My clients often feel uncomfortable with saying “no”, even when it is to something that could bring them harm.
They passively give into the needs of others due to a fear of conflict or “being mean”, a lack of assertiveness skills, and family influences. What they don’t realize is that most likely their resentment will build and, later down the road, they will become aggressive.
When we feel that we have been taken advantage of we say to ourselves “I won’t let them get away with that again”.
In an attempt to be assertive we end up being outwardly or passively aggressive. Being too passive leads to low self-esteem, stress, abuse, a lack of purpose, and a sense of being out of control. We begin to believe that those we love most do not understand us – you might feel alone. And if that passivity turns to aggression? You will begin to feel even more alone as friends fall to the wayside and lose respect for you. People that practice assertiveness have higher levels of self esteem and tend to be less depressed.
Read the differences between assertive and aggressive communication below:
Assertiveness: “I respect myself & I respect you”
Aggression: “My needs are the only needs that matter”
Assertiveness: “Sometimes it goes my way, sometimes it doesn’t”
Aggression: “It’s my way or the highway”.
Assertiveness: “I am okay, you are okay, and we can disagree”.
Aggression: “I don’t like you if you don’t agree with me.”
Assertiveness: “We are equals”.
Aggression: “I am superior to you!”
Assertiveness: “I am confident in my feelings and beliefs”.
Aggression: “I feel threatened by you”.
Assertiveness: “I am going to criticize without blame”.
Aggression: “It is all your fault”.
Once you develop assertiveness skills, you may find family and friends sabotaging your new efforts. Change is difficult and others may have been benefiting from your passivity. Remember that there may be discomfort in changing your communication style, but over time the pay off will outweigh the price.
Elizabeth Earnshaw, MFT – www.abetterlifetherapy.com
The word “no” is interesting! It is just two little letters that we have assigned such importance. If you have a hard time saying no without feeling bad then there are two things going on that represent poor boundaries. One is taking responsibility for others emotions and the other is being a people pleaser.
There is a fundamental flaw in our society that says “I have power over your emotions and I need to be careful what I say because I could hurt you”. This is an absolute untruth and presumes we are much more powerful than we actually are. No one has control over someone else (except in cases of imprisonment and slavery). No one has control over someone else’s feelings. We are the expert of ourselves and have absolute ownership and control over our own emotions, thoughts and actions.
If someone says something to be that pushes a button, it is my choice how to handle it. I can be mad, I can cry, or I can say “sure, no problem” and go about my day. It is my choice which tool I pull out of my tool belt. Just know that when people have a reaction to something you say it is not because of you, it is because they are projecting their baggage, ALWAYS!
Second, it is not our job to fix; rescue and care give everyone else (this does not apply to children, the sick, elderly, etc.…). We do this because it leaves us feeling needed or good about ourselves. But it does not work and is draining because it robs people from learning about their own strength, resilience and creativity.
We are so conditioned to not feel “bad” that it has stopped us from learning our lessons. We are only responsible for our selves and if we say “no” and feel bad it is because we have work to do on ourselves.
Cynthia Pickett, LCSW, LADC – www.cynthiapickett.com
One of my clients described herself as “just a marshmallow” when it came to saying no.
Does that resonate with you? I must admit that I certainly know that feeling myself.
So how do you go from being a marshmallow to being someone who can say no effectively?
I would suggest that there is no one right way to say no. It depends on such things as culture, personality, values, goals, and situation.
So, to start out, take a look at your values and goals in relation to the different roles you play in life (e.g., parent, partner, colleague, neighbor, friend, family member.) What are your values and goals for yourself in each role? That is, what type of person are you trying to become within the confines of that role? What sort of things do you need to say yes to (or no to) in order to honor your values and meet your goals?
Look at the type of requests that are made of you throughout the course of a day.
Use your values to determine whether your response should be yay or nay. An author whose name I don’t recall put it rather graphically. He said, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a hell no!”
The second step involves emulation.
We learn much by modeling others and this skill is no different. Make a point of observing how other people say no and the results they get. Look at people you know, at political figures, at television and movie characters, etc. They all have their own ways of saying no, with varying results.
Now start trying out a variety of approaches.
Don’t expect to feel comfortable right away. And don’t expect excellent results immediately, either, because people are going to resist. Many of them will want you to remain your old marshmallow self, not someone who exudes self-confidence and self-respect.
But keep at it until you’re good at several styles. Honoring your personal values will help you know when to say, in so many words, “Hell yes” or “Hell no!”
Dr. Loral Lee Portenier – www.sacreddreamscoaching.com
The ability to say “no” without feeling mean or guilty changes from relationship to relationship.
