It’s a two-letter, single-syllable word, but saying it comes with plenty of baggage. Of course, the word in question is “no,” and I can guarantee that I’m not the only one who can’t seem to verbalize it. For women in particular, there’s no shortage of complications wrapped up in shutting down a request to offer our helping hands. That’s why this year, I’ve committed to learning how to say no—firmly, proudly, convincingly—and it’s taking precedence above all else.
So why do we fall into this trap? If you’re like me (and really, everyone else on the planet), then you know it can feel sooo good to soak up the look of appreciation when you offer to babysit a friend’s kiddo. And don’t get me started on the feeling of gratification when you give an enthusiastic yes! in response to being asked to take on (yet another) work project. While help is easy to offer up, it can quickly lead to overwhelm as a result of the many commitments you’ve piled on top of your already lengthy list of to-do’s.
Featured image by Teal Thomsen.
To get the all-important answers, I connected with Michaela Bucchianeri, a clinical psychologist and anxiety coach committed to helping individuals achieve their greatest level of wellness and lead a more authentic life. Below, Bucchianeri breaks down the why behind our tendency to overcommit, telltale signs that we should decline an offer or opportunity, and six actionable ways to actually say no—and mean it.
The desire to say yes! every time Something is Asked of Us is real and incredibly powerful. Why?
I alluded to the usual suspects above—and the reasons behind them—but it bears repeating. The very visceral allure to jump in when anything is asked of us can feel nearly impossible to deny. And the first step in learning to connect with our truth and say no, of course, is to understand why we volunteer our time and efforts in the first place.
Bucchianeri chimes in: “The smile, sigh of relief, and immediate thanks we get when we say ‘yes’ to a request are powerful signals that we’ve done the right thing. Whether or not we realize it, most of us are strongly motivated by this.”
She’s quick to note, however, that other factors may contribute. It could be your background, family structure, or something from your past that motivates you to seek validation from others. “Certain life experiences might have trained us to put the needs of others above our own in order to maintain harmony, security, or even safety in our environment,” she says.
Why might this phenomenon impact women more than men?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that overcommitting is a common tendency regardless of gender, but women have been conditioned and socialized to believe that likability is our most important, valued trait. As a result, we often prioritize others’ needs above our own.
“When a woman behaves in ways that align with our collective understanding of ‘agreeable,’” says Bucchianeri, “she is often rewarded with positive feedback, which strengthens this tendency over time.”
What are signs that we should say no?
I’ve long believed that the answers we’re looking for can be found within ourselves—and Bucchianeri agrees. “We can learn a lot from observing patterns in our own behavior. Our emotional responses, for example, can provide valuable information.”
She imparts a little sage wisdom: Pause before you commit. “Don’t judge yourself; just get curious: Do you notice anger? Overwhelm? Sadness? These can be powerful indicators that our actions are out of alignment with our values.”
“If you find that you’re experiencing resentment when you agree to certain commitments, it might be worth renegotiating your boundaries.”
How can we decide to say no?
As with many things in life, it all comes down to boundaries. By taking stock, and what Bucchianeri calls, an “honest review” of your boundaries, you can gain significant insights into what you have space and time to commit to. “Take some time to reflect on your values and prioritize those relationships and activities that support your goals before the requests start rolling in.”
From there, our old standby, mindfulness comes into play. “Rather than rushing to say ‘yes,’” says Bucchianeri, “pause and check in with yourself to determine how you feel. What do you notice in your body? This can be useful data to help guide our decision making.”
How can we deal with the guilt that may arise when we say no?
First off, guilt is totally normal! It can be uncomfortable to practice new ways of being. “Habit formation takes time,” says Bucchianeri. Before anything else, she encourages you to practice patience with yourself. “Try to focus on what motivated you to change your behavior in the first place. Remember: You’ll get there.”
What are ways we can say no to communicate our needs with compassion?
“Depending on the circumstances (e.g., what’s being asked of you, who’s doing the asking), you can tailor your ‘no’ accordingly.” Below, Bucchianeri offers a few options to put into practice.
- Thank you for thinking of me, but I can’t right now.
- Unfortunately, I have to pass this time.
- I’m afraid I don’t have the capacity to show up fully for this.
- I’m overcommitted at the moment, but please ask me again next [time, month, year].
- I don’t think I’m the right person for this, but _______ might be interested.
- I can’t help with this, but I’d be glad to __________ instead.