Overcoming Our Inability to Say “No”

Written by on May 15, 2017 in Breaking Barriers, Self-Care



Do you dread having to say no, even when you really want to? Have you ever made false or elaborate excuses or ignored a request hoping that the whole thing will just go away or that somehow the other person will get the message?

While it is true that those who lean toward being soft hearted and have a need to please are especially vulnerable to the struggles associated with saying no to others, most people suffer at one time or another with maintaining boundaries, particularly when it comes to family.

The good news is that our inability to say “no” is not some kind of character flaw, it is a learned behavior.

So, if you were never taught as a child to set healthy limits for yourself, or that there are times when you need to say no for your own well-being, it is well within your ability to change for the better.

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

First We Accommodate, Then Tolerate and Justify

Most of us learn at a very young age that using the word “no” can result in unpleasant responses from the very people we want most to please, and sometimes those responses include reprimands or even punishment.

It’s no wonder we struggle the most when it comes to saying no to family, after all, this is where we learned the lesson of being agreeable at all costs in the first place.

As we grow the message continues to be subtly and overtly drilled into us (at home and by society in general) that saying yes makes us a nice person while saying no is at the very least impolite and almost always comes with unpleasant consequences.

By the time we reach adulthood we’ve been effectively primed for a life of doing whatever it takes to avoid saying no, often justifying our unwillingness to stand up for ourselves with endless excuses.

  • If I say no to my boss he might end up giving the best assignments to another employee, or it could adversely affect my next raise or even limit my advancement opportunities.
  • If I say no to my friend she might get mad and not speak to me. What if she complains to others in our group and they end up rejecting me?
  • If I say no to my sister (brother, mother, aunt) I might hurt their feelings, and I’d never hear the end of it.
  • Taking time for me sounds good in theory, but saying yes to me feels like I’m saying no to my family and I don’t want them to think that I am selfish and uncaring.

It’s About Making Room for Things That Matter

You may be wondering what’s the point of making such a big deal about saying no. After all, there is some truth to that old saying about picking your battles, especially when it comes to marriage and family.

But of course, we’re not just talking about marriage and family. As we’ve learned, this habit of avoiding no is learned from an early age, affects virtually every area of our life, and is the chief reason we occasionally find ourselves the target of emotional manipulators.

Most of all, we need to understand that the real reason we struggle to say no has little to do with the words we use, but rather our emotional response and the sense of vulnerability that comes with having to communicate that message.

But the fallout from a no is rarely as bad as we expect it to be. While some may grumble or even argue, particularly if this is a new behavior for you, the sky almost never falls, and your family may give you a hard time at first but they won’t stop loving you.

In fact, once you master your new habit of honoring your limits, firmly and with compassion, others will have a lot more respect for you and your time.

Build Confidence by Starting Small

It is tempting to treat our use of the word “no” the same way we do our fine china and crystal, by saving it up to use only for special occasions, like when you feel you have been backed into a corner and have no other choice.

The problem is that this approach is almost guaranteed to create more stress and anxiety that necessary, which in turn makes you much more reluctant to say no in the future.

Starting small and saying no more frequently in everyday encounters will help to increase your confidence. For example, voicing your choice of a different restaurant instead of automatically going along with the one suggested or declining a request to serve on a board or participate in a fundraiser because your time is already committed.

This will also help others to gradually accept the new you rather than being blindsided by a sudden change in character if they are used to you saying yes to everything.

Following is a simple process to help you say no effectively and with compassion.

Pause Before Responding

If you struggle to say no, particularly when the request comes from friends or family, instead of responding right away take steps to buy yourself some time to reflect on the request and how agreeing could potentially affect you.

Try using a phrase such as, “Let me check on a few things first and then I’ll get back to you.”

If the person making the request presses you for an answer, don’t try to explain or justify your request for time, calmly repeat the phrase exactly as you said it the first time. This will convey your confidence and resolve in an honest and straightforward manner.

And if they tell you they can’t wait? Well, then you politely thank them for thinking of you and explain in that case you’ll have to decline.

Respond With Clarity and Respect

When you say no, keep it simple and decisive. You don’t have to justify your reasons for saying no. Keep reminding yourself that you are turning down a request, not a person.

Here are a few simple phrases you can use to communicate your message.

