“When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.” ~Paulo Coelho
“Yes, of course…”
“Yes, that’s no trouble at all…”
“Yes, I can do that…”
“Yes, I’d love to help…”
Yes, yes, yes. “Yes” seemed to be the key word in my relationships with partners, family, friends, and colleagues.
I wanted to be helpful, kind, and thoughtful; I wanted to be there when people needed me. I didn’t want to let them down or disappoint or displease them. I spent a lot of my time devoted to my self-image as a capable, nice person who could be relied on. As a people pleaser, I held niceness close to my heart.
Unsurprisingly, people always assumed I’d drop everything to help them or do what they wanted me to do. They were used to me giving up my time for them and putting their needs and wants before my own.
This was especially the case in my close relationships, in which I found it hardest to say no.
I grew up believing saying no to others was negative, unhelpful, and selfish.
As a child I was often told not to cause a fuss or bother anyone, and to expect very little. As a result I believed that others were worthier than me, that their needs and wishes should take precedence over mine. I felt guilty for saying what I wanted or how I felt, as if I had no right to do so.
Unsurprisingly, I found it difficult to voice my opinions and needs, and I believed that what I thought, felt, and wanted wasn’t important.
I was also fearful of confrontation and avoided it at all costs. Saying no risked provoking someone’s anger and making them think badly of me. It meant possible abandonment, the withdrawal of approval and love. So it seemed far safer and easier to say yes, even if I wanted to say no.
My readiness to say yes certainly didn’t gain me other people’s respect or consideration. Even though I consistently gave a lot more than I received in return and often felt hurt, resentful, and unappreciated, I kept saying yes.
My habit of people pleasing attracted into my life the sort of people who disrespected and used me. This included a relationship with a guy who turned out to be a bully.
Throughout our time together I went along with whatever he wanted. I kept saying yes to the relationship despite the fact that he emotionally and psychologically mistreated me. I kept putting his needs and happiness before my own, and of course he had no respect for me. Why would he when it seemed I had no respect for myself?
It was only when things became unbearable and I got sick that I knew I had to say no to the relationship and start saying yes to myself.
My inability to say no had created a great deal of inner turmoil, which had obviously impacted my physical and emotional health. I realized I had to say no to a lot of things and a lot of people in order to heal myself and protect my well-being.
The end of my dysfunctional relationship made me see that it’s often in our closest connections that we most need to practice saying no, because we often maintain unclear or flexible boundaries with the people we’re closest to.
Say No to a Lack of Boundaries
Boundaries are essential for healthy connections and show that you respect yourself and your partner. It’s through boundaries and our ability to say no to each other that we come to know our partners better and also connect with them more deeply. When we can freely voice our opinions, we meet as equals.
People-pleasers often have a hard time setting boundaries, and this was certainly the case for me. We can develop a blurred sense of where our boundaries lie, if we have bothered to give serious thought to them in the first place.
I realized that I had to set boundaries before I embarked on another relationship.
I had to build up my confidence and begin to trust myself. I needed to work out what I liked and disliked, what I wanted and didn’t want, and where exactly my line would be crossed.
I knew that if I continued to have hazy boundaries, I would remain vulnerable to mistreatment and would continue to attract into my life people like my ex-boyfriend.
Say No to Inauthenticity
I had mistakenly thought going along with what other people wanted would mean less disagreement and conflict. I thought it was good for my relationships, but in fact the opposite was true.
Whenever I said yes in a powerless way, I was being inauthentic to myself and the other person. There was little honesty in many of the yeses I said.
My need to be liked and approved of and to please the other person overshadowed my need to be true to myself.
Suppressing my wants and needs meant that my partner could not know the real me. None of us are mind readers, so they could only guess what they thought I wanted, and most of the time they assumed I wanted what they wanted because I never said otherwise.
When we don’t feel able to voice our wants and needs in a relationship, our connection lacks true intimacy. If we cannot be open to our partner, how can we be closely connected? If we continually hold a part of ourselves back from our loved ones, either from fear of conflict or a reluctance to drop our mask of “niceness,” we create inauthentic connections that cannot grow into something deeper and stronger.
Intimacy cannot flourish from pretense, only authenticity.
Say No to Self-Sacrifice and Being a Martyr
In the past I sometimes said yes reluctantly and with little enthusiasm, which of course didn’t please the other person. This went against my intention to minimize any conflict.
These yeses were tinged with martyrdom; I felt I was sacrificing my time and energy. I was often bored doing things I didn’t want to do, all of which took away time I could never get back.
When you feel obligated to agree to do something you don’t want to do, it usually backfires on you. You end up feeling resentful of the person who asked you in the first place, and you resent yourself and your weakness. The help you offer will lack genuineness, and people will be able to sense your unhappiness and resentment.
I learned that in every relationship there must be compromise rather than one partner’s continual self-sacrifice.
Say No to Catastrophizing
People who have a hard time saying no are often worried about other people’s reactions and feelings. They tend to build up in their imagination all sorts of negative scenarios resulting from saying no.
