The courage to say ‘No’:
“I wish I hadn’t said ‘Yes,’ I just don’t have the time!”

"Gandhi" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Gandhi” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Why do some people agonize over simply saying no?

Personality Development

It is ingrained in the brain. As we grow up, we all develop different parts of the personality to help us survive and thrive in our given circumstances within our family or group. To win the love or acceptance we desire or to avoid negative criticism or worse, we end up emphasizing certain traits, such as being funny, athletic, tough, responsible, smart, special, invisible, or accommodating. Our “personality” then becomes formed by our primary attributes, or our “primary selves.”

Accommodating Personality

For those people who have learned that they thrive best by being agreeable and accommodating, saying no can be particularly difficult. This desire to be liked by others (or not to be disliked), which becomes ingrained in the unconscious, makes us want to please others. The thought of saying no comes tinged with the fear of causing disappointment, dating back to not wanting to disappoint our parents or caregivers on whom we were dependent for security and love.

Once we become adults, that fear of saying no is no longer appropriate and reasonable, at least in most situations. But the neural-circuitry developed in our brains in childhood lingers on until we change it. That circuitry says, “Don’t disappoint or you’ll have to pay for it. If you say no, arguments will ensue, affection will be withdrawn, etc.”

Being More Whole

1. The first step is to realize that some emotions are habits that are no longer in our best interest.

2. The second step is to practice saying no peacefully, that is, in a neutral, kind way, but without fear or weakness. Note that tone of voice is more important than what is said.

3. The third step is to give an honest reason without being overly-apologetic or making up excuses.


You just got home from work, exhausted, and your wife asks you to clean the garage.

I might have time this weekend. Right now I’m exhausted and would like to relax and enjoy being home.


I’ve been working a lot. I really don’t like that kind of work. We need to hire someone to do that, or let’s do it together.


Your boyfriend asks you to drive him to the airport when you had other plans.

I’d love to, but I already have other plans. Sorry.


Your friend wants you to go out tonight, but you don’t feel like it.

I’d love to see you but I am just not in the mood to go out tonight. Let’s do it another time. Have fun without me.


An acquaintance wants you to volunteer for some good cause or to donate money.

Sorry I can’t. I have too many other obligations.


That’s a great cause, but we have already donated to other organizations and can’t extend ourselves anymore.

There are some situations where an unambiguous and emphatic No is appropriate. You need not excuse it. These situations often arise in peer pressure situations, dangerous situations or unwanted sexual advances—any time there is a threat to your person or those close to you.

Once people who have trouble saying no realize how easy it is, they will no longer agonize about it. It’s important to realize that it’s not only healthier for you but that it’s better for others if you do not do things that will deplete you or cause resentment. Moreover, people have more respect for those whose desire to please is reasonable and moderate, rather than extreme and self-defeating. When people know that you can say no, they will truly appreciate it when you say yes.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Overfunctioning and underfunctioning: ‘If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.’”

Read “Setting Boundaries.”

Read “Too Responsible to Enjoy.”

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