Learning to say "no"

Updated: Nov 22, 2018

How one tiny word can help you improve your life.

Did anyone ever teach you how to graciously and firmly say no? If not, you are like many of us who learned that we are not really, truly "allowed" to say no. If you have difficulty saying no and asserting yourself, you are not crazy, you are in good company, and you can heal.


Some reasons you may be afraid or blocked when it comes to saying no:

  • You experienced someone breaking your boundaries and your body has forgotten that it has the right to say no and that the no will mean something

  • You have seen people get punished for setting boundaries (i.e. love was withdrawn, the person was blamed, people abandoned the person, or they were verbally, emotionally, or physically abused when they tried to assert themselves)

  • You have experienced negative consequences for setting boundaries in the past

  • You have witnessed women being punished for asserting themselves in societies that aim to control, rather than empower them

  • You fear that your relationships would fall apart if you were to assert your boundaries (i.e. love is conditional, you are only loved in as much as you do what someone wants you to do)

  • You have internalized beliefs that you are selfish, vain, egotistical, uncaring, or cruel if you say no to someone

  • You are living the toxic social message that women are the caretakers and community-makers and this means they are not allowed to say no or have conflict; in fact, they are also responsible for everyone's feelings and better make sure they never upset anyone.

  • You are worried you'll be labeled a "bit*h," an "angry black woman" or other unflattering judgments of your character

We experience our life on several levels: personal, familial, communal, societal, political, and cultural. The less healthy any of these levels is, the more difficult it can be to live in an authentic, healthy, self-affirming and self-loving way. For example, when we see anyone we share an identify with punished for being themselves, we internalize the message that "it is not safe to be me."


While some of us respond to this conditioning by adopting a bulldozer like assertiveness (which can be or seem necessary to counter the forces that attempt to erase or control), many of us choose protection by becoming small, compliant, and invisible. It can be scary to consider saying no, because saying no sets a boundary, causes emotional reactions in other people, and makes us known, felt, and visible. If you learned that love = being pleasing, taking care of people, or being liked, then saying no would mean giving up love. And who wants to give up love?


If you have experienced trauma in the form of non-consensual breaking of you boundaries, it is likely that you still carry fear imprints that arise when you try to assert yourself. These reactions may seem huge compared to the situation, but that is exactly what trauma is: your body/brain responding to a current situation as if it is the same as a previous situation that was perceived as life-threatening.


It is important to learn to say no, because until you do, other people will control your life. If you have little ability to say no, it will be difficult to stand up for yourself and your worth, and to assert what is and is not okay with you.


When you begin to assert "no" more often, people may not like it; especially people who have benefited from your lack of boundaries. While this can be painful, it gives you valuable information about who you are keeping company with and what their intentions are. A person who is interested in having a mutual and respectful relationship with you will not be upset when you say no, even though they may be disappointed in your answer. They certainly will not punish you for saying no.


No matter what your challenge with saying no is rooted in (i.e. guilt, trauma, social-conditioning), you can benefit from the following practices:

  • Develop awareness of your particular fears and resistances around saying no

  • Take inventory of what you observed growing up in your family, city, culture about assertiveness and the right to say no

  • Practice body awareness to better determine your true feelings about what you are being asked to agree to

  • Develop a 24-hour rule to give yourself 24 hours to get back to a person with a yes or no answer (even then, you can always decide to change your mind)

  • Breathe deeply before answering and ask yourself "what will be the best decision for me in this situation?"

  • Start small - think of this as weight-lifting. If you're weak in a muscle group, you start with a light weight and build up. Instead of starting with "no mom, I'm not coming home for Christmas this year" (the equivalent of a 100lb weight), could you start with "no I can't cover your shift that day," "no I don't need a bag," or "thank you, but I'm busy that night."

Start small and build your way up. Congratulate yourself for successes along the way and connect with people who support you in doing what is right for you. The point is not to get this "right" 100% of the time. Instead, it is about strengthening the muscle of "no" so that, when you need and want to say no, you are more than able to be kind and firm with your answer. If you are having trouble on your own, which most of us do, consider getting a therapist to help you through your stuck places. I hope these short thoughts on a big topic are helpful!


I help women work through trauma, patterns, and messaging that keeps them stuck and miserable. Book now if you want to work with me!

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