Actor Jim Carey was the star of a comedy entitled Yes Man, in which, following the advice of a self-help guru, made a decision to say “yes” to every request made of him, rather than the habitual “no’s” that plagued his despondent life. . Living in the affirmative leads him to all sorts of amazing and transforming experiences; he gets a job promotion, and even finds a new romance. But Carl finds that too much of anything, even positive thinking, is not necessarily a good thing. While the movie was entertaining, it emphasized some important points about compliance and influence in our lives, which has recently been examined by researchers. In essence, the research shows that saying no to requests is much more difficult than saying yes.
When you ask someone how they are, 95% of the time they will answer with some version of “busy”, “good, but busy” or even, sometimes, “crazy busy”.
Early in my career I learned from my mentor to say “no” frequently to most request, as a way of managing my time and energy, something I continued to do throughout my life, with good effect.
Why Saying No is So Difficult
Busy has become a badge of honour, a signifier of success – a humble brag that implies we are important and in demand. But if you really are “too busy”, chances are, you are not saying no enough.
Many of us struggle to say no, fearing rejection, anger or just the uncertainty of what the other person’s response will be. Our people-pleasing is often rooted in childhood. We might have been raised to be a good girl or boy, praised for being “mummy’s little helper”, or we might not have been given enough attention, and so sought it by pleasing others, even at the expense of ourselves.
We can get so used to saying yes and pleasing others that we don’t even know what we want, or what our needs are. But if your life is so tightly packed with other people’s requests that you don’t have time for what really matters to you – or worse, your mental health is at risk – it is time to make a change.
According to BBC Worklife, people comply with requests from others because they fear disagreement. As a social species, we’re afraid to damage relationships by saying no. We genuinely want to help others and be easy-going, but we confuse refusal with rudeness and selfishness – while equating acceptance with kindness and empathy. We want to avoid conflicts, be liked, and keep the door open for future opportunities. However, by doing that we put ourselves at a disadvantage ignoring our own needs and failing to be authentic.
A study by Isabelle Roskam et al. titled “Parental burnout around the globe: a 42-country study” in the journal Affective Science, found that parents in wealthy, individualistic Western countrie s often suffered from parental burnout and stress. Researchers pointed out how individualistic countries tend to foster a cult of performance and perfectionism,. This mindset often extends outside of parenting, and we run ourselves ragged pursuing perfection in all aspects of life. Consequently we forget our limits.
The Reasons for Saying No
The first step to find the word “no” is to get a little angry about all the time, energy and money you have spent saying yes to things that you could have said no to. How many coffees have you had with people you didn’t want to have coffee with? How many weddings have you been to that you didn’t really want to attend? How many hours of tedious meetings have you sat through when you had no real reason to be there?
Resources like time, energy, attention, and motivation should be spent wisely. You won’t do your best at anything if you’re sick or emotionally spent, so saying yes to every request generally won’t benefit you or others. Moreover, when you give more, people continue to expect more — leading to a vicious cycle of distress and less-than-optimal performance. Instead, focus on staying healthy and addressing your primary responsibilities well. Honour your needs, and put yourself first.
In his book The Power of No, entrepreneur and author James Altucher writes: “When you say yes to something you don’t want to do, here is the result: you hate what you are doing, you resent the person who asked you, and you hurt yourself.
The Benefits of Saying “No”
- The Stress Factor.Saying “yes” when you really want to say “no” is a major stressor for your mind and body. It causes anxiety, tension, aches and pains, often causes us to lose sleep as well. It’s unquestionably not the lone cause of stress, but it might be among the easiest to control.
- Get Rid of Toxic People.You don’t really want these people in your life anyway, do you? These are advantage takers, the leeches, the complainers, the gossip-mongers, the responsibility-duckers. They are master manipulators who use guilt and manipulation to pressure you into a “yes.” If you consistently give a firm “no” they’ll eventually go away and find some other, weaker target.
- Save Time. We only have so many hours in the day. We can’t do anything about that, but we can control how we use that time. Don’t let others determine your to-do list or set your set agenda. You are giving away your precious time! It’s important to use your time in the way that honors your priorities, helps you reach your goalsand serves your needs. You decide what’s worth your time and what’s not.
- More Energy. Taking on things that you don’t want to do or don’t have time for, wastes valuable energy that you could be spending on those things you do care about. Pour that energy into doing a better job on those activities that you really must do or choose to do. More energy helps you feel better, be happier, and have greater productivity.
- Increase Focus. Say “yes” to people and things that are relevant to your goals. Say “no” to those things take you away from your goals and make you lose your focus. Focus on those things that help you learn and grow both personally and professionally, things that spark your interests or speak to you in some way. Whenever it’s possible, say “no” to everything else.
- Gain Strength. Every time you say “no” to others, you’re saying “yes” to yourself. You’re taking back control of your life by not allowing others to make decisions for you. You gain confidence when you stand firm and honor your boundaries. Surprisingly you also gain the respect. When you’re clear and firm about you will and won’t do, people actually respect you more. They may be unhappy with you, but they’ll respect you.
- Enjoy Life More.Life is so much more enjoyable when you begin to say “No” to things that drain you. The same is true in your work life. If you make an effort to try to limit your time and effort to work activities that enjoy or that you actually are responsible for, you’ll find that work is much more fun.
