Is it hard for you to say no? To look someone in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t”?
For many of us, saying no almost feels physically painful. After all, we were raised to be helpful, kind, and maybe even self-sacrificing. We were taught—whether with words or by example—to please other people, even at the cost of disappointing ourselves.
Many of us have been saying yes for so long that we’ve forgotten how to listen for that quiet, immediate, intuitive response that tells us whether something is right or wrong for us. We’ve unintentionally smothered that voice.
But it is possible to set that little voice free again, and it is possible to become more comfortable and confident saying no.
Not only is it possible, it’s essential to living a simpler, deeper life. To live a life based on your unique values—and to fulfill your unique purpose in the world—you’re going to have to say no to the things that fall outside of your values and purpose.
I recently asked the people who follow my Facebook page to share why they struggle to say no, and within twelve hours, one hundred women had replied—with the number of responses only going up from there. (Short story: If saying no is hard for you, you’re not alone!)
As I read through their heartfelt answers, I noticed three common themes that I want to highlight today, and I’ll share a countering perspective for each one.
Saying No 101: 3 Common Reasons We Struggle to Say No
1. “I was brought up to be helpful. I feel like that’s how I’m supposed to be.”
I know how deep this programming runs; I feel it too. But if I were talking to a woman right now who said this was her biggest hangup, I’d talk about impact.
I believe we can have a greater impact in the world if we choose to go all in on the very few things that matter most to us. If we say yes to every request that comes our way, we scatter our influence out so much that in the end, our impact is much more shallow. And I want to go deep.
2. “I might need help someday.”
To this, let me just say, you might want to do some inner work on what you really want your relationships to be built on. The people who love you—the people you share genuine connection with—will help you when you need it because they want to. Not because of any favor you’ve fulfilled for them in the past.
3. “I’m afraid of how I’ll look.”
Other ways women said this included—
- I’m a people pleaser.
- I don’t want to come across as self-centered.
- I don’t want to make someone else have that sinking feeling that they’ve been rejected.
- I don’t want to come off as dismissive or cold, or as someone who’s not a team player.
- I don’t want to disappoint anyone.
I hope you hear this loud and clear: You are not responsible for other people’s thoughts about you.
For one thing, your assumptions may be entirely wrong. For another, you literally can’t manage another person’s mind, so it’s futile to try!
Of course, we want to be kind. To show love to the people around us.
But we can do that within healthy parameters; we can choose to zero in on our sphere of influence and not feel bad about saying no to things beyond that.
Saying No 101: 5 Real-Life Strategies
Now let’s talk about being in the moment itself. Imagine that someone just asked you to volunteer for a committee at work, your HOA board at home, or the PTA at your kid’s school.
Or maybe a neighbor just asked you to stay home one morning and sign for a package—or take their dog on two walks a day while they’re out of town.
Here are five steps and strategies to help you build your saying-no confidence!
1. Start with a good ol’ gut check.
It takes practice to learn to listen to the quiet voice inside of you. The voices outside of us—the “shoulds”—are so much louder.
I was at a hair salon the other day, and as my stylist washed my hair, she told me about her morning before coming into work and how the agenda she had in mind about how her day was going to go was very different from the agenda her husband had in his mind.
As she processed it out loud, I got the feeling that when she was in the moment—when her husband was asking her to do something while she had something else in mind—she didn’t actually know what she wanted or needed. She only seemed to understand her needs in hindsight.
I think most women have put our own wants and needs on the back burner so many times that we struggle to access them when a situation like this comes up.
We want to help and please and be approved of so much that we can’t even figure out anymore what our own want or need is in a given moment.
How will you be able to say no in the moment if you can’t access how you really feel?
Practice listening for that quiet, immediate, intuitive response.
2. Believe that just because you don’t want to do it doesn’t mean that no one else does.
This was revolutionary to me a few years ago. Somehow I just assumed that if I didn’t want to do it, no one else would either, and so it naturally fell on me to step up. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that everyone has different interests, different things that light them up and fill them up.
Maybe it’s okay to trust that what you don’t want to do, someone else does. This task that someone is asking of you may very well fit within someone else’s why (their purpose).
3. Know that in the long run, it’s often easiest to say no right away.
Is it easiest to say no in the moment? Absolutely not. It can feel hard and awkward—especially if you’re new to saying no.
But ultimately, it is easiest in the long run because the longer you wait, the more compelled you’ll feel to say yes.
Think of the principle that a door-to-door salesman uses: the norm of reciprocity. The longer that sales person can keep you talking, the more you are going to feel like you owe them something simply for their time.
It’s why an old-school vacuum salesman wants to get inside your house and shampoo a section of your carpet. He’s counting on your inclination to return the favor—the norm of reciprocity.
The same thing applies when you want to say no.
Let’s say someone tosses a ball into your court by asking something of you, and you accept that ball by saying, “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”
Just know that the longer you hold onto that ball (a.k.a., their request), the more you will feel obligated to return it.
4. If you need to, say you need a day or two to think about it.
Unfortunately, your gut response may not always show up right away, especially if you’ve been burying it for a long time. So if you do need to ask for some time, that’s okay.
Just remember the norm of reciprocity, and resist the pull to please! Be honest with yourself about your own wants and needs.
5. Take a leap for authenticity.
Last year, I was asked to volunteer for something, and although I had a few hesitations, I said yes. I didn’t clarify exactly what would be expected of me; I didn’t take a day to think about it and to check my gut. I just… said yes.
Within a few weeks, I had learned that the gig was WAY more involved than I had realized. And not just that, it played precisely to my weak areas. (Let’s just say paperwork and archaic internet forms are NOT my friends.)
I found myself in the position that I think most of us hate to be caught in: I knew I either had to suck it up and deal—or backpedal and get out of it.
After a couple of weeks of deliberating, I decided to have the hard conversation and hand the role back over.
It was uncomfortable, to be sure. But when it was all said and done…
I felt so much relief from being back in alignment with who I believe I really am.
And that feeling—the comfort of showing up as my authentic self—is worth its weight in gold. Take a leap for authenticity.
The BEST Thing You Can Do to Strengthen Your Ability to Say No
The best thing you can do to strengthen your ability to say no is to to know your unique values. I talk a lot about knowing your values like you know the back of your hand, because it makes it so much easier to identify a courageous no or a well-timed yes.
More on this on episode five, The Best Way to Simplify Your Life Might Not Be What You’d Expect, and if you haven’t taken the time to define your personal values, I have a worksheet (including 63 values you can pull from) that will help you get it done!
Enter your info into the fields below, and I’ll send the PDF right over!
Twenty years from now, will you regret the balance of times you said yes and no? Get clear on your values, tune in to your inner knowing, and focus now on the courageous no and the well-timed yes.
Here’s to saying no, simplifying your life, and living in alignment with who you are!
More from Episode 33 of “Life On Purpose with Erica Layne”
Here’s what else you can hear in the latest episode of the podcast!
- Ask the Expert: Today I’m welcoming Rose Lounsbury onto the show to share about her decision to let go of something in her home that was tied up with her identity. Connect with Rose at her website or on Instagram.
- Trace It to Face It: A segment where I identify something I’m struggling with and talk myself through it in real time. Today what I’m digging into is why I’m struggling to show up online (and how this might manifest itself in your life, too).
Listen to the full podcast episode in your favorite podcast app or in the audio player below!
Show produced by Callie Wright
What’s one thing—big or small—that you’ve said no to lately? How’d it feel?