Why do we have such a hard time saying no?
For many years, I lived in a constant state of overwhelm, exhaustion, resentment, and guilt.
Why? Because I couldn't say, "No."
I was always overbooked and stressed. I often felt resentful and frustrated, but in reality, I kept myself stuck in the cycle by saying "yes" to everyone and everything. I kept myself trapped.
Saying no isn't always easy—but it's often necessary, especially if we want to be truly free in our life for the things that are important to us.
Let's break this down a bit.
We're socialized to help, to nurture, to put others first, never to turn down opportunities or disappoint anyone, at all cost. And so we take on work that we don't need to take on. We attend events that we don't want to attend, for fear of letting someone down. We go on dates when we'd much rather be doing laundry, catching up on emails, or reading a good book. We have a drink when we'd prefer to stay sober. We commit to another work obligation even when we're already spread too thin. We buy things we don't want to buy or donate to causes we don't want to resonate with.
We don't want to "let people down."
It's incredible how much of our life is dictated and hijacked by the needs and desires of others. It is so easy to lose ourselves. In fact, my daily dose of courage most consistently involves saying "no" to stuff that doesn't matter or is aligned to my truth.
Here's what Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch say in their book, How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty:
"Out of guilt or fear of confrontation, we take on more projects, invest in someone else's priorities . . . In the process, we dissipate our most valuable personal resources—time, energy, and money—on things that aren't important to us. Each time we agree to something without enthusiasm for interest, we waste a little more of these precious resources."
But if you feel overcommitted or overwhelmed, no is a small yet powerful word that can remind you how much control you have over your destiny.
To start, it can be helpful to recognize what might be operating in you, making it hard to say "no." Here are 3 of the common reasons many of us have a hard time saying "no" and ways we can work with these patterns.
People-pleasing: Well-behaved and compliant children can sometimes grow up into people-pleasing adults. It sounds like a good thing; after all, ‘pleasing’ is a positive word. We grow to experience that saying ‘yes’ makes people happy. The problem with this is that we are often ignoring our own needs in the process. Your own needs matter just as much as anyone else, and if you factor your wants and needs into each decision with equal gravity, you’ll find ‘no’ gets a little easier to say.
Filling the role of ‘rescuer’: Being reliable, jumping in when needed, and being a problem solver are positive traits. But again, loving and caring for those around us, and even helping them, shouldn’t always be at our own expense. Triage requests, along with managing your own needs. How is your self-care going? When was the last time you had fun or spent time doing something you loved? As above, you matter too. Make sure to put your own priorities into the mix as much are you are caring for others.
Being manipulated: Not everyone has your best interest at heart. Unfortunately, some people (even friends or relatives) are experts at laying on the guilt, telling their sob story, or steam-rolling over good-hearted people. Pay attention to how you feel when being asked (or pressured) into something. Are they holding their affection ransom? Are they threatening a negative consequence if you don’t agree? Did they imply you don’t care about them at all when you tried to say, no? Trust your gut. It really can be, and is, your decision.
Making Space to Listen for the "Yes" or the "No"
The issue I have found is that it is impossible to say "no" to opportunities if I don't know what I truly want? Like most people, I'll be seduced by the best thing that comes around or one of the modes of operation above. I'll crumble under other people's agendas and lose myself.
When we are over-committed in our life, we won't be able to say yes to the important things.
But if I know what I want and what is true to me, I'll have the courage and foresight to pass up even brilliant opportunities — because ultimately, they are distractors from my vision.
As Jim Collins said in Good to Great, "A 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' is irrelevant if it is the wrong opportunity."
In order to know what is right for me, I need to make space to slow down and withdraw from the everything that is pulling at me to listen to my inner self. I have found it immensely helpful recently to commit to a thirty-minute period each day with no screens, no electronics, and no streaming sound.
Sometimes, I have a "issue" I am trying to resolve, and sometimes I am just sitting with the intention of just being with myself, untethered from others agendas. It is quite liberating.
I invite you try it too! Sit in the sun or sink back on your couch. Close your eyes if you want to and doze off if you need to.
Breathe..... Be........ And notice what it's like not to have your senses pulled in multiple directions at once.
Settle into your body. Notice what's important to you instead of being tethered to the demands, messages, and agendas of everybody else.
As you sit with your own embodied wisdom, notice what bubbles up. When you feel into the opportunity that you are faced with, what energy comes up for you? Is it a feeling of spaciousness? Contraction? Excitement? Resentment? Do you feel a Hell Yeah with your whole body? or a wimpy maybe? Try not to think your way through this experience, just drop the experience into your embodied consciousness and notice what comes up.
Often the answer we have been looking for is right there, if we just take the time to listen and feel.
And in closing, if you do find yourself hearing that you need to say "no" so you can make space for YOU---your own worth, self-care, boundaries, or a project that is really important to you, here are a few tips that I find immensely helpful.
Helpful Tips for Saying No
Don’t lie. Lying will most likely lead to guilt—and remember, this is what you are trying to avoid feeling.
Don’t say “I’ll think about it” if you don’t want to do it. This will prolong the situation and make you feel even more stressed. Unburden and disentangle yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.
Be direct, such as “no, I can’t” or “no, I don’t want to.”
Don’t apologize and give all sorts of reasons. Keep it simple.
Remember that it is better to say no now than be resentful later. This will only damage the relationship in the long run.
You can still be polite and say, "no." You can say something like: “Thanks for asking.” or I appreciate you thinking of me for this opportunity."
Practice saying no. Imagine a scenario and then practice saying no either by yourself or with a friend. This will get you feeling a lot more comfortable with saying no.
Remember that your self-worth does not depend on how much you do for other people.