  • I’m going to have to pass.
  • I don’t want to say yes and then let you down.
  • It’s just not right for me.
  • No thanks, I have another commitment.
  • Unfortunately, it’s not a good time.
  • Thank you for thinking of me, but I can’t.
  • I’m going to say no for now, but I’ll let you know if something changes.
  • No, I can’t do that, but here is what I can do …
  • I’m afraid I can’t help you, but you can do that as well as I can and I’ll even tell you how.

When you are polite but not overly apologetic (or defensive), it sends the message that you care but are clear about your decision.

As with so many things in life, the attitude with which you approach cultivating this new behavior will make all the difference in the outcome.

Ultimately this process is so much larger than simply learning to say “no” more often, it’s about admitting that what you want matters, honoring your limits and making room for the people and things that you care most about.

How about you? If you have any tips on how you’ve successfully learned to say “no” when you need to please consider sharing with us in the comments below.

Related reading:
Sometimes, adversity is what you need to face in order to become the person you were meant to be.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click “here.

Thank you for sharing!

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  1. Hey Marquita,

    Saying “No” is hardest job of my life, it took me years to learn how to say no, but over the years facing different kind of issues, we learn and we change.
    Jeannette Paladino recently posted…Weber Genesis E-330 Review (637-Square-Inch Gas Grill)My Profile

  2. Summer Price

    It can be so hard to learn to say no. It took me a long time to learn how to do that and then still longer to not feel guilty about it. I agree with Suzie’s comment. It probably wasn’t until I really learned to love myself and value me that I started to truly be okay saying no and knowing it was okay.

    I also ask myself … if I say yes to you what am I saying no to me on? If that no to me isn’t worth the yes to you it is a no.
    Summer Price recently posted…Mouthwatering Sushi Bowl with Incredible Wasabi DressingMy Profile

    • Good for you Summer! It isn’t easy to say no to others, especially for people who are sensitive, but the alternative means to sacrifice oneself and that’s a terrible waste of a life. Thanks for stopping by and sharing with us. 🙂

  3. Joy Healey

    Hi Marquita,

    I was brought up largely by my grandparents, while my parents worked, and you just DIDN’T say no!

    So it took me a long time to learn that it’s OK to say no occasionally.

    I loved your different ways of phrasing it – giving yourself breathing space. Some I have already used, but there are some excellent ones there to ring the changes,

    Joy – Blogging After Dark
    Joy Healey recently posted…Online Business Goals Are Very PersonalMy Profile

  4. Suzie Cheel

    learning to say no comes more easily I think when we love ourself unconditionally and know we are enough. AS you say look at what really matters xxx
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…How Will You Follow Your Passion This Month?My Profile

  5. Saying No is difficult at times, but yeah we need to eventually get the hang of using it or else you have other issues to deal.
    Loved your post and your website is a getaway for me where I visit from time to time whenever needed!
    Sushmita Thakare Jain recently posted…The Must have Tools You’ll love to form Backbone of your Business!My Profile

  6. Such good advice. I have this ‘nice girl’ upbringing (Southern!) that makes it so hard to say No at times. I’ve learned over the last couple of years to be clear about what I want in my life and that’s made it easier to say Yes or No!

  7. Hi Marquita,
    Excellent topic.. “NO” is a great word. I agree with you saying it gives you freedom to do other things. It’s actually quite powerful to say NO because you’re standing up for yourself, in control of your decisions, and that’s empowering.

  8. I think it’s particularly hard for a woman to say no. We are so different than men. We are taught as children to be nice little girls, “YES makes us a nice person.”
    Not being so and saying NO brought “unpleasant responses from people we want to please, sometimes include reprimands or punishment” Learning to value yourself and your time is very important. I wrote out on my weekly report page “Let me check a few things first and I will get back to you” I am going to use that!! Great article Marquita.
    Kathryn Maclean recently posted…Brand Development What Is It? How do you do it?My Profile

    • I think a lot of people would agree with you about this being an issue particularly relevant to women, so it may be surprising to learn that according to studies men struggle with saying no almost as much as women do, just for different reasons that have to do with ego and their ability to “man up” and be strong. Plus they internalize the problem rather than talking about it. So glad you found value in the post!

