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How To Say No In a World That Demands Your Yes

Saying no is terrifying to many people, but it doesn't have to be. Learning how to say no will allow you to better value yourself.

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how to say no
Copyright: M R Fakhrurrozi

In recent times, we’ve come to equate saying no with being mean. Not directly, but mostly indirectly by equating saying yes with being friendly and, therefore, when you say no, you must not be nice. That attitude is not only misguided but quite damaging to your life, in general.

Being a people pleaser only works that many times. Yeah, you might get a pat on the back now and then, but in the long run, you’ll be a mess. That’s why learning how to say no and practicing saying no is something we all should strive to do more.

What’s So Bad About Saying No?

Where did this all start? When we were kids, our parents and grandparents had one job: to help us grow into good human beings who’ll continue their legacy and become upstanding members of our society. Or at least that’s the job they should have had. Sadly, many of them don’t live up to that job, but those are not the ones I’m talking about here.

Even if your parents or grandparents didn’t truly take on that mission, you met other people who attempted to do so later in life. You encountered teachers, coaches, and other mentors whose job, once again, was to teach you how to be an adult.

During these formative years of our lives, one thing that all these people had in common was that they all required some level of obedience to a certain extent. I am a parent of two kids, and I’ve seen in real life how difficult it is to pass your message to a kid when they don’t want to hear it.

Sometimes, you might find yourself saying: “Do not interrupt me!”

The truth is, we all received that message from someone at some point throughout our childhood.

I love this quote by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and I paraphrase: 

“We spend the first two years of our children’s lives teaching them how to walk and talk, and then we spend the rest of their childhood telling them to sit down and shut up!”

The problem is that as a child, you are exploring your world. In that process, inevitably, you’ll wind up breaking some stuff. Your parents are always there, trying to prevent you from destroying things and, in the process, hurting yourself. So, as a child, when you are about to do something that is “forbidden,” what do your parents do? They shout, “No!” or “Stop it!”

At that moment, the parent won’t think that what the child was doing was entertaining. But the child interprets the no as quashing their fun and joy. So, what message do they get? No, means no, which means stop what you’re doing, even if you are enjoying it. Your parent saying no to you made you feel bad because they stopped you from doing something you enjoyed.

That association between no and the disappearance of pleasure will live with you forever. When you grow up, you will be reluctant to do the same to others, hence a difficulty to say no.

“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” — Josh Billings

We Were All Groomed to Please

Yeah, it’s true. It doesn’t matter if your kid is the sunshine of every single moment of your life or merely someone you must keep alive; raising a child is frustrating as hell. Now and then, you must put your foot down and utter the words: “Don’t you dare say no to me!

After all, the parent is the boss, right? Obedience at that age is not only required but also rewarded. The rebel child, on the other hand, is punished and reprimanded.

As a result of that, most of us grow with this idea that saying no to authority is wrong, and being bad is, well, not good. That is the first layer that sediments in our brain shortly after seeing the light in this world, and it only gets worse from there.

Later we learn that we cannot disagree with our teachers, the police, our bosses, and, soon enough, the whole world turns into one prominent place of complacency and acceptance of the status quo. I know what you’re thinking: not me, right? Well, don’t rush to classify yourself just yet…

“One key to successful relationships is learning to say no without guilt so that you can say yes without resentment.” — Bill Crawford

Why Are We People Pleasers?

You see, rebelling against authority, which begins with your parents, is something most of us eventually grow up doing. We even oppose our teachers and, much later, our bosses.

Soon enough, we all gain a voice, one way or another. Some are loud, and others are less so; some turn aggressive, others try to be logical. Eventually, we all learn how to tread the boundaries in our lives and try hard to shake away those things that our ancestors embedded in our brains.

But deep down, inside the most primitive parts of our brain lie two concepts that can turn our lives upside down: pain and pleasure.

Most of the things that you found painful in your formative years still feel painful today. You may not react to them in the same way, and they might not deter you from your actions in the way they used to, but the emotions behind them are still there.

As a result, we are in a constant race to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Some people understand that to grow, they must change, and to change, pain is unavoidable. Those people will take the helm of some aspects of their lives and affect those changes through thick and thin.

“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage pleasantly, smilingly, and non-apologetically — to say no to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger yes burning inside.” — Stephen Covey

But That Pain of Saying No, Though

For most of us, though, there’s always something there, buried deep down that reminds us that we shouldn’t upset people. That if you make people happy, you will get rewarded. The idea that you must be the hero all the time is always dormant, tickling your every emotion. Add on top of that the peer pressure that society puts on you to “behave properly,” and you have a recipe for disaster.

Conflict avoidance and the need to be the hero will often push you to do things that are irrational because your centers of pain and pleasure are such compelling drivers.

