Why can’t I say no?

The inability to say no stems simply from an eagerness to please. We struggle to say no because we’re scared of what will happen if we do…

Perhaps the other person will get angry, think less of us – maybe they’ll even abandon us. 

We might even take comfort in knowing we’re the “helpful” one – whether that’s at work, with friends or in our relationships. Our never-ceasing reliability has become part of our identity. And knowing people rely on us provides us with a sense of importance. It helps us feel worthy.

We’re not born with the inability to say no. In fact, to the contrary. As children, we find it easy to say no. So if this is something we struggle with in adult life, it means it was learnt. 

It may have been modelled to us (if our parents were people-pleasers, for instance) or we might have had it drummed into us – either overtly or covertly – that our needs are somehow less important than others.

Perhaps you had a dominating parent who laid down strict rules for what you could or couldn’t do – and there were consequences for disobeying. Or maybe the punishment was more subtle… When you didn’t go along with what was expected of you, you were rejected and given the silent treatment.

In order words, you felt love but only when you fulfilled other people’s needs. Love was conditional, in this sense. If you asserted your needs, you knew it would be taken from you in a flash.

You abandoned yourself to avoid being abandoned by your parents.

Signs you’re a people-pleaser

  • You struggle to identify your own wants and needs – and you’re overly attuned to other people’s.
  • You experience a lot of shame.
  • You’re conflict averse. You’d rather go along with what other people want to keep the peace.
  • You’re often overworked. You work late and struggle to say no when asked to take on new projects, despite not having the time or resources.
  • You poll others before making a decision.
  • You might find yourself in a pattern of relationships with dominating or emotionally unstable/demanding partners.
  • You pretend to agree with things despite thinking something different.
  • You revert to passive aggression instead of expressing what you’re really thinking/feeling i.e. the silent treatment, playing the victim, backhanded compliments etc.
  • You’re a chameleon – you blend seamlessly into any social situation.
  • You frequently play therapist – to your friends, partner or family – but often leave these interactions feeling drained.
  • No matter how hard you try to please, you’re still left with the sense that you’re not “good enough”.

What are the benefits of saying no?

Your support, kindness and attunement to the needs of others is admiral in one sense – but not when it entails the loss of self.

You will never be able to become your true authentic self if you are continually bending to meet the needs of others. 

We have limited energy, time and resources and we all have a responsibility to ourselves to use them wisely. If we’re always giving out – and not taking anything back for ourselves – then overtime we’ll simply burnout.

Saying no allows us to choose where we put our time and energy. It allows us to focus on giving it to the people – and parts of our life – that really deserve it. 

And this is when we’ll start to thrive.

How to say no

If saying “no” is something new, you need to get comfortable with the idea that you’re going to feel guilty at first. But it’s about feeling the guilt, and doing it anyway. 

When the guilt comes, just gently acknowledge it as it is, and move on with whatever you’re doing. You can try imagining locking it away in a cupboard or drawer, if it helps.

It can help to remind ourselves that we tend to overestimate the negative reaction we’ll receive when we say no. Often we’ll find that people are actually grateful for our clarity and honesty. And if they’re not prepared to respect our boundaries, then they’re not worth our time and energy anyway.

Below are some ideas for saying “no”:

“That sounds great but I’m afraid I’m busy”.

“I’m not able to take anything else on right now”.

“That sounds like a great opportunity but I’ll have to pass this time”.

“Thank you for thinking of me but this one isn’t for me”.

“I won’t be answering emails outside working hours”.

“I’d love to but I’m afraid I don’t have the time”.

“That doesn’t fit my schedule”.

“I won’t be able to help this time”.

For many people-pleasers, unravelling the roots of why saying “no” is so difficult is the key to breaking the habit. A therapist will be able to guide you in pinpointing where this stems from and equip you with the tools you need to start placing boundaries that enable you to put your attention where it counts – primarily, on you.