Building Healthy Boundaries
Learning how to say No is incredibly important in our lives. Doing so helps us maintain healthy boundaries and relationships with others and ourselves and also allows us to be more thoughtful and committed to the things we say Yes to. In spite of understanding the benefits of being able to say No when needed, many people (myself included) continue to struggle with actually doing so.
Remember, just because you are available to do something or can do something, does not mean that you ought to. When asked to do or commit to something, ask yourself, “Do I want to do this thing, or is it that I feel I ‘should’? Will saying ‘yes’ bring me joy or meaning? Or will I feel dread or regret when this particular event or task rolls around?”
Jesseca N. Fish and Jacob B. Priest published research in The Family Journal One theory suggests that families have three types of boundaries. Families with clear boundaries tend to function better. They may shift between the three main types:2
- Clear boundaries: Clear boundaries are clearly stated, flexible, and adaptable. There is warmth, support, and stability within the family, but each person is able to be assertive, communicate their needs, and develop individual interests.
- Rigid boundaries: Rigid boundaries are closed and inflexible, much like a wall that doesn’t let anything in or out. There is less engagement and more isolation both within the family and in the outside world. It may be more challenging for family members to communicate needs and express individuality.
- Open boundaries: Open boundaries are not as clear, and might even be fuzzy or loose. It may be hard for individual family members to have their needs met. Families with open boundaries may be enmeshed and exhibit more codependency.
Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care. That’s because “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout” says psychologist Dana Nelson.
Part of setting healthy boundaries is our willingness to say “no” simply but firmly to something you do not want to do. Do not feel that you need to explain” As for how to exactly set these boundaries, “Say ‘no’ simply but firmly to something you do not want to do. Do not feel that you need to explain” (Kairns, 1992). Not overexplaining is a crucial aspect of setting boundaries, as everyone has the right to determine what they do and do not want to do.
Henry Cloud et al. in their book Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How to Say No, have provided a compelling, nine-part video resources which help to define and maintain the clear personal boundaries that are essential to a healthy and balanced life.
Strategies on How to Say No
One technique is the refusal strategy. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research by Professor Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt found that saying “I don’t” as opposed to “I can’t” allowed participants to extract themselves from unwanted commitments.
While “I can’t” sounds like an excuse that’s up for debate, “I don’t” implies you’ve established certain rules for yourself, suggesting conviction and stability. And since it’s personal, it also maintains the social connection humans crave.
Why “I Don’t” Works Better Than “I Can’t”. Your words help to frame your sense of empowerment and control. Furthermore, the words that you use create a feedback loop in your brain that impacts your future behaviors. For example, every time you tell yourself “I can’t”, you’re creating a feedback loop that is a reminder of your limitations. This terminology indicates that you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do.
In comparison, when you tell yourself “I don’t”, you’re creating a feedback loop that reminds you of your control and power over the situation. It’s a phrase that can propel you towards breaking your bad habits and following your good ones.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia explains the difference between saying “I don’t” compared to “I can’t”: “’I don’t’ is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. ‘I can’t’ isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking ‘I can’t’ undermines your sense of power and personal agency.”
In other words, the phrase “I don’t” is a psychologically empowering way to say no, while the phrase “I can’t” is a psychologically draining way to say no.
It’s easier to say no when you know exactly how to say it, so come up with a few anchor phrases for different situations. “No, I don’t buy from solicitors” for door-to-door salespeople, for example. “No, I don’t go out during the week” for co-workers who want to go on a drinking binge on a Monday night.
When you have these phrases ready, you don’t have to waste time wavering over an excuse. And you start to develop a reflexive behavior of saying no.
Here are some suggestions to help you master the art of saying No that you can put into practice today:
- “No” as a complete sentence:“No, thank you” or “No, thank you. I won’t be able to.” (Say it, don’t apologize, then shut up.)
- Vague but firm: “Thank you for asking me, but that is not going to work for me.”
- Last Minute Boundary:“I won’t add anything onto my calendar this month, but the next time you’re planning to go _____, let me know as soon as you can because I would love to go with you.”
- Showing Gratitude:I’m so touched that you thought of me and I really appreciate your enthusiasm and support. I’m sorry I won’t be able to help out at this time.”
- It’s Not Whether, But When:“I would like to, but I am unavailable until August. Could you ask me again closer to that time?” or “None of those dates work for me, but I would love to see you. Send me some more dates.”
- Know Thyself:“No. But here is what I can do….” (Then limit the commitment to what works for you.)
- The Pressure Valve:Katrina Alcorn, author of the book Maxed Out says “We need a ‘safety word’ for saying no — an easy way to tell people that we can’t/won’t do the thing they are requesting, but that it’s not personal. If you say you’re maxed out, people will identify with that from their own lives.”
If you are still struggling to say no, bear in mind what the billionaire businessman Warren Buffet famously said: “Successful people say no to almost everything.” Saying no allows you to say yes to what is important to you. It allows you to be a better person because when you say yes, it comes from a good place, not from resentment or fear. It creates space for what matters most to you, rather than drowning in busyness, like most of us are.