Why is it so hard for us to say “no” when we know it’s the thing that makes us so stressed and overcommitted?
We’ve heard it a million times: you have to learn how to say “no.” It’s required in order to be successful, happy, and sleep at night; but knowing you need to do it and actually doing it are two completely different things. It’s like knowing that salad is good for you, but really just wanting the damn cake, so you eat the cake and feel like crap. It feels like a complete loss of control, which can make us feel hopeless.
I know this cycle very well, and now, after learning to use the word “no” in my own life and exploring this topic in depth, I feel as though I’ve learned how you can implement life-changing boundaries in your life, with one simple and complete sentence: “No!”
You can implement life-changing boundaries in your life, with one simple and complete sentence: ‘No!’
Once I started to learn this skill for myself, mainly through healing in therapy, coaching, and self-help books, I came to understand the root causes of my inability to say no, but also was curious to dive deeper into the problem from a cultural standpoint.
As I suspected, this problem is much larger than you or me.
There are thousands of books dedicated to topics like focusing, prioritizing, setting boundaries, and the like, all implying a need to say no to things that don’t serve us. I’ve read lots of them, applied them to my own story, and have found the overarching themes are about compassionately healing wounds within ourselves and undoing stories and societal norms that we’ve come to call our truth (without giving conscious permission).
So now it’s our turn to reclaim our power and confidence, because that’s what the word “no” gives us.
So what’s at the root of our cultural “no” problem?
As author and activist Soraya Chemali explained in her book, “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, women’s anger is at the core of the problem. She argued that although women are encouraged to feel their emotions more than men are, they are specifically discouraged from expressing or processing anger, typically from a very young age, and “anger is usually about saying no.”
Anger was something I had no idea was missing from my life until my therapist started helping me label “a feeling” I was experiencing. Namely, that feeling of “I know I don’t want to say yes to this, but I gotta,” like I wasn’t in control of a lot of my decisions — whether it was my boss, coworkers, my parents, siblings, or someone else asking. She also helped me see that a lot of my anger was masked as sadness and tears.
Learning to feel anger, express it, and accept it as a basic human emotion, just like joy and sadness, has been transformational. I now look at my anger as self-preservation rooted in self-awareness; it’s like a little red warning light that goes off when something feels off and allows me to set boundaries with conviction. It enables me to focus, do work I truly enjoy, surround myself with people I love, and live in the moment.
Learning to feel anger, express it, and accept it as a basic human emotion, just like joy and sadness, has been transformational.
Another interesting perspective that rings true in my own story is one that Chemali pointed out in Rage, using research from Rachel Simmons’ book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Women’s Aggression. “Girls, admonished to use ‘nicer’ voices three times more often than boys are, learn to prioritize the needs and feelings of people around them; often this means ignoring their own discomfort, resentment, or anger,” Simmons wrote. So not only are we not encouraged to express our anger, but we learn to pay attention to others’ feelings more than our own.
It’s lovely, in theory, to think that we can be altruistic caregivers and the wearers of rose-colored glasses all the time, but clearly, based on the amount of anxiety, depression, and “mean-girlness” in our culture, this approach doesn’t work.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, women are twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder from puberty until the age of 50. Additionally, globally, women experience depression at 1.7 times the rate that men do, as per the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. For me, connecting with my own anger allowed me to stop putting everyone else before myself, which decreased my anxiety, depressed days, and periods of burnout immensely.
So what does all of this mean for you?
In order to learn to say no, and do it without hating or questioning ourselves as a result, we need to learn how to feel anger and allow it to move through us, without judgment, even though it may feel completely foreign and uncomfortable. It’s like lifting weights — show up, practice, and you’ll start to build the muscle.
Underneath that anger may be a lot of sadness. Likewise, as was the case for me, the anger may be masked as sadness — let it out; let go of all you’ve been holding on to, unapologetically. It’s your time to finally breathe fresh air, start embracing your innate power, and believe that your future is truly in your hands (no one else’s)!
In order to identify where anger shows up in your life, I do this activity with my clients: think about the last 24 hours — what made you uncomfortable? What did you say yes to when you really meant no? Who wronged you? Who took advantage of your niceness/agreeability? Whoever it was, give yourself permission to feel the frustration and get curious about it. Ask yourself why you’re feeling it. What need are you neglecting within yourself? What did you really need in that moment? It can be helpful to have a therapist or coach to help you with this process, because it can be hard to know where to start. I didn’t know. In my eyes, nothing made me angry.
But that anger is there. And when you find it, write about it, scream into a pillow, head outdoors, run it off, or dance it out. This is your gateway to coming alive as your most authentic self. It may feel totally out of control at first, but over time, you will figure out how to channel it into something productive.
Better days exist.
If you are sick of feeling anxious, tired, purposeless, and out of control, you are not alone. Your happiness, true purpose, peace of mind, and fulfillment lie on the other side of the sentence, “No.”
And I’m living proof. If this one shy girl can do it, you can too!