Learning to say no.

Anyone who has been around toddlers or young children for any amount of time realises that they are very good at saying no and saying it clearly and directly. Yet for a lot of adults saying no does not come easily. So what happened and why is it hard for some of us to say no? I want to qualify this by saying it can depend on who is asking and what situation we find ourselves in. In my case for example, do you want to jump into the freezing cold sea is an easy no, for others it is an instant yes. Your boss asking you to stay and work late to get something important done, when you have somewhere you have to be, might not be so easy. The one I think most of us find challenging is going out for a meal and someone saying “let’s split the bill” when you don’t want to.

I often hear people apologise for finding it difficult to say no, as though somehow, we ought to find it easy. There are also numerous books and articles which say this is how to learn to say no. I remember the assertiveness books and trainings that were popular in the 80’s which made it all sound so simple. Yet I find that saying no is simple, but not easy. If you go straight to trying to say no without understanding or being curious about why it is difficult for you then you will often set yourself up for anxiety and difficulties. When we can understand why it is difficult for us, we can then be more informed as to how to support ourselves when we want, and possibly need, to say no.

What makes saying no difficult?

Growing up I was taught I should “be nice”, I should “think of others” and more importantly “not be selfish”. We will all have had different beliefs or values that we were given as we grew up, probably a lot of them handed down through generations. Behind a lot of these is the fear of rejection, of not being seen as someone who is helpful or positive. Not many of us want to be seen as difficult and most of us want to be liked. Some of us may find ourselves in situations or relationships where it doesn’t feel safe or ok to say no. Each of us will have our own reasons as to why it is difficult, and I believe the starting point is being curious about it. Conflict is rarely easy or comfortable, most of us just don’t want to upset anyone. Yet in not upsetting anyone else we have effectively upset ourselves.

One of my favourite quotes from Brene Brown about saying no is “Choose discomfort over resentment”. While I agree, I think it can also be helpful to understand that we have a choice. Sometimes in a certain situation and given how we feel in that moment, we may choose to say no, or we might not. Knowing and understanding ourselves helps us to choose. If we fear rejection more than resentment at a point in our lives, then we may make a different choice. I am not saying that is right or wrong, just what is more comfortable for us in that moment.

For a variety of reasons, we may have grown up ignoring that voice inside of ourselves that lets us know we want to say no. We no longer recognise when we don’t like something or don’t want to do it. If you are someone who has spent a significant amount of time worrying about upsetting others, then often you will have stopped noticing the signals your body gives. When this happens, being curious helps us learn to listen again.  We may have got so used to making sure everyone else is happy, that we don’t consider what we want.  We often don’t think our needs are important or we can believe we need to put other people first. Some situations this could true, however ignoring your own needs can lead to depression and low mood.

Where to start when we want to learn to say no

A good place to start is by noticing what it feels like in your body when you want to say no. What are you aware of, in my case I often sense a tightening or resistance. You may notice a tightness in your throat almost as though you are trying to stop yourself from speaking. Learning to tune in takes time, so be patient with yourself. Think about starting with easy things, like noticing what happens when you wonder if you would like a cup of tea or coffee, or something else if you don’t drink them. Try to start with something that is not emotionally charged and that doesn’t impact anyone else. This simple exercise will start to connect you back with what you feel and want to do. You can then gradually expand it to other situations. It is ok if you notice you may want to say no, and yet don’t feel ready to. Noticing is still useful.

Reflecting on what is in the way of saying no is a useful next step. Certain barriers can be connected to our own self-worth, and it may be that you want to focus on practises that support you developing your own self-worth first. It may be that you just feel too tired, and you have a habit of allowing yourself to get burnt out. Again, be curious about that, what other options are available to you, can you get curious about why this pattern is there.

All negative behaviour has a positive intent, despite it initially not looking that way. When you understand the intent, you can see an alternative solution.  You may find it difficult to think you may be upsetting other people, or fear that they won’t like you if you say no. You might experience people who just don’t take any notice when you want to say no.

When you feel able to say no there are a few things you may want to consider.

  • Keep it simple and clear – that way avoids confusion and the message being lost.
  • Are you ready for someone to not like you saying no, and still know and understand it is the right thing for you.
  • Be polite, so for example you could say “Thank you for thinking of me”.
  • You don’t need to justify why you are saying no, once you do that you open the possibility of someone trying to persuade you otherwise.
  • Remember you are saying no to the request not the person.
  • Be patient with yourself as you learn how to do this, don’t start with the most challenging situation first.

Final Thoughts

We are all unique and will experience different barriers to saying no. What is important to understand is that it is possible to learn and to feel you have a choice. As you learn, keep in mind it is not about forcing yourself as that can lead to feelings of overwhelm or anxiety. Rather, offer yourself compassion and understanding around why it is challenging and then  work on what gets in the way. Consider how you can access the support needed whether that is for a behaviour change, or a mindset change first. Then what you may find is that saying no comes more easily. We are both entitled to say no and have the ability to learn to say no.

Learning something new takes time, and I wonder if there may always be situations which are more difficult than others for us to speak up. We are always learning, growing and understanding ourselves. I invite you to do it with compassion and curiosity knowing you are not the only one who finds this challenging.

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington is an experienced BACP accredited counsellor providing online and in person therapy to adults and young people over the age of 13. She is currently working at Holt Consulting Rooms