‘No’ is such a little word, but often so hard to say. We often find ourselves saying ‘yes’ automatically, out of politeness, out of habit, out of knee-jerk cultural reaction.

I see many clients who are struggling to say ‘No’,  to all sorts of things in everyday life. Extra work-loads, demanding children, critical partners, needy friends and the pressure of 24/7 social media access.

So why is it so hard to say ‘No’? And how do we know when we really want to say ‘Yes’? I started working on this myself, way back, when I discovered my own co-dependent, rescuing tendencies.

I was a slave – and I mean it – to my needy friend who was on the phone at midnight with yet another drama. I was playing ‘Mary Poppins’-style mum to my young daughter, my absent husband and my critical, unloving mother. I wanted them all to love me – unconditionally of course – so I became an emotional doormat. I tried to please everyone. But I became exhausted, ineffectual and resentful instead.

Saying ‘No’ cuts across so many areas of our conditioning:

  • As women, trying to be perfect, trying to please and appease;
  • As men, trying to be providers, manly, brave;
  • As ‘good’ dutiful family members – doing the ‘right thing’;
  • As appropriate cultural members – doing right by our community;
  • At work, trying to be model workers – employee of the month.

Our culture is cluttered with an array of ‘oughts, shoulds and musts’.  I see clients struggling with ‘I ought to be thinner’; “I should be earning more by now”; “I must find a partner to have a baby with – I’m getting on”; “I ought to be better with money.”

We all beat ourselves up, especially in such a meritocratic world, where no-one is trusting anyone any more. We are trying to prove ourselves, win love, gain approval. So we say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’. We find ourselves volunteering, when we don’t want to. We feel guilt-tripped into taking things on, when we would rather not.

In fact, when we do this – say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’ – it is an ‘insult to form’. This means we go against what we really feel, in our gut, about something and we force ourselves – superego-led – to ride roughshod over our real feelings.

Perhaps this was acceptable in Victorian England, or even in wartime, but in a world full of choice and awareness, and pressure and stress, it is time for us to tune in and take a moment.

It’s time to pause. To take a second to feel what we feel. Then to think. Being authentic means we do not put ourselves – our minds, our emotions, our bodies, our souls – into some contorted twist of perfection. If you are asked to do something, go somewhere, perform something and you know it is not right for you – saying ‘no’ is liberating.

Yet we get flattered, pressured, into feeling we ‘ought’. Especially women. Social sanctions are tough, and the labels of ‘selfish’ and ‘self-centred’ are bandied about when we don’t conform.

However, the person who is clear what they can or can’t do it a delight to be around. They are clear about themselves and their objectives. They are straighter in their dealings. There is nothing more uncomfortable than being with someone who is with you, or doing something, through gritted, resentful teeth.

How do we learn to say ‘No’?

First, you need to identify the things you say ‘yes’ to when you really don’t want to. Those moments with friends, family, partners, colleagues, when you feel the social pressure to conform and you feel you can’t avoid it.

It might be a cold-caller or a doorstepper, and you stand there still listening, when you want to be doing something else. Or it might be a direct request, which really doesn’t suit you.

It might also be a fear of what other people will think of your, of social sanction, bullying even, if you don’t conform. And yet, ironically, there will be no respect for being a doormat. There will be plenty of respect, longer term, for being true to yourself.

Of course, as we generally feel that ‘No’ is rude, or negative, we need to become diplomats when we say it.  We have to find new ways of saying it, that sound positive, grounded and powerful.

You don’t need to be disparaging or disrespectful. When I open the door and there is someone trying to sell something to me (that I don’t want) – I hold up my hand, smile, and say ‘No thank you’ and close the door. That’s that.

If someone starts their scripted spiel on the phone I say, ‘Sorry to interrupt, but no thank you’ and put the phone down. It feels good.

It is important to remember you are dealing with a human being on the end of the phone or clip-board, but that they are on a mission to sell. You don’t have to be on the other end of it.

Similarly, if you know people in your life who always expect others to do their bidding, you have to find a way of being powerful and yet polite, about how you handle them. ‘Thank you so much for asking me, but this time, I will pass’;  or, “I’m very grateful to be asked to do this, but I won’t be able to on this occasion. Thank you’.  

Saying ‘No’ takes practice. Saying a default ‘yes’ or a passive aggressive, ‘OK, if you want’, is a collapse. Saying ‘No’ is a way of beginning to find a new way of being, a way of kicking a bad habit. Of finding a new shape, a new you.

