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Overcoming a Hurdle to Saying "No"

New research highlights how one of the barriers to saying “no” is in the mind.

Key points

  • Prior research suggests that people tend to unwittingly inflate the odds of circumstances they want to prevent.
  • Investigators extended this research to explore a possible factor behind why people struggle to say "no" when others ask for something.
  • The team found evidence that people unintentionally amplify the odds that others will react in adverse ways if they set a boundary and say "no."
  • Additional research is needed, but it could be useful to remember that others may be able to handle "no" better than we think they can.
Pexels/Vi Studio
Source: Pexels/Vi Studio

In my work as a therapist, it’s common for me to ask the brave individuals I work with to try something that may feel unfamiliar, challenging, vulnerable, or awkward. It’s also really important to me to support people’s autonomy and boundaries. In the spirit of this, I like to underline the fact that I embrace their refusal to try something as much as I appreciate their agreement to have a go at it. For instance, I’ve mentioned that I welcome "no" just as much as I welcome "yes.”

That's something worth repeating, because, let’s be honest here, it can be hard to set a boundary—really hard. I’ll bet it wouldn’t take much rummaging through your memory bank to know exactly what I mean. Perhaps it was that favor a friend asked of you, the one you didn’t want to do but you just couldn’t quite bring yourself to say “no” to. Or maybe it was that time a boss or coworker asked to schedule a work meeting the next day and you said “sure thing” even though you were already stretched to the limit and privately wished they hadn’t asked. In all likelihood, you could come up with several mental snapshots.

Be that as it may, the fact that it’s tough to say “no” doesn’t tell us why it’s difficult to do so. That’s where a new study comes in, one in which a team of researchers explored an element behind why we find it arduous to say that healthy, vital, two-letter word. Across a series of experiments, they found support for the idea that one reason why we humans tend to struggle with setting boundaries and saying “no” is because we inadvertently exaggerate the adverse effects that will arise if we do. For example, we might fear that the person who is asking us for something would feel upset, would judge us, would disparage us to others, or would not support us when we need it. Or, we might be afraid that the relationship would suffer (the investigators included all of these in their study). Yet, despite our belief that our boundaries will give rise to these unpleasant results, the research team found that people on the receiving end handle “no” better than we think they will, at least in the short run (they didn't research the long run).

Why do we make this miscalculation? The investigators referred to prior research indicating that when we’re trying to evade an unwanted circumstance (e.g., a friend’s judgment toward us after we say “no”), we are more apt to amplify the odds of it occurring. The upside is that this bias could assist us in steering clear of that situation.

The research team also rightly pointed out that there are downsides to inflating the odds of other people’s problematic reactions to our boundaries, like saying “yes” more than we need to or want to, which could also work against the very bonds we’re trying to protect. Of course, the investigators were right to state that additional studies will be needed to more fully illuminate our understanding of this matter. In the meantime, how might we use this information fruitfully? As the research team indicated, if we can remind ourselves that the consequences of setting a boundary likely won’t be as bad as we imagine, we might feel more able to try saying "no" at times, which could feel unfamiliar, challenging, vulnerable, or awkward, but ultimately better.


Lu, J., Fang, Q., & Qiu, T. (2022, October 6). Rejecters overestimate the negative consequences they will face from

refusal. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.

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