What automatic rights you might feel on the other end of an uninvited “sales call” may be easier than refusing to meet the needs of someone you care about. For most of us, it is often not difficult to decline an invitation, request, or even a demand, from someone who just isn’t that important or the outcome doesn’t matter. But saying “no” to an intimate partner, whose every desire is crucial to us, can be much more difficult.
We learned to doubt ourselves very early in life if our nurturers used guilt as a weapon to control us.
To feel that guilt, we had to agree that we were not living up to their expectations of how we were supposed to think and feel and our emotional or physical survival may have depended on that behavior. If we disappointed them and they made it a point to tell us that on a regular basis, we internalized those judgmental voices and now react strongly to them in our adult relationships when we fear that our partners will be disappointed or leave us.
Guilt is a terrible burden and an ineffective teacher.
Resentment and hostility are often underneath. If someone really loved us, would they want us to feel guilty or bad about ourselves when we do not meet their needs? Of course, the answer is “no.” Yet, human beings try to get what they want any way they can that is within the bounds of feeling more or less okay about themselves. A partner who is willing to allow the other to take advantage may be hard to refuse if the desire is great and the opposition is weak. Other, more self-serving partners may not allow themselves to feel the other’s sacrifice if it means giving up their own needs.
Using simple “I” or “you” messages won’t help to diffuse the situation:
“I feel guilty when you ask me to do something I don’t want to do, so I want you to figure out in advance how I’m going to feel so you won’t do that,” just doesn’t work. Or, “If you really loved me, you would want to do the things that are important to me, so maybe you just don’t care enough.”
There is a way that these difficult and common negative exchanges can be diffused. It is not hard to master if you have good will and you really want to end these negative interactions. Begin with talking about your internal conflict as openly as you can and then say what you can do:
“I really love making you happy and wish I could grant your every desire without feeling my own conflict or compromise, but I sometimes can’t. I feel sad inside and sometimes inadequate when that happens, but I don’t want to do something that doesn’t feel right and then make you pay some way later after you think you’re fine with me. Let me tell you what part of what you want I can do willingly or what I need from you in return to make it okay.”
Now you have talked about your own internal battles and given an honest assessment of what you can give and what it would cost you and your partner. He or she can then decide to accept that or not. There is no guilt or meanness implied and a cooperative partner will not pretend there is.
Dr. Randi Gunther – www.randigunther.com
With more demands being made of our time than ever, being able to say no is a skill everyone should develop.
In the fabulous book Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters, author Dr. Joann Deak dedicates an entire chapter to the issue of girls and people pleasing behavior. Not wanting to disappoint others is a habit that can form early and if left unchecked, can add unnecessary stress to our lives well into adulthood.
So how do you say no?
The best way I have found I learned while training to become a therapist. A supervisor warned that in the mental health profession it is easy to become overwhelmed and it was important for us to learn to say no.
Her advice to us: When asked to do something, answer, “Can I take a day to think about it and get back to you?”
This simple, yet respectful response gives you time to not only check your schedule to see if you can, but also make sure you have the physical and emotional resources to take on an additional commitment. If you find that you can’t or don’t want to, the next day you can go back to the person and say, honestly, “I’ve thought about it and I just can’t fit another thing on my plate but I appreciate you thinking of me.” If they are upset or disappointed, or worse, try to make you feel guilty, that is on them to sort through.
Guilt is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong” so to feel “guilty” about saying no really doesn’t make sense.
Everyone has the right to self-care, to make his or her own family a priority, or to pursue a personal goal. If taking on another commitment you don’t have time for or interest in interferes with those, is it really a good choice for you to make?
When I speak to groups, I always share my 3 mottos for reducing stress and they are:
1. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to.
2. The “should” shouldn’t make you feel bad.
3. You can always change your mind.
If you are being pressured by someone to say yes, repeat these three mottos to yourself. They will help reinforce confidence in your decision to say no.
Megan Bearce, LMFT – www.meganbearce.com
It can be so hard for us to say no and set boundaries with others for so many reasons, although it is important in life that we be able to be assertive and voice our opinions comfortably, without being too passive or too aggressive. Below are some of the barriers that keep us from speaking up for ourselves, and some things to consider in working to push through them. I hope that everyone can achieve a place of confidence within themselves to feel free to speak their minds honestly, openly, unapologetically, and KINDLY.
- People who do not feel entitled often do not believe they deserve the things that they give to others, and so it is hard for them to ask for what they want and say no when they want to, because they have talked themselves out of believing they can follow their own gut.