The pressure to please

The other way in to finding your ‘No’ is to understand your motivation. Perhaps you think you will be loved, respected, more adored, if you are a model wife, a good citizen, a perfect employee, a great family member.

Of course, these things are valuable. However, the motivation to be all these things is more authentic when it is from the heart, from a feeling of wanting to give and be there, volitionally. If you are secretly trying to earn some emotional brownie points by being the martyr of the month, it somehow defeats the object.

Many of us have the disease to please – shorthand for co-dependency – because we are caught in giving other people the very thing we want for ourselves. Somehow, we believe if we do all these things, model rescuing, being perfect, somehow people will do it back for us.

Ironically, the case is often that the takers continue taking, and the givers continue giving, until they run out of slack. And then there is Armageddon, with misunderstandings, fallings-outs, blow-ups. Co-dependent behaviour is, in fact, a coercive behaviour that intends to manipulate the other. It is a form of control.

On the outside, it looks like ‘making nice’. Yet, on the inside, it is a way of making others beholden. That is not nice.  More authentically, if you can say, ‘No thank you’ or ‘Not this time’, your interactions will be based more on mutual respect, than when you make the other person indebted and beholden because you are such an emotional doormat.

This sounds harsh. You might be thinking, ‘But surely if we all do what we want all the time, society will be selfish, nasty and no-one would ever do anything for anyone?’

In my experience, quite the opposite happens. If we learn to say what we want, and we educate others as to what we need and what works for us, communication improves. If we communicate well, then healthy relationships can grow.

We often teach children they must say ‘yes’ and be polite at all costs. And indeed, the cost is they don’t know who they are by the time they grow up. They become the people-pleasers.

However, if we have a respect for children, as young people, and give them choices, and allow them to experience their ‘no’ and voice it, we can grow people who know themselves and know what they want.

How to say ‘Yes’

Of course, the converse of saying ‘No’ is learning to say ‘Yes’. Saying ‘no’ does not mean that you become an anti-social grouch who nobody wants to be with. It means that people respect you for being honest, for being clear and for not being duplicitous.

If you have said ‘Yes’ and then flaked on a task or an arrangement – this does not breed respect. If you have said ‘Yes’ socially, just to conform, and then don’t turn up or pull your weight, this can lead to oodles of resentment. 

However, if you learn to say ‘No’ and mean it, it does not mean you say ‘No’ to everything. It is important to learn what you want and need to say ‘No’ to, and then, find the things you can say ‘Yes’ to.

Changing your mind

Also, if you have had a knee-jerk reaction and said ‘yes’ out of habit, but on reflection, want to change your mind, you can. You might have found yourself volunteering to be on a committee, or to leaflet door-to-door, or lend money to someone, out of a misplaced sense of duty (ought, must, should). 

On reflection, you may have a change of heart, but tell yourself you can’t do that as you have committed to something. Well, you can. You can go back and re-negotiate. This can be tough, and you need to get clear on your communication, but it is possible.

It’s all about listening to your gut, to your body. Sometimes when we say ‘Yes’ and mean ‘No’ we somatise our real feelings. We get stomach aches, migraines, headaches, sick feelings, even panic attacks. We might get flu symptoms. Our bodies are fighting our corners for us.

You might start avoiding the people who asked you – or expected things of you – and then you self-isolate. This is not good. First, it jeopardises your relationships, and secondly, it mystifies people and makes them like you (and trust you), less, so it misfires.

So it is important to find your authentic ‘No’. It is essential for mental and physical health, for you to find out what you really want. Many women feel they have to say ‘yes’ to a man sexually because of the flattery, or social conditioning. It can be extremely damaging to do that and the old adage – ‘yes means yes, and no means no’ is true, if you can really find your ‘no’.

Modelling to children

If parents can find their ‘No’ – with the world out there, and with each other – it can provide a really good role model for children. They see the lines of communication being clearer, and less cluttered with guilt, manipulation and bad feelings.

Children pick up on atmospheres, and the resentful mother or father, who is doing their duty and hating every minute of it, is not a joy to be with. A parent, on the other hand, who says, ‘You know, this time I think I’ll stay home and do some gardening’, if they don’t want a tense family visit or interaction, is a parent who shows what is possible.

Finally, learning to say No is best based on you:

  • Knowing who you are
  • Knowing what you want
  • Accepting yourself
  • Communicating clearly what you need and think
  • Doing what you want to do – wholeheartedly

Once you do this, you can live your life to the full – and other people will be attracted by your ability to be authentic, clear and straight.

Saying ‘No’ just may be worth it, after all.

Corinne Sweet is holding a Funzing talk in London on Saying No on 26.6.18