Small children are often told “no” in order to shape their behavior and keep them safe.  We don’t allow them to wander the street or scream endlessly at the top of their lungs while at the dinner table.  We tell them “no” and redirect. Then, there comes a point when a child proudly announces with enthusiasm “NO”.  They begin to assert themselves and stand up for what it is they want.  For example, it might be “NO. You can’t take my candy!” Or maybe they go through a period where everything is “NO!!!”

But somewhere in childhood there is a transition that happens and it becomes difficult to say. An advertising campaign was created and a program developed to encourage kids to “JUST SAY NO” to drugs.  And now a movie has come out called Horrible Bosses (maybe you had one?) where they plan to kill them because of their inability to assert themselves. If we say no, then we should mean no and behave in a way that supports our decision.

This is a great word with lots of power and it’s even easy to spell.  But for many of us saying “no” or even being told “no” is uncomfortable.  As far as I know, it is not a dirty word.  So why is it so hard to use in our daily life?

Fear of the Unknown

A big motivator in shaping our own behavior is fear.  If afraid, we have a difficult time taking risks.  Many of us have an aversion to conflict, change, or hurting someone. If we have low self-esteem, or have co-dependant, people pleasing traits, the anticipation of saying “NO” can be like living a nightmare.

As a therapist for the past 20 years, I have been witness to this painful struggle on multiple occasions.  It has been important to teach people how to say ”NO.”  In order to make changes in our life, a clear understanding of our internal process is helpful. What is the motivating force that compels us to say “yes” when we want to say ”no”?  Our motivating force can be different depending on who, what, where, and when.

There are also gender differences.  Women engage in more “people-pleasing” activities while men tend to have a difficult time rejecting the challenge of a task. It makes sense by our very nature since women are nurturers and men are fixers. The end result is still the same…Not being able to say “NO”

Purpose of NO

Think of this concept as helping you to set a boundary.  A boundary based on the clarity of who you are, what you can handle or what you want to do with your time and energy.  Learning how to say “no” is a way of providing self care.  Sometimes, saying “no” can even be a way of caring for someone else. For example, no longer doing laundry for your adult children because they need to learn how to take care of themselves. Or maybe you care too much and have adult children who continue to live at home with all of the adult freedoms but without the adult responsibilities. They spend their money on drinking and toys while you spend your money still keeping a roof over their head. You are left feeling resentful.

Rejection or Boundary Setting?

NO is affiliated with rejection as in, “I don’t want to be in a relationship with you.” Or “I don’t like your idea.”

It is important to explore the meaning behind the refusal.  ‘Is it me they don’t like or the idea?’  ‘If they don’t like me, am I okay?’  ‘Do I want to pretend I am something I am not?’ ‘Should I engage in something that goes against my best interest because I want to be liked and accepted?’

If we spend our lives’ being what everyone else wants us to be, we are not being authentic individuals, but rather disingenuous chameleons.

Who are you?

Are you the guy who walks around with an angry chip on his shoulder because you feel obligated up to your eyebrows and can’t say “NO”?  Are you the woman who resents having to care for and nurture what feels like the world?  If you can’t say “no” resentment builds up because the truth is you don’t want the responsibility and are afraid to be honest.  Your integrity is compromised and the communication becomes impaired because you cannot be true to yourself.

Tips for saying “NO”

  • You don’t have to answer right away.  Take time to think about your answer.
  • Get clarity.  It allows you to stick with your decision whether it is “yes” or “no.”  Use good judgement.
  • Learn how to be direct.  Passive aggressive communication is not helpful.
  • Be assertive, this takes practice.
  • Remember, not everybody needs to like you or approve of you.  If you spend your life doing what everybody else wants, then you are not living for you.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need or want.  Accept the rights of others to say “NO” to your request.
  • The word “no” is not dirty but it can create magic!!!  It transforms us by allowing us to clarify our priorities, minimize anger, resentment, frustration, and creates time for self care.

If you are able to easily say “no” to others without guilt – great.  If you are one of those people who can graciously accept the answer of “no” without feeling rejected – perfect.  But if you struggle with the inability to say “no”, then take action and get professional help. If you have a specific question please feel free to email me at

1 Comment

  1. Gloria Reed on October 13, 2011 at 3:54 AM

    I really enjoyed the blog. That is always nice when you find something that is not only informative but entertaining. Outstanding.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.