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Why You Can’t Say No

And How to Make it Happen

As women, we often find ourselves saying yes as a snap reaction. “Yes, I’ll take on that project,” or “Yes, I’ll help you move.” But do we really want to? Here, Kellie Currin, MAMFT at Henegar/CBI Counseling Center, shares some of the common reasons women fail at saying no and tips on how to make it happen.

We want to please others.

Simply put, women can be people pleasers who are fearful of being seen as selfish. “A lot of us have grown up thinking it’s very feminine to be nurturing and kind and to surrender and share,” says Currin, who explains that this ties in with women’s fear of boundary setting. “It’s the fear of name calling or the fear that someone is going to make a value statement about us and what we’re like.” We want to please others because we’re fearful that part of our identity will be seen differently or categorized negatively if we make a choice that’s more beneficial to us than them.

We’re not sure how to say no in a “nice” way.

Saying no is all about setting boundaries, but setting boundaries can come off as stern – a characterization many women shy away from. 

busy business woman multitasking

“It’s hard to say no because we fear being seen as aggressive, but if we try to meet our own standard for ‘nice’ then often we are staying passive, instead of acting assertively,” Currin explains. However, she has a few tips for saying no in a way you can feel good about. One tip is to offer to do something else instead. No, you can’t dedicate a Saturday to helping your neighbor move, but can you bake them a casserole to have for dinner before all their cookware is unpacked? If not, don’t sweat it, says Currin. “You can always just say no and leave it at that. No is a full sentence.”

We don’t know how to set boundaries.

“It’s really important to establish boundaries as soon as we realize they have been violated, because it’s difficult for us and confusing for others when we backtrack,” Currin says, explaining that boundaries are defensive by nature, so you may have to say no a lot in the beginning to get them established. One good way to set boundaries is to be consistent. “One of the things my mentor regularly tells me is that I need to say ‘I don’t do that.’” Opt for a similar statement so there’s no gray area. And don’t be afraid to feel uncomfortable when setting boundaries. “You’ll get more comfortable as time goes on and people will begin to recognize your boundaries and respect them,” Currin adds.

We feel guilty to say no.

“Remind yourself that this is what is best for you and that by saying no, you get to say yes to other things,” advises Currin. With each yes you reluctantly say, you have to say no to something that may be more valuable. “Often we are hypercritical of ourselves and the guilt lingers, so reminding yourself of this can help you let go of that guilt.”

Beware of Resentment

A reluctant yes turns into a resentful yes. Beware of any reluctance that you notice, and pause to really think it over before saying yes or no. “In Rising Strong by Brené Brown, she says when we don’t set boundaries, we’re giving others free rein to step on us. Anytime I feel guilted into doing something, I know I’m crossing my boundaries,” Currin says.

Recommended Reading

If you find it hard to say no and want to learn more, Currin recommends two books on the topic.

  • Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
  • Rising Strong by Brené Brown
Kellie Currin

Kellie Currin

MAMFT, Henegar/CBI Counseling Center

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