Why can’t I say ‘no’ and what can I do about it?

Psychotherapist and clinical psychologist Dr Eimear Farrell.

Do you find yourself saying yes to things that you really didn’t want to do and then end up feeling exhausted, frustrated, and taken for granted?  

This is a very common pattern, particularly for women, and occurs for a number of reasons.

We may have a strong ‘approval seeking’ schema, which means we really want people to like us and then end up complying with requests and demands from others even when we don’t want to. We may feel bad about ourselves and find that doing things for others makes us feel good at least temporarily. We may have been rewarded for ‘being good’ growing up, which meant that we got approval from our parents for doing what was asked of us. We may have learnt that we need to put others needs ahead of ourselves and feel if we don’t we are being selfish. The reasons are endless.

While the pattern may have begun in childhood, it gets reinforced over time where we can become the ‘go to’ person when something needs to be done.

This means that we may never have had the opportunity to learn to say no, especially if we grew up in a family where we didn’t see anyone saying no in a healthy mature way.

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I often ask people who are struggling with saying no what their family motto or ‘rule’ was growing up. When I do this, people often say things like ‘you must put others first’, ‘it’s rude to say no if you have been asked to do something’, ‘ you must always do your best’, etc.

With rules like these in our heads, saying no becomes almost impossible. As adults, we need to begin to ask ourselves if these rules were actually helpful to our parents or if they meant that they were often exhausted, fed up, or overwhelmed by the burden of always saying yes.

When we have an understanding of why it’s hard for us to say no, it can be easier to have compassion for ourselves and to begin to take steps to interrupt this automatic pattern.

So, the big question, how do we stop this pattern?  Thankfully, there are a number of strategies that can help.

Firstly, we can reflect on what a more appropriate rule or motto could be for us. One that would allow us to get rest, mind ourselves, and look after others at the same time.

These new rules or mottos could look something like ‘it’s important to look after myself and others’, ‘it’s okay to say no sometimes’, etc.

Secondly, when asked for a ‘favour’ we can push the pause button and, rather than automatically saying yes, we can say ‘leave it with me, I need to think about it and I’ll get back to you’.

This way, having created some breathing space to really think about the request, we can come back to the person with a response that fits given our resources are right now. That kind of breathing space is both okay and completely rational.

Thirdly, when there is someone who is very persistent and difficult to say no to, we can use the ‘broken record’ technique. That is, simply repeating the fact that we can’t do what is asked when the person persists and tries to persuade us otherwise.

For example, ‘I know that’s really hard to hear’ or ‘I know you have a lot going on but I’m afraid I just can’t do that right now’.

Finally, it’s important to remember that it’s not your job to fill the awkward silence and volunteer for a job that no-one else wants to do.

Unfortunately, this one will involve you having to tolerate some discomfort and that awkward feeling in your stomach. You may indeed need to sit on your hands, but it does mean that you won’t get stuck doing something you don’t want to do.

The other thing that’s so important to keep in mind, and one that qualifies as a motto all by itself, is that ‘no is a complete sentence’.  We don’t have to offer a long, elaborate explanation about why we can’t do something that’s asked of us. Easier said than done, but give it a go.