Soon enough and left unchecked, these behaviors and attitudes morph into a life-long habit. It becomes a coping mechanism. Before you know it, you are a people pleaser, doing everything in your power to be liked, accepted, and rewarded. You become the real-life human version of some unplanned Pavlov’s experiment.

Eventually, you only say no when the pain of saying yes is so overwhelmingly strong that it creates a shift inside your brain. But those cases are so rare that you’ll justify yourself out of them in one breath. The next step will be to say yes to people who mean very little in your life, at the risk of inflicting pain to those who love you.

Why? Because the latter will forgive you and will keep giving you chances, while the former won’t.

“You can be a good person with a kind heart and still say no.” — Lori Deschene

How Saying No Can Change Your Life

I’ll hammer this point a little longer because it’s essential. When you say yes to everything, you’ll wind up saying yes to a lot of things that are not important to you. Although those things might be critical to other people, you are under no obligation to undertake that importance by association. You must only do so when those people are, themselves, significant to you and your life.

If you take on your shoulders what others deem necessary, you are shifting your time and energy and working toward someone else’s vision. In other words, you lose control of your life.

Note that I am not making an argument to say no to everything either, although if you listen to Warren Buffett, you should. I’m making an argument that by allowing your primal brain to drive your behavior and attitude and desperately trying to avoid the pain that conflict generates, you frequently say yes to many things you shouldn’t.

That will have massive effects on your life and will derail you from the path toward your personal goals and dreams. It will also have a terrible impact on your meaningful relationships, as you have less energy to pour into those connections.

And look, there’s nothing wrong with helping people. There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with being rewarded for something that you’ve done for someone else. But there’s a critical distinction here, and it comes from the motivation behind your actions.

If the reason to say yes is rooted in your values and beliefs and comes in alignment with your goals, vision, mission, and desire for contribution, it’s okay. But if your reason is rooted in fear and conflict avoidance, it is not okay.

Left unchecked, that attitude will slowly erode all boundaries in your life, and eventually, you will not be able to say no to anything. Even the thought of saying no will lead you emotionally and mentally paralyzed.


10 Steps to Learn How to Say No

I hope that the argument as to why you need to be incredibly thoughtful when it comes to saying no and be very stingy with saying yes is clear by now. Once you finish reading this piece, I recommend taking a piece of paper and jot down a few bullet points with moments in your life when you said yes when you should’ve said no, and how that action affected your life.

If you’ve had that epiphany, with or without that piece of paper, you probably want to know what you can do going forward to avoid this kind of behavior. Learning how to say no, and saying no in the real world, are two different yet very related concepts that require practice.

Here are ten steps that will help you to learn and practice saying no more often.

1. Value yourself first

Your values and beliefs shape your behavior and attitudes. To stand up for something in your life, you must first understand what those are. Armed with that knowledge, you must continue to define your life’s vision and purpose. That means deciding what you want and why you want it.

Without those crystal clear, it isn’t easy to define who you are. Once you know who you are and what you want in life, your value as a human begins to shape up. Of course, we all have value, but it’s not until we realize what it is and accept it that we start to value ourselves.

When you accept your value and care for it, you will then expand that circle to include the people in your life who are important to you. You are now defining your priorities and building clarity about what is critical in your life and what it’s not.

Your value is no longer defined by what others think of you through the prism of what you do for them, but it’s an intrinsic value that exists within you. That is the first vital step to understanding what you must say yes to and, by comparison, what you must say no to.

2. Be clear about your priorities

It’s not enough to merely understand your value and have a vision. You must continue that path by defining proper goals and working toward them with deliberate, consistent, massive action. As you create those goals, you shine a brighter light on those things that are important in your life.

Your priorities become evident, and everything else that is not a priority now becomes a red alarm. As you work toward your goals and dreams, your self-confidence grows. Your judgment and decision-making processes improve over time. Anything non-essential in your life starts to be so obvious; you’ll wonder if you were blind before.

To some extent, you were. Setting up priorities in all areas of your life is the second paramount step you must take before you can safely break from the people-pleasing claws and learn how to say no.

3. Say no to easy things

Just like with everything in life, you cannot jump from zero to one hundred. Not only will it not be effective, but it will also probably lead to failure. Much like you cannot run a marathon if you haven’t run a mile in your life, learning how to say no requires starting small.

Once I had the epiphany of my debilitating people-pleasing attitude and my complete inability to say no to things, I started to practice on my kids. No kidding. I was the other kind of parent, the kind who tries to appease their kids and fulfill every single wish they have. On the one hand, I believe I do it because I genuinely want them to feel good. On the other hand, though, it’s because I want to avoid the madness that ensues when they don’t get what they want. So, saying no to your kids is a great way to practice.

You can find many places in your life where you can say no on a smaller scale without doing irreparable damage to relationships. So, start small and start soon. Begin to set up those boundaries in your life, and little by little, watch them settle.