- Believe that your feelings are valuable, valid, and deserve to be expressed. Entitlement is about self-care and knowing what we deserve as humans.
Approval of others and desire for acceptance
- We want others to like and accept us and so we go along with what they want.
- We believe that we need to be giving in order to build a bond. What we don’t realize is that anyone who is truly a friend will understand and want to hear and respect our feelings, so if we don’t want to do something it should be okay with them.
- Real relationships are accepting and unconditional, and although fears of acceptance and rejection are so common, it is important to remember that a real friend will be okay with no.
If you dig deeper most insecurities are rooted in lack of self-acceptance, and often self-acceptance work is crucial to feeling secure in relationships.
When will we learn that self-care is not selfish, and that selflessness is extremely destructive to confidence and identity? It is not just okay, but essential that we say our side and express how we feel, because no one else is going to do it for us. If we don’t protect ourselves from being treated unfairly and against our comfort, than who will? It is important to feel confident in self-protection abilities, and if we think it is selfish to do so, we will always struggle to feel secure in ourselves and relationships. It is okay to stand up for yourself and to express your feelings, even when they go against the wishes of someone else.
- Our values are our rules and expectations that we bring into relationships of all kinds that are often rooted in our families and their dynamics. We all learn different things about saying no and what happens when we are assertive with our feelings, and often these lessons mold how we interact in the present.
- We can explore and learn to let go of family conditioning, while challenging other values, to improve our ability to be assertive.
Discomfort with Assertiveness and Conflict
- Being assertive involves being able to express our opinions and feelings with power and confidence but without being mean.
- Often when we avoid being assertive our underlying emotions build up and we become angry and resentful, and if ever our concerns come to confrontation we blow up out of held onto emotion.
Lisa Resnick, M.A., EdM, LMHC, CHHC – www.lisaresnickholistictherapy.com
NO! You have no trouble saying it when you’re 2 — why is it such a problem now?
I guess at 2, you don’t even have the concept that people will be disappointed in you. By the time you’re a”grown up” however, you’ve been trained to say “yes” even if you don’t want to because you don’t want to cause a problem.
If you don’t attach guilt to your “no”, it will be a much easier concept for you to embrace. You have the right to turn down a request or an expectation.
The “how” is pretty easy. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but, it’s just not possible for me to meet you today”. “My schedule is too crowded, so I’ll have to say no”. “I really can’t discuss the reason, but that’s not going to work for me”. “I would love to help you, but I just can’t”.
Please notice, you don’t have to make up a convoluted story.
In fact, the less you say, the better. You won’t have to remember the details about what you gave as an excuse, because there aren’t any. Do not claim illness or that you’re going out of town. if it’s not true. You know that if you said you were going away you would run into your friend Joe as soon as you left home.
All things being equal, you do not have to put everyone else’s needs ahead of yours. If it’s a question of their discomfort or yours, why should you be the one to shoulder the burden?
Sometimes we have no choice, for example, in a work situation. But, if someone is using manipulation, pick up your magic shield and hold your ground. Of course Aunt Mary will be happy if you go to the market for her. But, if you really can’t and there is no alternate time, say “no”. It is extremely unlikely that Aunt Mary is going to starve. A case of extreme emergency is a different story, but, remember, a “user” will try to convince you that the world will stop spinning if you don’t comply.
Take enlightened good care of yourself first, then your generosity will be uncomplicated by resentment.
Think before you agree to something. Take your time, it is well worth it and will save more relationships than you can imagine.
Ruth Gordon, M.A., MSW, LICSW – www.foreverfabulousyou.com
Why is it so hard to say “no” to someone, even when we know that it would be best to do so?
Often we are reluctant to say “no” out of a fear of hurting someone’s feelings, disappoint or let someone down, or fear that the person we are saying “no” to won’t like us anymore. These fears are not reality-based, but come from old programming.
One aspect of this old programming is survival-based.
As human beings with no pointy teeth or claws, we have little in the way of natural defenses from predators, so there is safety in numbers. Social bonding is part of our DNA for good reason! That need for connection is communicated through our limbic system, which deals with our emotions and stress responses. Unfortunately, the circuitry in the limbic part of the brain often does not communicate very well with the logic and higher reasoning part of the brain which is well aware that we (probably) are not currently in need of a pack to defend against saber-tooth tigers.
Those survival circuits that tell us on an emotional-body level that it is scary to risk endangering a bond can keep us from saying “no” even when we are very aware from a logical point of view that saying “no” would not really be a crisis. Sometimes we have trouble saying “no” even when we objectively care little about the person making the request!
In order to create an opportunity to say “no” when you want or need to, check in with your body.
