One key to successful relationships is learning to say no without guilt, so that you can say yes without resentment.
Let me guess.
You’re a super-nice person who’d help anybody do anything at any time. You’re proud of your reputation too.
I bet you’re also secretly consumed by envy of people who put themselves first and know how to say no. In fact they make you angry… because they please themselves and get away with it. Meantime you’re stuck pleasing everyone but yourself, taking five points for niceness that leaves a bitter aftertaste.
We all have to do stuff we don’t want to do. But some make it a very small portion of their lives. Should you be aiming for the same?
Two Hard Letters
When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.
Society would crumble if we all said no to anything even slightly unpleasant. In fact, society runs smoothly precisely because so many of its members are socialised to say yes, to smile, to be agreeable. But there’s always a price to pay.
Being agreeable on the outside often conceals inner wounds which go unrecognised. Anger comes from being wronged. Resentment grows from unmet needs. Pain held inside twists and surfaces far from its source as a myriad of physical and emotional symptoms. Pain turned outside, but restrained by fear of expressing it, manifests as a hypercritical comment and passive aggression.
So you hide all of that behind a smile. You’ll be punished by disapproval if you display anger. You’ll be rewarded by approval if you play nice. There lies another problem.
Saying no risks losing your “nice” badge, the one that says you’re a good person. Refusing to help your friend move apartments on your weekend off when you’re perfectly capable of so doing is plain mean, isn’t it? And you can stand yet another football game because your companion loves it and it makes them happy.
Weak boundaries invite others to walk all over you. Everybody uses the doormat, but nobody really notices it.
Each time you put your needs second, or last, you add another small piece of resentment to the pile. It drags you down, lying heavy on your back where you probably don’t see it. Sometimes you almost say no, but you swallow it — and agree.
Before you can learn to say no, you must wean yourself off the excessive need for approval. That need might stem from childhood or respect for authority or fear of rejection. Those around you have already learned the best way to manipulate your reactions for their own benefit. You’re probably hyper-aware of verbal and non-verbal cues, so you read sadness, disappointment, or anger instantly and move to soothe it.
There are times when it’s right to put others before yourself. Parents feed their children first, doctors drop everything for a crash call, firefighters rush into burning buildings. A good friend misses their favourite programme to comfort a bereaved companion.
As with so much of life, it’s about balance. You have an equal right to get what you want some of the time. Compromise feels a lot better than win/lose, yes/no outcomes. Unbalanced relationships don’t feel good, no matter how many smiles you paste over the cracks.
Take time to review your relationships objectively. Are you getting as good as you give? If not, maybe it’s time to make changes for your benefit.
That’s all very well, you say. Exactly how do you say no face-to-face without feeling like a heel and losing your nerve?
Just Don’t Do It
Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.
Saying yes is seductively easy. Everybody smiles, everybody’s happy — except you. You’re angry with them for catching you again and with yourself for caving.
Saying no is hard. Saying no is risky.
But saying no for the right reasons frees you up for greater rewards down the line. It’s like the marshmallow experiment except you’re trading a crumb of approval now for the entire cookie of self-confidence based on strong boundaries.
Train yourself to take that hit by practising in low-stakes situations. Say no to your co-worker’s birthday cake if you actually don’t like chocolate cake. You’ll feel anxious, but that will pass. You’re building assertiveness — and you don’t have to choke down any more cake, because next time they’ll know.
When we communicate in person we respond to the words spoken and their delivery; both verbal and non-verbal cues. Tone of voice, body posture and facial expressions all contribute to the message. Both sets of cues must match it we want our message to be understood.
If you struggle to say no, practise in the mirror. Assume a confident body position — head up, shoulders back. Make eye contact with your reflection and say, “No thanks.” If it sounds like a question, try again. A question invites persuasion in an effort to change your mind, and you don’t want to be persuaded.
Watch that person you know who can say no assertively and steal their script.
“That sounds like an awesome project, sorry I can’t be part of it. Best of luck.”
“Thanks for thinking of me, but I have plans that weekend. Have fun without me!”
“Sorry, I don’t have time.”
Work up to no by degrees.
Listen to the request and think before you answer. Start by saying “maybe” or “I don’t think so” and follow up with one of these.
- I have to check my schedule
- I have to check with my partner/friend/doctor
- Let me get back to you on that
There’s no need to apologise or explain. A smile is absolutely optional. If they follow up with more pressure, repeat your phrase again. Then go on with your day.
Playing for time gets you out of a tight spot, and you can decline gracefully later by text or email. It’s not your job to solve someone else’s problem; therefore you don’t have to feel guilty for not fixing it.
Of course you also have to give up the buzz that comes from being the one who solves everyone’s problems. You might not even realise how much you need to be needed until you stop offering your services. But you’ll reclaim energy for your own life — a worthwhile trade.
You might worry that saying no will lose you respect. In fact, the opposite is true. When people learn that you have well-enforced boundaries, they’re much less likely to cross them. As Robert Frost said, good fences make good neighbors.
Using the hardest word will make your life easier. Listen to requests, balance your needs against the requester’s needs, and say no with calm confidence. Two letters have the power to improve your life. Use them wisely.
“No” is a complete sentence.