Yet we are not responsible for others’ reactions to what we say or do; the only reactions and emotions we can control are our own. This was a revelation to me, taking into account my childhood conditioning.
When we catastrophize a partner’s reaction to our “no,” we show a lack of faith in their ability to respond like a reasonable person, and it reveals that we don’t really know or trust them.
Would your partner be so angry if you dared to voice your opinion that they would actually leave you or stop loving you? If so, what do these reactions say about them? Would you want to be with someone like that anyway? If they prefer you to be a doormat and always compliant, what does this say about their view of relationships?
If you say yes out of fear, you need to look at what makes you fearful in your relationship. Fear is an indication of a power imbalance, and therefore an unequal relationship. There is a big difference between being afraid of your partner and being afraid of their opinion of you if you say no. Their disappointment in your no is based on their expectations of hearing a yes.
If your partner is so adverse to you voicing your wants and needs, you should leave that relationship. You cannot stay with someone who thinks their needs and wants are more important than yours. It’s not good for your self-esteem and, as I discovered, your health.
Say No to Draining Situations and People
There is a lot of positive power in using no in the right way. You don’t say no to purposely hurt others; you say no to protect yourself from people and situations that can hurt you.
When you say no to draining people and situations, you open up the space for positive energy and relationships to enter your life. It allows more worthwhile activities and opportunities to come your way.
Your no creates the necessary boundaries that give you time for yourself, time to focus on your self-care and interests and what matters most to you. You’ll also have extra time and energy to help people you genuinely care about in a much more meaningful way.
I had to cut ties with certain people, realizing they didn’t contribute anything but negativity to my life. I had to say no to these relationships.
Saying no in these circumstances is a form of self-protection. You have the right to say no to situations and people that threaten your peace of mind or well-being.
How to Use the Power of No
We have obligations to our loved ones and should be there for them when they truly need us, but we also have obligations to ourselves.
When we say no it shouldn’t intentionally cause another person any real harm; it should always come from a place of consideration and compassion, but it also has to be assertive and come from a source of strength.
I found that it helps to focus on the fact you are not saying no to the person but to their request. This separation makes it feel a lot less personal.
It also helps to start small. Begin by saying no to acquaintances and colleagues and anyone else you feel safer saying no to. Once you have gained some confidence, you can say no to less significant matters in your close relationships—such as what to eat for dinner, which movie to see at the cinema, what to do with your free time, and so on.
Most of my friends and family were initially surprised when I no longer just went along with what they wanted. But their reaction to my no wasn’t negative. In fact, many were relieved and pleased that I was finally being assertive.
I then practiced saying no to more significant requests for help or bigger favors that would take more time and energy. In time, saying no became easier.
Don’t be rushed or pressured into making a decision if you need time to think about someone’s request. Simply say, “Can I get back to you?” “I need to check my schedule first” or “I’ll let you know.” Any impatience on the other person’s part is their business, and there’s no need to get caught up in a discussion before you give your answer.
It’s important to remain calm when you say no. You don’t need to give lots of reasons—doing so can weaken your no—but you can apologize for not being able to help, if you wish. It depends of course on the request. A simple, “Sorry, but I don’t have the time right now,” or “I’m sorry, I’m not able to help” will suffice. Always use “I” rather than “you” when you give a short explanation for your response.
When you say no to certain people they might react with anger, surprise, disappointment, coaxing, or guilt trips. It’s important to not be manipulated by their reactions, or swayed into changing your mind.
Their response to your no is often an accurate indicator of the health of your relationship with them. They have become used to your yeses, and this has shown them how to interact with and treat you. They’ve got used to you putting them first, but now you need to give them a different instruction, which involves changes they might not like.
In time, unless they’re a bully, they’ll adapt and even prefer the more assured you. They will have more respect for you and your time.
But if they refuse to accept the changes, you must say no to the relationship.
Say Yes to Yourself
Your no protects your personal power in your relationships. It enables you to be more honest with other people, yourself, and what you want. Your no allows you to say yes to things that are important to you.
When I realized my no could be linked to a self-affirming yes, it was a powerful revelation to me. Saying no didn’t feel negative anymore; it was something that empowered me and allowed me to prioritize my time. After all, our time is limited, so we cannot say yes to everything.
I began to focus on the positive aspects of saying no: yes to more time to do what I wanted, yes to more self-esteem, yes to good relationships, and yes to greater control over my life.
Say Yes to Self-Empowerment
Saying no and taking better care of myself made my yeses feel more powerful because they were authentic and came from a place of strength. The more honest I was about saying yes and no, the more people respected my time and boundaries, and appreciated my help.
I also learned I can live with others’ disappointment, and I cared less about their reaction to my no. I was no longer afraid of upsetting people.
Saying no doesn’t stop you from being a nice and considerate person. Sometimes, the kindest thing you can do is say no to someone, including yourself.
When you are self-empowered you know you are enough, you know you are worthy. You know you don’t need to exhaust yourself doing everything for everyone else in order to be liked and valued.
Helping those in genuine need, if you are able, is always a good thing. However, you can’t help everyone, but you can help yourself.