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Why Everyone Needs to Have "No" in Their Vocabulary

Without it, you could be headed for burnout.

Key points

  • Many women have difficulty saying “no.”
  • People may believe that saying “no” implies that they only care about their own needs.
  • Saying “yes” too often can lead to burnout, resentment, and other negative effects.
Source: Khorzhevska/Shutterstock

The cultural narrative claims that women can’t say “no,” and the truth is that many women do have difficulty saying “no.” Often trained from an early age to be selfless and take care of other people’s needs, we learn that being of service is precisely what makes us valuable and included. Other people like us when we say “yes” as opposed to “no,” and so we do. But little by little, “no” disappears from our vocabulary.

This past Saturday, Jane helped her friend move, lugging boxes and furniture for six hours, all while her back was spasming and coming off a 60-hour week. She said “yes” to her friend because she thought that saying “no” would make her a bad friend, and also prove that she was selfish. The result, for Jane, was that she spent Sunday in terrible pain, flat on her back in bed, but with her badge of honor as a good friend.

So why is saying “no” so hard for many women? The fact is, we often hold firmly entrenched core beliefs about the word “no.” For one, we believe that saying “no” implies that we only care about our own needs, and are choosing ourselves over other people, which once again means that we’re selfish and unkind (and therefore, unlovable).

Furthermore, we imagine that “no” wipes out every “yes” we ever offered up until now. A single “no” has the power to define us (as selfish). That said, it might take 10 “yeses” to make up for a single “no.”

At the root, many women believe that we simply don’t deserve to say “no” to other people’s needs. Taking care of others, after all, is what makes us worthy. We don’t deserve to take care of our own needs, and certainly not if our needs conflict with someone else’s needs. We’re conditioned to believe that our needs are just not as important as other people’s needs.

Simultaneously, we’re convinced that the only important question to consider when our help is requested is this: Can I give you what you need? But what we don’t consider is: Can I give you what you need—and also be well? This second question includes our own well-being in the decision-making process, which we’ve been taught is indulgent and entitled and leads us back to the same place we always end up—namely, back to selfish.

On the upside, we derive a great sense of self-worth and pride from being a “yes” person, someone who can always “make it work” no matter what it takes (and I’ve heard some pretty wild “whats”!). Being seen and known as the superwoman who can keep giving endlessly and selflessly, who never complains or seems to need anything for herself, in reality, brings a lot of kudos and admiration from others. It also makes us feel good about ourselves. At the end of the day, we enjoy being perceived as and perceiving ourselves as a superwoman.

While there are real payoffs to being an always-yes woman, there are real problems with it as well. To begin with, we end up doing a lot of things we don’t want to do, which can leave us feeling resentful and trapped, saying “yes” because we don’t feel like we have the right to say “no.” We often end up angry at the people to whom we’ve said “yes,” imagining that it’s they who are demanding our help and maybe even taking advantage of us—when really, it’s we who can’t say “no” (and often the other person would be fine if we did).

Sadly, we opt for being perceived as helpful at the expense of taking care of ourselves and being real. And not surprisingly, our resentment usually sneaks out somewhere along the way, as our real feelings make themselves known. And so, even our badge of honor—getting to be the good and selfless person—becomes tarnished.

So too, the trade-off for always saying “yes” is that we have to disconnect (and stay disconnected) from ourselves and our own wants and needs. We say “yes” without thinking or consulting with ourselves on what works—for us. This then becomes our habit, not just saying “yes,” but ignoring ourselves. We keep our attention focused on others and their needs and far away from ourselves. Over time, we remove ourselves permanently as a destination for our own attention.

Perhaps the most obvious downside of being someone with no “no” in her vocabulary is deep and profound burnout—emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual. When we don’t take care of our own needs and protect our own energy and well-being, we end up depleted and exhausted—overextended and overwhelmed, stretched too thin, and bone-tired from giving everyone else what they want and need from us.

This burnout can then lead to a kind of hopelessness, apathy, and even depression. We know we can’t keep living this way, being all things to all people and giving everything away (including ourselves), but we just don’t see another way of being.

So, what is the other way of being? How do we give ourselves permission to start incorporating “no” into our life, and indeed our very identity? Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, on becoming a good person who also has boundaries.

Facebook/LinkedIn images: fizkes/Shutterstock

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