  9. Joyce Hansen

    This reminds me of that saying “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” We imagine that busy people know how to get things done. It may seem to be a compliment but, until you stop and ask yourself at what point do you allow others to steal your valuable time, you’ll keep saying ‘yes.’
    Joyce Hansen recently posted…The Mommy Brain Advantage in BusinessMy Profile

  10. Vatsala Shukla

    The hero image quote spoke to me Marquita. I’m a kindhearted person and often find myself in situations where no is the only answer unless I want to put everything else on the backburner or it is something that I really cannot do.

    Being firm is important and as you rightly pointed out, we are refusing the request not the person. Depending upon the degree of relationship, I would add a suggestion where they can get help. I’m honest about it.

    The only time I get strict is when the other person doesn’t take no for an answer. It happened sometime back via LinkedIn from an unknown person who wanted me to go with them to discuss a training project for a client who was 50 kms away and they needed me to determine the scope of the training, create content and all of this for free with my being paid only for the training sessions.

    He wasn’t willing to understand that I don’t work like that and there was no discussion of fees for my assisting them in their business development. To make it worse, he hadn’t bothered to visit my website and had found me via a keyword search!

    I had a hard time getting the person off the phone until I asked him the WIFM question (he couldn’t answer it) and suggested he find another consultant who was willing to do the marketing and content creation on a pro bono basis! Best no ever!
    Vatsala Shukla recently posted…Do Your Goals Really Meet Your Needs? Motivation mattersMy Profile

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story, Vatasla. No question about it, I could do a whole post on how to deal with people who chose to ignore your “no” which is also one of the biggest obstacles to managing personal boundaries.

  11. I love this article and I was truly able to relate greatly to most of the points you are making.I will definitely try to pause before I speak. I like how simple this reply is; “Let me check on a few things first and then I’ll get back to you.” I also really like that you remind us to have “clarity”. Great tips and helpful reminders about a confidence builder. Our time is precious, and so is our self-respect.
    Nathalie Villeneuve recently posted…Christian Coloring Book & Deeper FriendshipMy Profile

  12. Erica says:

    I think it can feel hard to say no when you can see that you’re disappointing someone else. It can be easy, in the moment, to forget that your needs matter too. For me, saying no was a skill that took practice. It felt uncomfortable at first, but got easier with time.
    Erica recently posted…5 No Sugar Desserts to Satisfy Sugar CravingsMy Profile

  13. Reba Linker

    Thank you for this, Marquita! Saying ‘no’ is an art and a skill that I am still navigating, as are so many of us! I love your advice to ‘start small’!
    Reba Linker recently posted…Manifesting: Watch Your ImaginationMy Profile

  14. William Rusho

    I will admit I have a problem saying no. Sometimes I think this is not the problem, the problem is those people who are manipulators, they are the ones who need the help. Unfortunately, those types of manipulators will never change. So, we must adjust to protect ourselves from them.

    • Yep, you are right William, and yet many people will either enter into a relationship or stay in one for years hoping to be able to eventually change the other person for the better. It really is a fool’s game that almost always ends in heartache.

  15. Emily

    I do have trouble saying no but I tend to use phrases to deflect the other person – at least for the time being like “I’ll get back to you” or “Let me double check if I am free” etc. Then that helps pave the way for me to gently say no like, “Oh I am not free that day” etc.

  16. I see it as self respect. By not saying “yes” to everything and valuing your own time and effort, I think it helps others to value you and your time. If you want respect from others, respect yourself first.
    Marvin Dittfurth recently posted…Uncover and DiscoverMy Profile

  17. I love your suggestions for ways to say no. I often struggle with saying too much when trying to say to no. I want very much to explain my decision, but I’ve learned that this is unnecessary. I’ve had to say no over email to many people for many things since I started promoting my blog, and since then it has been easier to say no more often in person as well.
    Jessica – A Modern Mom’s Life recently posted…Victoria Park Revitalization – A TD Common Ground ProjectMy Profile

    • Good for you Jessica! It is true that dealing with the small issues each day can build our capacity to handle the bigger obstacles that life sometimes throws our way. Thanks for stopping by and contributing to the conversation. Always appreciated. 🙂

  18. Rosary says:

    I can totally relate to the difficulties of saying no. I have always been a people pleaser, so I find it really difficult to say no when people ask me for favours, especially if it comes from close friends/family. However, I have learned that saying no can be healthy because if we keep saying yes to things we’re uncomfortable with doing, the end result will suffer. It’s a slow learning process, but I’m trying my best to set my priorities right and say no to things that are just not the right fit for me.
    Rosary recently posted…[comic] – switching brainsMy Profile

