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Mar 31, 2024

“NO” is a complete sentence.

Sheila Tucker

Photography By

The next time your brain wants to say yes and the rest of you wants to say no, try out one of these phrases to give you time to think about your answer.

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No. Nope. Nada. Never. Not Happening. 

Squinted eyes, pursed lips, and a slow head shake from right to left and back again. 

With so many ways to say “no,” why is it such a challenge to utter this word? 

Surprisingly or not, there are many answers to this question. Here are the most common ones I’ve heard from my therapy clients over the years. 

“Wait, no is an option? Seriously?”

“But what will Peter, Paul, or Mary think if I say no?”

“Whenever I say no, it comes out mean-sounding. I don’t know how to say it nicely.”

“If I don’t say yes, I might miss out on all the fun. But I’d really rather be home in my pj’s.”

“I have to pick up Jenny from school and pay the electric bill. There’s just no way around it.” 

Oh, before I forget – I asked Google, Alexa, and Siri. Ironically, the overwhelming vote is YES! No IS a complete sentence when it’s a response to a question.  

For example: 

Them: Do you want to?

You: No. 

See? It can be uncomplicated. 

I rarely have a difficult time saying no, even when I was a teen. While defiantly tossing around no’s like a grandmother passing out peppermints at church, my peers were suspiciously looking on, wondering what kind of superpower I was wielding. 

Such is the case for most people – wanting to decline while simultaneously feeling pressured to agree. 

Whether it’s a request from a friend, a colleague, or especially a family member, the difficulty of uttering that two-letter word is rooted in various societal, psychological, and personal factors. 

Whenever I detect a systemic issue, I look first to our society for answers. Rarely am I ever disappointed. Strike that. I’m usually disappointed, and I often have a better understanding of why. 

Our society praises agreeableness and being accommodating. On the surface, those characteristics are phenomenal. 

When society rewards those perceived as agreeable, the rest of us internalize that saying yes equates to being a team player, a good person, or, dare I say, accepted.

No one wants to be left off the invitation list, ignored, rejected, or spoken about negatively, or not thought of as being “good.” The fear of being labeled as uncooperative or selfish can create a reluctance to say no, even when it goes against your needs or desires. Ultimately, declining a request becomes an underrated skill many find challenging to master.  

The fear of disapproval can be a powerful force that prevents many people from saying no. Saying no may evoke concerns about disappointing others or being judged negatively. This fear of social consequences can lead people to prioritize other people’s feelings over their well-being, making it a challenge to set healthy boundaries.

Have you ever said no and immediately felt so guilty you considered changing your answer to yes? Or maybe you did. 

It’s common for feelings of guilt to pop up immediately after saying no. Whether declining an invitation, turning down a request for help, or rejecting additional responsibilities, you may grapple with guilt for potentially letting others down. And it makes sense: you’re a good person, and you don’t want to upset someone. 

This emotional burden can be intense and further contribute to the difficulty of uttering that simple yet powerful word: NO.

A nagging fear of damaging relationships is another valid concern. Whether it’s a close friend, family member, or coworker, the worry that setting boundaries will strain the relationship can be a significant deterrent. 

However, failing to say no when necessary can lead to burnout, resentment, and an overall deterioration of the connection. I know – not the desired effect. 

Making decisions without adequate thought, like a rush to say yes, might result in commitments that don’t align with your values, goals, or priorities. The aftermath of impulsive agreements can include stress, overcommitment, and a lack of fulfillment.

Now that you realize no is an option, understand there may be a wee bit of guilt involved, and if you still want to do it, you may wonder how to make that happen. 

This therapist has a few ideas to help you overcome the challenge. 

Start Small

Say no to insignificant requests – ones that don’t matter whether your answer is yes or no and with people who do not care about your answer. 

For example, you go out to eat, and the waiter asks if you want a lemon with your water. Your response: “No.” Bam! You did it. You just practiced saying no.

These are the small no’s to look for so you experience success. 

Understand What You Need

What are your needs, goals, and priorities? Is there a conflict with the request you just received? Do you have a whole week of engagements and need to rest? Will saying yes prevent you from taking care of yourself and your needs? Would you feel resentful if you said yes? 

Learn to Manage Guilt

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. 

Truth be told, managing your emotions, disappointments, and frustration is often easier than trying to manage someone else’s. Managing your guilt starts with noticing, acknowledging, and validating your feelings. Understand that prioritizing your well-being is not selfish but necessary for overall health.

I’m not suggesting that you toss out no’s indiscriminately. Instead, pause and consider whether you want to say yes or no. 

How? I’ve got you covered. 

The next time your brain wants to say yes and the rest of you wants to say no, try out one of these phrases to give you time to think about your answer: 

“Let me think about it.”

“Can I get back to you about that?”

“I’m not sure. When do you need an answer?”

“Let me check my schedule first.”

Yes, these statements delay the inevitable. They also create space where you can consider your answer without the other person nearby. 

The difficulty of saying no is a universal challenge influenced by societal expectations, fear of disapproval, guilt, and the perceived impact on relationships. However, learning how to say no is essential for maintaining personal well-being and nurturing healthy connections. 

By understanding and addressing the underlying factors contributing to this difficulty, you can learn to assert yourself and start saying yes to those experiences you genuinely want to have while saying no to those you don’t (except paying your bills and picking up Jenny from school – you need to do those).  

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