Why Some People Have Such A Hard Time Saying ‘No’


Sep 25, 2020


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Whether it is taking on more work than you can handle, or saying yes to plans that you have absolutely no interest in attending — most of us have struggled with saying ‘no’ at some point in our lives. But what makes it so hard to say that monosyllabic word?

Human relations and interactions are quite reliant on reciprocity, which makes us feel that not obliging socially, will threaten our bonds with people. “One of our most fundamental needs is for social connection and a feeling that we belong. Saying ‘no’ feels threatening to our relationships and that feeling of connectedness,” Dr. Vanessa Bohns, assistant professor of management sciences at the University of Waterloo in Canada, told The World Street Journal. Amid our struggles to fit in and be liked by our peers, we worry that saying ‘no’ might make those same peers reject us. The fear of saying no also stems from the urge to avoid conflicts, or confrontation. Another reason that why people tend to worry about saying no is because they don’t want to disappoint others, or hurt their feelings.

Moreover, “…we live in a ‘yes’ culture, where it’s expected that the person who is going to get ahead is the go-getter who says yes to everything that comes their way,” Dara Blaine, a career counselor and coach in Los Angeles, told The New York Times, explaining how we’re culturally conditioned to think that saying ‘no’ will prevent us from getting ahead in life. This has also led to people internalizing the idea that they should be working round the clock. But, it’s not entirely true. When people do work round the clock, over-exerting themselves and not saying ‘no’ to any work that comes their way, gradually, they lose the ability to get their job done due to exhaustion. “It’s when people learn to say no that I’ve really seen their careers take off,” Blaine added.

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And, not too surprisingly, women struggle with saying no more often. The reasons can range from not wanting to piss people (mostly, men) off, to sometimes, protecting the ego of the men they don’t want to go out with. And, in addition to being taught mixed lessons like “say ‘no,’ but be sensitive,” women are also socialized to value other people’s needs and feelings, quite often, above their own. Women are socialized to be nice too, and in attempting to please others, they tend to remove the word ‘no’ from their vocabularies.

While not saying ‘no’ when we really want to, may help us avoid the immediate discomfort of confrontation, the long-term toll can range from resentment, constant stress, to even burn-outs. As a result of ‘yes’-ing away, “I see lots of women who come in depressed, anxious, and depleted,” Barbara Greenberg, clinical psychologist from Connecticut, said. Moreover, camouflaging our inability to say ‘no’ by manufacturing excuses made up of lies instead, is also something that people struggle with, and the string of lies can take their own toll on the individual over time.

Experts encourage people to take control of their lives and assert boundaries, by learning to say no — instead of overcommitting their time, energy, and finances. Professor Vanessa Patrick, from the University of Houston, says: “The ability to communicate ‘no’ really reflects that you are in the driver’s seat of your own life… It gives you a sense of empowerment.”


Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.


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