Notice where you tighten, hold, or cut yourself off. Breathe! Check in with the fears. Remind yourself that those fears are not about now, but come from an old place that is not based on the present or on your best interest.
As you identify the reality of the situation and recognize your limbic responses, you increase the communication between those different parts of the brain, and you can create new choices for yourself. When you are able to speak your truth from an authentic place, there is no need for the defensiveness or anger, and you have the opportunity to strengthen your connection with yourself and with others.
Wendy Dingee, MS, LCPC, LCADC, BCC – www.livewellnevada.com
Stephen Covey advised that when you are clear on your priorities and your mission, it is easier to say no.
He said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.”
Sound simple? What I have found is that most of us don’t know our priorities and our bigger yeses. So the first step is to take some time to figure out what is really important to you for your mind, body and spirit, and if you are in a relationship, what is important for the relationship. Based on that, you can develop a list of intentions.
Example Intentions . . .
We will spend more time together as a couple or family.
I will exercise every day to keep my body healthy.
I will schedule time to just be and replenish my spirit.
When you are asked to do one more thing, you can say no politely, with a statement something like this: “Thank you for thinking of me, but this Saturday is sacred family time, so I have to decline your invitation.”
Now you have guidelines to navigate your way through all of those requests. Keep a copy of your intentions on the fridge, by the phone or in your planner. The necessity to say no pops up all over the place, and you need to be armed and ready!
Linda McKenney, Personal Life Coach and Motivational Speaker – www.majokpersonalcoach.com
“A no uttered in truth is greater than a yes intended to please.” ~ Gandhi
Finding the sweet spot of assertiveness can feel like a balancing act, especially if we’re not yet comfortable with saying no.
As the quote above implies, saying “yes,” when every fiber in our being is silently screaming “no!,” can be rooted in wanting to please another. But could it be more complicated than that? Could it stem from our inner voice that tells us that we are not as important or as worthy as the other?
Perhaps we defer to others out of fear: fear that they will think less of us, be mad at us, or reject us in some way.
Connection with others is so ingrained in our biology, and so crucial for our survival, that saying “no” (and the possible accompanying threats associated) may unconsciously threaten our very existence on a primal, emotional level.
The flip side of feeling guilty for saying no can be that we muster the courage to say no, but swing too far to the point of being cruel.
While this may result in saving us from not doing whatever was requested, it still leaves us in a place of alienating the person who did the asking.
One step on finding the center point of that pendulum swing is working on your own feelings of worth.
The more esteem you hold for yourself, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to hold your own boundaries in a way that is respectful both to you and to others.
Marnee Reiley, M.A. – www.youroctherapist.com
Have you ever heard that “It’s not so much what you say, but how you say it.”
To take that one step further, it is not only howyou say it, but the spirit with which you say it.
If you say “yes” with resentment, or when you don’t really mean it, it will likely sound mean.
If you say “no” with awareness and love, it will likely not sound mean.
You are the only one who knows what you are willing and able to give.
If someone asks you for more than you are willing or able to give, you are allowed to say “no”. You do not need an excuse. You do not need to list off your other obligations. You simply need to know it for yourself.
Typically, we are asked for things because our contributions are valued. We are valued.
When we say “no”, our value doesn’t diminish. In fact, we are being excellent gatekeepers of our own resources.
Ultimately, the key is to say what is true. Say what is most authentic for you, without trying to manage the other person’s reaction. You do not need to manage the receipt of your response. You are not the receiver. You manage the conscious delivery. That is your job.
Example 1. Imagine if your mail carrier made a habit of taking a box-cutter to your letters, dropping them in the dirt, or delivering to the wrong address. This is an example of unaware delivery.
Example 2. Then imagine if your mail carrier didn’t deliver mail because she thought the contents might upset you. You suspect that she is withholding something, and that makes you uncomfortable. Further, your mail carrier doesn’t really know you, and you would like to make that determination. This is an example of managing reactions.
Example 3. Finally, what if your mail carrier delivers things carefully, leaves them gently in your mailbox, and does not edit the contents of your mail? Some mail may upset you, but that is yours to determine and not the business of the mail carrier. This is conscious delivery.
It is true that if someone is not ready for a boundary, your “no” may upset them. That is not yours to bear.
Elizabeth Baum, M.A., MFTi – www.elizabethbaumintegral.com
If saying “NO” is not an easy thing for you to do, join the club.
It’s like we are wired from the beginning to say “YES” to everything. It’s the polite thing to do, right? So, once we start doing that from the get-go it’s a habit and then by the time you’re in your mid-twenties and you are over-committed and can’t figure out how that happened.