4. Say the word No!

No means no, right? Practice saying no in a direct yet not aggressive manner. The word no itself is pretty scary, and I speak as a serial people pleaser myself. But the more you keep sugarcoating your no with layers of “I really,” “I’m not sure,” “Perhaps,” and so on, you are weakening your boundaries. The person who’s asking you to do things will smell blood and keep pushing until you cave.

Say the word no, directly and clearly. Don’t leave room for interpretation, and don’t try to soften the blow of the no by adding a pleasant layer to it. Just accept that it will be unpleasant for everyone, but it’s for the right reasons.

5. Don’t be nice, be polite

There’s a difference between being nice because you don’t want to hurt others’ feelings and being polite. When someone asks you to do something, and you know that you shouldn’t, saying no is the right thing to do. But as you do so, you can empathize with that person.

By showing that you understand what they need and why they need it, you create a connection. When you set up your boundaries, you earn the respect of the other person. By politely saying no, your bond becomes more robust, despite you refusing to do what you were asked. That’s because the other person understands your value and, most importantly, knows that you understand your value.

6. Don’t provide meaningless reasons

Have you ever decided to say the dreaded no but started with “I’m sorry, but…” Stop that! Why are you apologizing for something that you know is right? You’ve defined your priorities; you know your value, and you know what is essential.

If this situation requires you to say no because of those reasons, you don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to fabricate reasons because then you’d be lying. Instead, be authentic, say no, and leave it at that. Especially don’t make stuff up, as it will wind up biting you in the behind later.

7. Always ask for details

A lot of times, it is unclear why someone is asking you to do something. If you don’t ask questions, there’s no reason for them to provide you with details. In their mind, you don’t need to know more than the fact that they want this done as soon as possible. If they get you to do it, that’s one more thing off their plate.

Always ask for details. Why do you need it? When? What is the priority? What happens if this gets postponed? Can someone else do this?

Many times, just by asking these questions, you will raise self-awareness in the other person. Faced with answering these questions, they might realize how inappropriate it might be even to make this request of you. Or, perhaps, they’ll realize that their request is not as mission-critical as to bother you with it.

If anything, you, once again, are building boundaries. You are no longer a yes-man. You need details. And if the details are not compelling enough, you now have a reason to say no.

8. Hold your position

Many a time, the people who demand things from you do so very insistently. Often they approach you persistently or even aggressively, and they might not take a no lightly.

Don’t fall for that. They are merely testing your boundaries. In the beginning, those moats you set up around your life to provide protection won’t be strong enough. The walls you created are young and vulnerable. You might falter; you might fall back and give in. That’s okay; it’s a part of your practice.

You must learn how to push back when being pushed back. Saying no will often be followed by questions, demands, pleading, threats, what have you. That will happen, especially if you have a history of people-pleasing. If your brand is one of a yes-man, it will be hard to shake it with just one or two nos.

But keep going at it. Keep practicing. Hold on to your horses, and don’t give in.

9. Being selfish is not being mean

A lot of times, saying no seems selfish. Sometimes you feel like you have the time and energy to do something that someone had asked you, so saying no would be too inappropriate. That’s okay. You should be selfish with your time and energy. You must use those to work on your goals and vision and support those you care about.

Being selfish with the unimportant is not being mean, although it might feel that way. Keep practicing, and in time, you will start to feel the shift in your mindset.

You are not mean but focused. You are not careless. Instead, you are caring toward the things and people that matter to you.

10. Space to say Yes!

The more you say no, and the more you push back against things that are not aligned with your vision and priorities in life, the more opportunities will open for you to say yes.

As you gain control of your life and allow your value to expand and fill in the gap that was once filled with others’ needs and wants, you create space for yourself and those you truly care about.

Saying no to the unimportant and non-essential is the absolute best tool you can have to identify and allow situations to appear when you can say yes. When you do say yes, then you will invite those things that matter the most. You will help those you love and care about, and you will grow.

“Don’t say maybe if you want to say no.” — Paulo Coelho

Learning How to Say No Will Change Your Life

Few things are so liberating in life as learning how to say no. Saying yes and being a people pleaser, although it brings short-term gratification, has long-term debilitating effects on your entire life.

Learning how to push back, stand your ground, and put your time and energy into the things that are truly important to you are critical skills you must develop to navigate the world and create the life that you want.

If you don’t, you will continue to live a life dictated not by the things that are important to you but by things and people who matter less or not at all.

By learning and practicing how to say no, you are regaining control in your life, and you create space so you can work toward your goals and dreams. You will fill your cup and let it spill into areas that matter to you, that you care about, which will lead you to live the happy and fulfilled life you’ve been longing for.

So, keep going! How many times did you say no today?


This article was originally published on iulianionescu.com under How To Say No: A Guide for Serial People Pleasers.

If you liked this…

…and you want to learn about your values, I’ve put together a simple, actionable cheat sheet that includes a comprehensive list of 250 values: discover your values.

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