    • Awareness is a big step in the right direction Rosary, so keep at it! Thanks for taking the time to share your story and contribute to the conversation. 🙂

  19. Jeri

    I’m sure I was talked about behind my back when I was a teacher because I tended to say no when it came to chaperoning dances and the million other things teachers are expected to do in addition to the regular workday and for no extra pay. I tried to make up for it by being with with my administrator I could be counted on for committee tasks that involved research or writing that other teachers would be less inclined to do.
    Jeri recently posted…#Marketing: My GoFundMe Breast Cancer CampaignMy Profile

    • Probably. Two of my closest friends are teachers (she teaches 8th grade and her husband is a college professor) and they have shared similar stories with me. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s not easy being a teacher, and they never get enough credit as far as I’m concerned. Thanks for stopping by!

  20. Janelle says:

    Learning how to say No was always a tough one that I am still learning. I learned it can be tough to say ” No” to family most times. Thanks for your article and I will keep this in mind.

    • Most people would agree with you about the family issue Janelle and as I referenced in the article, there’s a solid reason for those feelings. But we need to accept that difficult or not, ultimately the choice is yours to make and the consequences of those choices are yours to endure.

  21. Phoenicia

    I resonate with your article.

    For years I struggled to say no for fear of rejection and losing out on supposed opportunities. I found myself committing when I wanted to do anything but.

    I have learnt the art of saying no which you refer to; advising the person I will get back to them rather than jumping in with a “yes”. Even if I am going to say yes, I still take time to do so (unless urgent). I feel this shows the person that you value your time and are weighing up the cost. It gives you that little bit more respect as you are not at their mercy at all.
    Phoenicia recently posted…Present yourself well!My Profile

  22. Janice Wald

    I used to be good at saying no but I keep saying “yes” lately. Thanks for the reminder to stick to my resolve.

  23. Mark

    Well isn’t this some excellent and extremely timely advice M!

    And I sincerely hope, you don’t get too much hate-o-rade for sharing such practical advice!LOL!

    I think we can all relate, to some degree or with your excellent advice.

    And hopefully, we’ve all come to a place and point in our collective lives, where we’ve learned how to use the awesome power of the word ‘no.’

    And for those who haven’t quite gotten to that point just yet, your post is a proven road map for doing so!
    Mark recently posted…Who Says Small Marketing Budgets Mean Your Small Business Can’t Make Big Money? Part TwoMy Profile

  24. Chery Schmidt

    Good Morning Marty! Overcoming the inabilty to say NO! OH SO ME! I loved all your advice here and have written this statement down “Let me check on a few things first and then I’ll get back to you.” OH Yeah I am going to earn this one inside and out and USE IT! I hae people calling me everyday to help with something, especially with summer coming!! This my friend is going to be a life saver. THANK YOU! Chery :))
    Chery Schmidt recently posted…Start Creating Beautiful E-Books & Lead Magnets TodayMy Profile

  25. Mandy Allen

    I think sometimes it’s a good thing to say ‘yes’ and as we grow older it becomes more important to say ‘no’. It does seem a dichotomy though that things we might have said ‘yes’ to earlier in life we now need to be saying ‘no to. Being able to say ‘no’ is indeed the key, regardless of how many times we have said ‘yes’ to the very same thing.

    Enjoy the journey!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us Mandy. I think the point of the article is pretty well stated at the end … it’s not about how many times you say no or even the word, it’s about believing that what you want matters, that YOU matter. One might choose to say “yes” all day long as long is the things they are saying yes to truly matter to them rather than doing so out of guilt or a false sense of obligation. In my own life, I frequently say YES to anything that enhances my personal freedom and opportunities for adventure. 🙂

  26. lenie

    Marquita, I never thought about ‘no’ being a learned behaviour but of course it is. I can just imagine the uproar it would have created if I had said no to my parents or teachers, even when I thought they were wrong. But you’ll be proud of me – I have actually managed to say NO several times in the recent past. Took a lot of years but I finally got it.:)
    lenie recently posted…Add Beauty To Your Yard With Shade Loving HerbsMy Profile

    • Good for you Lenie! Like everything in life it’s a matter of balance. The idea here is to say no to the things that don’t serve you (and the people who drain you!) so that you have the space to say yes to the things that bring you joy and fulfillment. 🙂

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