Are you feeling resentful or exhausted? Is there a fair amount of passive aggressive behavior between you and your partner (or between you and anyone else)? Then you might not be saying “no” enough. Today I’m going to teach you:

  • Why it’s so hard to say no
  • Why women have a harder time saying no than men
  • My top 5 tips for getting great at saying no
  • I’ve got a little giveaway today to help you say no more easily, so stick around!

I’ve been hearing stories my whole life about what a happy baby I was. Apparently, I came out of the womb smiling and never gave my family a moment’s bad time. Sure enough, there are multiple pictures documenting this happy baby phenomenon.

When I told a past therapist about what a great baby I was (it was one of those “in passing” comments that then became the center of the next five sessions) she said, “Wow. That must have been hard. That’s a lot of pressure for a kid.”


In our ensuing sessions I discovered that she was right. From the very beginning I was set up to be the smiling good girl. So, on the outside, that’s all I ever was. I said “yes” and was amenable all the time. I was always willing to “pitch in” and lend a hand and I could always be counted on to volunteer first or be the one who spearheads tomorrow’s important meeting.

All of that looking good on the outside came at a cost. I unconsciously learned that my own needs weren’t as important as others’ and that my worth was tied up in being that “happy girl” who always said yes. I kept the smile on my face but pulled myself farther and farther from people emotionally. I felt isolated and unworthy which culminated in a drug addiction that I hid from the world.

I wasn’t happy when I said yes all the time but, today in my life, I say “no” often and I am happy. What I’ve learned in these last couple of decades is that saying “no” actually makes me vulnerable which makes me more real and accessible to the important people in my life.

I’ve worked with thousands of people over the years who’ve learned to add “no” to their vocabulary and they’ve learned the same thing! They feel more connected to themselves and others and are truly happier and more content in their worlds.

So, if all that’s true, why the heck is it so hard to say “no” in the first place?!

There are three main reasons:

1. Fear of Conflict and Being Disliked

This is a place I struggle because, gosh darn it, I want people to like me and to think I’m fabulous. There are plenty of people who don’t like me saying no. I don’t volunteer much at my kids’ school and I’ve no doubt that some tongues wag about that. I draw boundaries around my personal time and have had major pushback from work colleagues and family members. There are times when I cave to others’ unhappiness and it always bites my butt in the end. I’m not perfect, but I strive to be kind to myself as much as I can.

Vanessa Bohns, PhD, a researcher in this topic at Cornell University says, “We have an instinctive need for connection to other people—it’s essential to our survival. We worry that saying no will break these bonds…Specifically, we fear that the other person … will feel rejected or take it as a personal affront. Saying no stirs up intensely negative emotions—embarrassment and guilt.”

Bohns says that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid these yucky feelings, and her research has shown that we’ll even say yes when it goes against our own ethics! Yup. That’s how strong our “instinct” can be to say yes, when we really need to say no.

In the end, we don’t want to disappoint or hurt someone – so we hurt ourselves instead.

2. Our Self Image

As in my case, we’ll often avoid saying no because it goes against our self-image. I saw myself as the “happy yes girl,” so how could I say no? All of us have some story that we tell ourselves about who we are in the world.

Maybe you see yourself as a great mother who’s devoted to her children–how could you ever put your own needs first? Being a great mom means you’re selfless and always put your children’s needs first!

Or maybe you’ve told yourself, “I got that promotion and I’m a manager now. I need to be the hardest worker the company ever saw. I need to stay late and work harder than everyone I supervise. “No” can’t be part of my job description!”

All of us have identity stories we tell ourselves. “I’m someone who jumps in first to help.” “I’m a leader and leaders need to be there for others no matter what.” “I’m a hands-on dad.” When we say no or refuse someone’s request, our self-image is called into question.

In general, we’ll choose what makes us happier and more satisfied in the present instead of what will make us happiest and healthiest in the future. That’s why we’ll buy those shoes now instead of saving more money (or is that just me?) or why we’ll eat those Oreo cookies now instead of thinking about our future thighs (oh, is that just me too?).

Pleasing other people and thinking of ourselves as kind, generous and selfless by saying yes is way more pleasurable than refusing other people and saying no.

3. Socialization

Women aren’t born to be people-pleasers; it’s a learned behavior. That’s right – there’s no gene or biological imperative that’s been identified. Instead, saying “yes” is a socially learned coping mechanism that women are taught from an early age.

It’s no secret that girls are socialized to be nice and to be more in touch with their own and other people’s feelings than boys. Boys, on the other hand, are socialized to win and to be less attuned to their own or other people’s feelings.

Females are socialized not only to say yes, but to feel guilty when they say no!

Research by psychologist Katharine Ridgeway O’Brien at Rice University found that people expect women to agree to requests more often than men. Women are also expected to volunteer for administrative tasks way more often than men and, if they say no, are more likely to be given a worse performance evaluation, get fewer recommendations for promotions and be considered less likeable by their peers at work or in social settings. (By the way, when men say no, people think, “Oh, he must just be busy” and they don’t receive the same negative consequences).

I’m not saying that men never have trouble saying no. I’m saying that it’s simply not the same phenomenon as it is for women. Women are socialized to feel responsible for the feelings and the well-being of those around them and it is simply more rare for men to be socialized in the same way.

Here’s the good news. All is not lost! Even if you’ve sucked at saying no in the past, it’s a skill just like anything else. You can learn to get good at making and keeping your boundaries, and saying no.

Here are my top 5 tips for saying no to others, and yes to yourself:

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

Saying no more often is a skill and, like with any new skill, you need to practice consistently to get good at it. At the start of a new behavior you need to practice the same move over and over to ingrain it.

