Do you agree to do things you’d prefer not to, because you’re worried it would be rude or uncomfortable to refuse?
Whether you take on extra obligations at work because you feel guilty saying no, or make subtle concessions at home to “keep the peace,” your discomfort with saying no is likely impacting every area of your life.
But you’re not alone in this problem.
It’s hard to say no because we literally evolved to say yes.
We survived as a species because of the resiliency of small tribal groups where reciprocity was critical for survival. If our ancestors hadn’t worked together and provided support to each other, they wouldn’t have lived to pass on their genes.
And even now that most of us are not living that way, we are in a patriarchal society where women are socialized to believe that our value lies in being helpful, compliant, and quiet.
We’re taught that our greatest purpose in life is to help people, to make them happy, to make them like us.
We’re taught that other people – especially men – can claim our attention, time, and even our physical bodies just because they want to.
So is it any surprise that when you raise someone to believe that:
Their time, energy, body, and abilities belong to someone else…
And their worth depends on whether other people think they are nice and helpful and pretty…
They will feel pretty damn uncomfortable saying no?
To understand how much of an impact socialization has on your ability to say no, just look at a toddler.
Toddlers are NOT compliant. They have amazing boundaries!
A toddler will tell you when they’ve had enough to eat, when they want to go to the park, and when they don’t want to cuddle with you (no matter how much you want them to!).
But part of our socialization of children involves teaching them to ignore those boundaries and do what adults tell them.
And look, some of that is out of necessity. Society doesn’t work if everyone just steals each other’s trucks and pees in the sandbox all the time.
But at the same time, when we teach little girls that they have to do things they don’t want to do – like hug that person at the family reunion or clean their plate even when they’re not hungry – we are, essentially, training them that keeping social peace is more important than their own desires. That they are not in command of their boundaries and bodies.
Which can result in: Grown women feeling terrified to say no. Women not feeling entitled to their own time, energy, attention, money, or even bodies. Women not feeling entitled to anything that is ours, to prioritizing ourselves, to trusting our own sense of what is important to us or what we want to do.
So if you struggle to say no, in any context, the first thing to understand is that there’s nothing wrong with you.
The second thing you have to realize is that you are ALWAYS saying no to something.
When you say yes to doing something you don’t want to do, you’re saying no to YOURSELF.
You’re saying no to the rest you need.
You’re saying no to having time to work on that side hustle or passion project.
You’re saying no to being able to cook yourself a real meal, or play with your kids, or have sex with your partner.
Women are socialized to find it much easier to say no to ourselves than to say no to anyone else.
And THAT is what we have to work on reversing. Because it results in us living our lives for other people rather than for ourselves.
All your thoughts about why you “have” to do all the things you’ve currently said yes to are just thoughts.
They are optional sentences in your mind.
They aren’t “true” in any universal sense of the word.
You don’t HAVE to do any of it.
You don’t have to pay taxes. Sure, not doing so may have consequences that you dislike, but it IS an option.
You don’t have to go to your job. You might get fired, but people do it all the time.
You don’t have to take care of your kids. The state may come to get them, but you still have that choice.
When we tell ourselves we HAVE to say yes, we make ourselves feel trapped and helpless.
But there is a choice to everything.
When you say yes to something, you say no to something else.
And sometimes that tradeoff is worth it!
But sometimes it’s not.
The more you frame things as a question of what you are saying no to, the easier it will become to own the power you have to decide for yourself how you want to spend your time.
If you decide to say no more in your life, know that it will feel uncomfortable to say no to others. You will feel terrible and anxious. You will worry about what the other person thinks. They may be visibly upset and you’ll have to deal with what comes up for you around that.
But also know that nothing has gone wrong.
Even when your brain THINKS it has.
It’s just a system error.
The discomfort is actually a sign that it’s WORKING.
Just like when your muscles start to shake at the end of a hard exercise. When that happens, you don’t panic. You think “hell yes, I’m building new muscles!”
Same thing here.
It will feel weird and awkward to build the muscle of saying no…and that’s a GOOD thing. It’s a sign that you are trying something new and learning and growing.
It’s a sign that you are saying YES to yourself.