I feel like I could be the president of the club most days. And I’ve improved. You don’t want to let anyone down and they need you. Well, who is that affecting more, them or you?
My guess would be you because you’ve taken on more than you can chew and it very well could be affecting your other relationships. Your boss asked you to take on another huge project that keeps you after work late, which consequently prevents you from getting home to your spouse or family. Who is taking the hit? How can you confidently say no and not forsake losing your job, friends, family, or peace of mind?
First, check out the book “Boundaries” by Henry Cloud (he’s got books on all sorts of boundaries for all sorts of relationships). He covers everything you need to know to protect yourself while still keeping friends. I recommend it to 90% of the people who walk in my door. We all need it.
Practice saying no.
Say it to yourself in the mirror. Say it to your dog. Tell your cat no. Do not be afraid of the word no. You can say it politely, “Thank you for the offer but…”, “How about we revisit this next week…”, “No, I don’t think that’s a very good idea…” No is in the language for a reason. If you give in and you don’t want to, that will lead you to resentment.
Reverse the roles.
So, Sally wants to go to drinks and you’ve already committed to Donald to go to dinner. No need to overbook yourself. You might be worried Sally will never ask you to drinks again or her feelings will be hurt. Change the scenario. You ask Sally for drinks, Sally says, “I wish I could, but I already have plans to eat with Donald tonight.” Easy. You understand, so Sally will understand as well. I am sure you make great company, but your friend will be okay if you can’t make it to everything they ask you to.
Does it make you happy?
If all of the running around and pleasing other people is exhausting and you find yourself more annoyed than enjoying what you’ve agreed to, take a time out. Do something for yourself. Turn your phone off. Go to a movie alone. Do something you want to do because you want to do it. Not because someone has asked you to or you’re expected to. You can’t always be the volunteer that chairs every event your local college chapter has, the classroom parent who plans all the holiday parties, or the go-to man in your office that gets all the projects.
You will burn out.
Remember, NO is not a bad word.
Haley Gage, M.A., LAPC – www.simplifiedatlanta.com
Self-doubt and inappropriate guilt can happen when you are unsure whether you have appropriately balanced the needs of others with the needs of yourself.
This equilibrium can be very difficult to find, because our sense of what is fair to ourselves and what is fair to others is not always accurate. There are a lot of pressures from relationships that can overwhelm your own needs, and lack of self-worth can make it difficult to feel entitled to stand up for what you feel, especially if it involves saying ‘no’ to someone.
If it is hard to see this balance clearly, try ‘turning the tables’.
Ask yourself, if this situation was applied to someone else, would it be unfair or mean for them to say ‘no’? So often, our ‘lens out’ is much more fair and accurate than our ‘lens in’, meaning we are able to see clearly that other people’s boundaries deserve enforcing, but when it comes to enforcing our own boundaries, we feel guilty for doing so.
If you can challenge this distortion by looking at yourself as you look at others, you will be more able to see the double-standard and challenge it.
Brett McDonald, M.S., LMHC – www.thedragonflyretreat.com
We’ve all been in a position where we really wanted to say no, but we found ourselves saying yes. Yes to a project at work when the old project is still in your desk. Yes to meet up with a friend for dinner when you’re exhausted from work. Yes to a child wanting a toy when your budget is tight this month. Logically, you know that you “should” say no but there is an emotional component that leads to the “Sure I can do that”.
Looking for approval from others
When you look outside of yourself for approval, you will find that you won’t be able to say no because you want that person to approve of you. What better way to get someone to approve of you then to say yes to their wishes. Where does your need for approval come from? That’s an important question to explore because without resolving your need to people please, you will not be able to do what is right for you.
Putting others first
Saying yes when we mean no also comes from a place where we deny our needs and think of the needs of others first. This is a very common pattern with parents. They deny themselves things and give 100% to those children. The downfall to that is when you give 100% the first time to someone else, you won’t have any to give to yourself. Then you aren’t recharging and becoming more available to those you care about. Why do you put yourself last? The answer will help you to deal with underlying feelings, such as shame, that lead you to deny yourself.
Not sticking to your values and priorities
This is a common theme when it comes to saying yes to things related to money. If you value saving money and living within your means, then there might be many times when you have to say no to things so you can stick to your priorities of saving money. If you value your personal time, then say no when you are asked to stay late at work. What are your values and when have there been times when you said yes to something that was in direct conflict with your values?
There are questions under each session which is a good start to journaling on this subject if you are struggling with being a “Yes Man” when you really want to be a “Thank you but no” person.
Amanda Patterson, LMHC – www.browardcounseling.com
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