Joseph Cramer, M.D.: When asked to do good, know why you are saying 'yes'

Published: Monday, June 30 2014 4:05 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, July 2 2014 4:14 p.m. MDT

With emotional education, anyone without training can still learn. It is a skill, not a gift. It is a way of doing interpersonal business in which, with effort and some tutelage, a person can become an expert.

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First lady Nancy Reagan introduced the phrase “Just say no” into the language of American pop culture. Her simple suggestion was an effort to give kids a quick way to turn down drugs: "Just say no to drugs."

Without her permission and with the request that you keep reading beyond my six-word adaptation, I want to borrow her lead-in phrase, “Just say no!”

As neither a first lady nor a first anything, I say, “Just say no to doing good.”

Here is where that promise to keep reading kicks in. Here are all the qualifiers. I am not saying do evil. I am not saying don’t push yourself beyond yourself. I am not saying mediocrity is fine or that a little sin is OK with or without the few stripes.

The message is to perhaps only a select few, or maybe there are many, who need to be reminded to "just say no" to good.

I am thinking about all of those who can't say "no" to everyone’s demands. The targeted audience is those who seem incapable of saying "no" to the request of others even when they cannot fulfill the petition.

The emotional need to please everyone, satisfy all and volunteer for everything can be a problem. The challenge is when, in the name of wanting to do good and to make certain the asker knows we want to help, we either end up doing poorly or failing completely. In appeasing others, we let them and ourselves down.

This is not something for those who can and should do more for the right reasons. Forgetting oneself is a charitable act. Doing, rather than only thinking, is noble. And doing good is always better than doing bad.

However, a constant need to please others can be a sign of childhood emotional neglect. Some experts talk about three types of parents and their forms of neglect. There are the narcissistic parents. There are the parents who are overwhelmed with the vicissitudes of life. The third category, which I believe is the most pervasive and most hidden, is the parent who was not taught by his or her parents to recognize emotions.

I prefer not to call this third form emotional neglect, although that is the result. It is emotional myopia, or nearsightedness. Sight is blurred, and frequently the parental vision is weak. It is not that any decent parent wants to ignore his or her child. In fact, these parents often are great in every way except in being emotionally educated. Some call this emotional intelligence, as though it is an IQ test and people are either emotionally smart or not.

Instead, it is the absence of emotional education. There is a deficiency in experience and teaching. With emotional education, anyone without training can still learn. It is a skill, not a gift. It is a way of doing interpersonal business in which, with effort and some tutelage, a person can become an expert.

Studies have shown that if parents have not had this person-to-person emotional education, they cannot pick up on facial, meaning emotional, clues from their baby. The consequence is that the child learns that his or her needs are not important, and therefore that he or she is not important. The great news is that if parents practice, they can become as good at recognizing and responding to emotions as the adult who was taught from infancy.

The homework is simple. Start now.

  1. Write your feelings down on paper.
  2. Use we, not as a royal we or as if you are missing your companion, but to connect empathetically.
  3. Ask what others are feeling to measure your impressions.
  4. When you are tempted to say, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate/love, care/feel," don’t say it. Find and use words of feelings and say, "I want to tell you how much …"
  5. Make a gratitude journal.
  6. Tell others how you feel.
  7. Let others tell you how they feel. Your first instinct may be to shut them off or to tell them a joke. Don’t do it.
  8. Cry, laugh and say you understand.
  9. Don’t say everything is right to a person when everything is wrong.
So next time you are asked to do good, know why you are saying "yes." Otherwise, just say "no."

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: jgcramermd@yahoo.com

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