If you’ve ever learned a sport like tennis, you know what I mean. In the beginning, you have to rehearse and practice the mechanics (stop, step, plant my foot, shoulder to the net, follow through my swing, etc). This same idea holds true for getting good at saying no as easily as you say yes.

Research shows that if you make a specific plan before you’re faced with a demand or request, you’re way more likely to stick to what you originally intended. So, choose a default way (or ways) to respond before someone asks for something and practice saying it before you need to.

One of the things I have at the ready is something like this: “I’m not putting anything else on my calendar this month. Can you ask me again early next month and we’ll figure out a time?” Notice I don’t say that I’ll get back to them. They’re the ones making the request. If they want me bad enough, they can circle back. Do NOT put one more “to do” or follow up on your own plate!

Another one I say is, “I really appreciate your support/you thinking of me, but I need to say no to that (right now).”

Yet another is, “I can’t do X, but here’s what I can do.”

If no is new to you, I want you to practice saying “no” in small, unimportant situations where the stakes aren’t high. Since practice will make it much easier, minor events are the perfect situations for getting you ready to eventually say no in the tough times like to your boss or your mom. For example, whenever I get my legs waxed, they always try to sell me some exfoliating lotion or cream at the end. It’s a great place to practice saying simply, “No thanks.”

2. Remember “No” is a Complete Sentence

Don’t justify yourself because no is definitely a complete sentence! You don’t need to have a “good enough reason” for saying no. The fact that you just don’t want to do it is all you need. You don’t need to explain yourself or justify why.

And while we’re on the subject, please avoid saying you’re sorry! You don’t need to gravel and apologize for drawing a boundary!

3. Don’t Lie, But You Don’t Have to Say Everything

I’ve had instances where I need to say no to a request because it would get in the way of something like getting my nails done, working out or shopping. Now, if I said to someone, “No, I can’t volunteer for the bake sale on Saturday because I’m getting my nails done” I would likely be met with hostility, eye rolls or demands to justify my selfishness. In my head, I hear myself defensively saying, “Hey, I work damn hard all week, which means I don’t have time to do much for myself except work and take care of my family and getting my nails done is important to me and this is the only time I can get it done (blah, blah, blah).”

I don’t want to get into justifying what’s important to me or explaining myself. So, instead, I say “I can’t help on Saturday; I’m already booked.” I’m being honest, but not getting into details.

In my experience, people will often lie and say things in these situations that sound better and feel like better responses. I’ve been guilty of this myself in my younger years. “Uh, sorry I didn’t make it on Saturday, my aunt’s friend’s parrot had a brain tumor and I had to rush it to the pet hospital.” You can see how lies or stories can lead to more stress and issues as we try to feel better in the moment. Don’t do it! It’s not worth it in the end.

You can absolutely be honest and vague at the same time

4. They Won’t Take “No” for an Answer:

If your no isn’t accepted at first, you want to repeat the exact same words (calmly) again. Don’t change what you’re saying to try to make it more palatable or easier. The more you say, the easier it’ll be for the other person to refute some part of what you’re putting out there and try to change your mind.

If the other person persists and asks for more details, “Well, what are you so busy doing on Saturday that you can’t help out?” You can just say, “I’m telling you that I’m booked, and I don’t feel a need to explain myself.” In my experience, by the way, the person who’s asking is getting huffy because they didn’t draw their own boundaries about taking care of themselves, so they resent that you are. Don’t be drawn in.

When you start to give reasons, you’re going to end up with the other person trying to convince you about why you should drop your plans to come help or they’ll offer suggestions and problem-solve how you could make their request fit. Again, don’t get caught in the trap. You might say something like, “I know you’re in a jam, and if I could help, I would.”

If they still persist say how you’re feeling. It might be something like, “I’m starting to feel angry that I’ve said no and you’re continuing to push. For me, this conversation is done, and I don’t appreciate you turning me into the bad guy for having a boundary.” In this case, you want to focus on the emotions you’re feeling and not the details of why you’re refusing.

5. Pay Yourself First

In general, I want you to set your priorities and stick to them because this is what self-care is all about and it’ll make saying no much easier. I tell my clients all the time, “Pay yourself first.” If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to say yes later when you really want to!

One of the ways to accomplish this is to have some clear rules or boundaries for yourself. For example, I don’t give money to anyone pan-handling but I’ll give money to people selling Street News, which is a newspaper run by homeless people. This is my own little rule in my head and it makes it easier to walk by the majority of people asking for money.

In addition, I have 4 charities that I give donations to regularly each year and then an allotment of X more dollars that I’ll give throughout the year but I don’t go beyond that. If someone asks I can easily say, “I’ve already committed my charitable donations for this year.”

Another boundary I have is that I only say yes to social stuff up to two nights per week (Tuesdays and Wednesdays usually). That’s it. If these are booked, I’m done for that week. Sometimes, I have to make a plan four to six weeks out, but that’s the way it is.

In my private practice I have 2 spots for extremely low-income clients (these are often people living in their cars or who are living very close to a financial edge). I often get asked by people to offer a reduced rate and I can easily say, “Those spots are full, but I can put you on the wait list if you want.”

Yet another is telling people that I check emails twice per day during the week at 8:00 and 3:00pm. That’s it–so that’s when you can expect a response.

All these up-front boundaries and commitments save me a lot of anxiety, stress and discomfort. In the end, I’m happier, calmer, more content and feel more peaceful in my life. I can’t pretend that I still don’t get caught saying yes when I should say no, but it happens way less than it used to, and I try to learn from each of those times so I don’t make the mistake again.


If you’ve been feeling resentful, exhausted or stuck in a “yes” cycle, enter your name and email below to download today’s “Just Say No” quicksheet to help you identify those boundaries now, so you can say no easily later.

 Ready to find out what goes on inside that crazy mind of Abby’s? 

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