No. Such a powerful little word, and as toddlers we all seem to have no trouble using it. No, you can’t have my toy, and no, I don’t want to eat those vegetables.
And yet somewhere along the line, many of us turn into adults who seem to have an absolute allergy to saying no. Or if we do say it, it’s a watered down, weak version that nobody takes seriously.
We say yes to events we don’t want to attend, favours we don’t want to do, nights out with people we aren’t sure we even like, food we don’t really want, and jobs we hate… and the list goes on.
How does one end up someone who can’t say no to others? And at what cost to themselves?
Why you can’t say no when you need to
The inability to say no is directly linked to the need to seek approval from others. But how do we end up the sort of adults who crave the positive opinions of others?
Often it stems from a childhood where we didn’t feel we could get love simply by being ourselves. Somehow, despite their very best intentions, our parents or caretakers left us feeling we had to conform or perform to ‘earn’ their affections.
Here are examples of parenting that can leave you a people pleaser:
- Strict parenting where you were rewarded for meeting expectations and shown displeasure if you didn’t
- Mixed message parenting, lenient one moment then demanding the next, where you decided it was best to conform over risk rejection
- Distracted parenting where your caretaker suffered with a difficult relationship, stress, or depression, and you learned to fit their needs over become another stress for them
- Unresolved parenting where your parent has not solved their personal issues with their own parents and thus played out their faulty dynamics with you
- Insecure parenting where a parent doesn’t love themselves and uses their child to shore up their self-esteem, leaving you pressured to make your parent feel good.
Becoming an adult who can’t say no to others can also come from societal or cultural influences and can be mimicked behaviour. Examples are a strict religious upbringing where it was taught women exist to please men, or growing up in an economically challenged environment, such as watching your single parent please unkind employers in order to get ahead and survive.
But why say no? Isn’t saying yes what makes life exciting?
Sure. If you are saying yes to exciting things you truly want that are in line with your life goals and values.
But not if you are saying yes to things because you think you should or because ‘it can’t do any harm’ or ‘you might as well’. Or because your partner or best friend suggested it, or because it’s something your family always does.
In other words, saying no is not a good thing if it’s a form of self-sacrifice that takes you further and further away from knowing what your own wants and needs even are.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL COST OF NEVER SAYING NO
Never saying no may come at a higher price than you might realise. These are the things an inability to say no can lead to.
It might seem to make your relationships better if you always say yes to the one you love or to good friends. After all, who doesn’t like someone who is pleasing and helpful?
But in the long run, whether you admit it to yourself or not, you are going to start to feel manipulated. And if you can’t say no, it’s not likely you are the sort to be honest with your partner about your real feelings (or even know what they are most of the time).
Instead, you might resort to passive aggressive behaviour in order to ‘win back’ some of the energy you are letting your partner, friends and colleagues take. This might feel fair at first, but in the long run it can leave you feeling bad about yourself, and leave others losing their respect and interest for you.
And then there is this unavoidable question -what sort of person wants to always told yes? Are they healthy themselves? Inevitably such a friendship or romance is going to be codependent, and both parties are not going to be coming from a healthy place. (Learn more by reading our article on codependency).
As the time and energy to accomplish your own goals is surely and steadily eaten up by other people’s demands, you might begin to experience anxiety attacks.
Anxiety can happens because on an unconscious level you are aware that you are moving farther and farther away from achieving your personal goals and creating the life you secretly hope for.
The more time you spend doing things for others, the less time you have for yourself. And this means you have less time to get done what you need to, leaving you constantly experiencing low stress as you try to ‘fit in’ what you need to or rush through things you meant to enjoy.
(not sure if you experiencing stress, or anxiety? Read our article on stress vs anxiety to learn the difference).
Always giving in to the demands of others can make you secretly feel bad about yourself and leads to low self-esteem. And low self-esteem is one of the leading symptoms of depression, so much so it’s still debated which one comes first.
So if you are the type to give too much and feel tired no matter how much you sleep, have lost your libido, and/or are under or overeating, you might be actually suffering from depression (read our guide to depression for more symptoms and how to get help).
Lack of personal identity.
If we don’t focus on what we really want, and spend all of our time doing what others want, it is possible to eventually not even know what we want. You can become so numb from doing what others want and expect you don’t even know what you do and don’t like and who you even are. And not having a sense of self feeds right into the depression, anxiety and stress we’ve already mentioned.
Breakups and divorce.
Again, saying yes can seem to make you closer to a partner at first, but inevitably it leads to fights as hidden resentments come to the surface. The fights might seem to be irrelevant and about ‘little things’, but really, they aren’t. There is nothing little about acting a martyr and self-sacrificing. As mentioned, it’s often a deeply entrenched pattern that goes right back to childhood.
And the more your partner demands from you, the more old memories might be triggered, which can lead to even more distance between you and disagreements. Without the right help, an inability to say no can lead to patterns that drive someone else away, and codependent behaviours that leave your self-esteem so low you want a breakup or a divorce yourself.
Add up a few of the above, and at some point, you might just hit the proverbial wall. If you always have low grade colds or flus, don’t sleep well, and feel tired often, ask yourself, am I over giving and headed to burnout?
But doesn’t saying no to others hurt their feelings?
When we say no to someone because we genuinely don’t want to do something or know it would be difficult for us, it might temporarily leave them disgruntled. But it also means they will have a more enjoyable experience when they find someone who really does want to and can help them.
Saying no when deep down you don’t want to means you are, essentially, lying to someone. In many cases they will eventually sense your lack of enthusiasm and might feel guilty or even angry at you for saying yes.
And feeling lied to or not being able to trust you inevitably hurts someone in the long term more than saying no to them ever could.
Need help saying no?
If you find that no matter how hard you try your life has become one big yes to others a the expense of your time, energy, and increasingly your wellbeing, reach out for support. A coach can be helpful, and if you already know it’s related to a difficult relationship or experience in your childhood, a counsellor might be best to help you process the event and rebuild your self-esteem.
Remember, when you say no to others and things you don’t want, you are saying yes to something better – yourself.
Have you experienced psychological stress due to an inability to say no? Want to share your story, or a tip that helped you? Share below.