Often people cannot say no because they dread disappointing others. As you grow up, you develop different parts of the personality to help you survive and thrive in your given circumstances. To win the love or acceptance you desire or to avoid negative criticism or worse, you end up emphasizing certain traits, such as being responsible, smart, or accommodating. Your “personality” then becomes formed by your primary personality traits.*
Accommodating people learn early on that they thrive best by being agreeable and compliant. Their desire to please others dates back to not wanting to disappoint the people they were dependent on for security and love. When this desire to accommodate becomes excessive, the thought of saying no becomes tinged with a feeling of dread.
As an adult, the fear of saying no is not always reasonable or helpful. But the neural-circuitry developed in your brain in childhood still says, “Don’t disappoint or you’ll have to pay for it.” “If you say no, arguments will ensue, affection will be withdrawn, etc.” Or “If you don’t make her happy, she will be sad and she is too fragile to handle sadness.” That brain circuitry lingers on until you change and replace it.
How to say no, and become more whole
To avoid resentment and depleting your energy, you have to be able to say no to things you don’t have the time or desire to do. When you can be candid about your needs and desires without feeling dread, you will feel more whole and confident. Others will respect and enjoy you more because they will know that no means no, and yes means yes.
1. The first step is to realize that some emotions are habits that are no longer in your best interest.
2. The second step is to practice saying no peacefully, firmly, and confidently, that is, in a neutral, kind way, but without fear or weakness. Tone of voice is more important than the actual words.
3. The third step is to give an honest reason without being overly-apologetic. Don’t sound guilty or embarrassed to say no. And don’t give a litany of excuses. Simple and short is best.
You just got home from work, exhausted, and your partner 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/girlfriend asks you to drive him/her to the airport when you have other plans.
I’d love to, but I already made plans to play soccer/finish a work project. 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 sounds like a great cause, but we have already donated to other organizations and can’t extend ourselves anymore.
Note that there are circumstances where a clear, emphatic No without any explanation is appropriate, as for example, when there is a threat to you or those close to you, such as in dangerous or peer-pressure situations.
Once people who have trouble saying no realize how easy it is, they will no longer agonize about it. 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
*See Dr. Hal Stone and Dr. Sidra Stone’s Theory of Selves.