but I won’t be able to spend time with you. It’s a really busy time.

Mom: Is there a problem here? Do you not want me to come? 

Authors Note

This is a totally fictional dialog and I’m having heart palpitations! Let’s not panic. Let’s put our big girl ‘Just Say No’ pants on and continue…

Dr Aletta

You: Mom, I love you. This just isn’t a good time. 

Mom: Well, I’m sorry to hear that. I thought you’d be thrilled.

You: Let’s figure out when it would work for both of us to get together. How about I come to you for Labor Day? 

Mom: What if that’s not good for me? I still don’t see why I can’t come this weekend.

You: I know. I just have to say no for this weekend but I’d like to plan a time that is good for us both. If Labor Day doesn’t work, there’s Thanksgiving. What do you think?

Mom: I think you’ve changed and I don’t like it.

You: OK. Maybe we both need to think about this. I’ve got to go now. I’ll be in touch. I love you. Bye.

Once you hang up your heart might still be doing the mambo but there will be relief and self-pride in the mix. Below are the steps you took to say No to your Mom who wouldn’t take no for an answer:

  1. You did not back down. Despite being blind-sided you were as direct as you could be without bashing her in the head with it. You repeated the No in various ways. Any reasonable person would have taken the hint early on and, with acceptance, say “OK, I guess this weekend won’t work.”
  2. You were always kind. You did not raise your voice or get nasty.
  3. You did not take her thinly veiled accusations personally. You realized this is her being her; that she has responsibility for her own actions. For your mental health it’s reasonable that you don’t subjugate your life to please her. 
  4. You gave yourself permission to be uncomfortable in the service of being your own best advocate.
  5. You offered reasonable alternatives. She shot them down but you tried to find a compromise nonetheless.
  6. You did not take the bait. As much as she tried to provoke a response from you that would assure her that you were still her biddable mini-me, you held your ground. Your responses said, “I’m a grown up. I’m confident in my individualism. I can love you and not agree with you at the same time.”
  7. When it became obvious she was not going to take your NO for an answer no matter how hard you worked, you politely ended the conversation.

Good for you! That’s how you say No to someone who won’t take No for an answer! You will need to do this many, many times before it feels comfortable for you. A good therapist can help you feel more secure in your sensible need to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. 

Do you have questions? Please ask them in the comments!

dr aletta