It can be so very challenging for most of us to say no, and for a number of very good reasons. First and foremost, we are all taught from an early age to be helpful, to volunteer ourselves to assist others, and, according to some traditions, perhaps to even sacrifice our own well-being for the good of others as well. Certainly, there is a bevy of research supporting the benefits of altruism, or doing good deeds, on our own mental health. In fact, I would agree that finding time and space to be supportive of others, donate your time to a worthy cause, participate in community activities, or other forms of reaching out, should become part of your to-do list and can have beneficial effects on your mood.
However, sometimes, particularly for those of us who are co-dependent, saying "no" can feel almost as unacceptable as uttering a four-letter-word. The idea of putting up a boundary can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to saying no to the people we care the most about, or those we hold in high esteem. So, in the interest of helping you get your no on, I offer some insight into saying that tricky little two-letter-word.
Saying no gets easier, but it takes practice and preparation
Does the thought of turning someone down make you feel anxious? Don't worry, it does get easier. It's helpful to engage in mental preparation and practice in some low-stakes situations to train yourself to say no when it really matters. For example, you may need some time to write out how you'd like to say no, or to imagine yourself in a situation where you might feel comfortable saying no. Appreciate that how you say no may very much depend on the context you're in or your relationship with the person you're asking. Certainly, if you're in line for promotion and your boss is piling on the work, you don't want to say no without providing a carefully-thought (and, hopefully, rehearsed!) justification that doesn't make you feel like your job is at stake. However, saying no doesn't always require an explanation. Practice saying it to salespersons at stores who seem to be a little too belligerent, for example. Remind yourself that you are a very small part of that person's day and they won't remember you turning down their offer to find that sweater in a different color. You can also practice at restaurants, or even phone calls with phone solicitors that you feel uncomfortable hanging up on. Then, you'll be a bit more prepared to say no in harder situations, and to practice different ways of saying it. Enlist a friend to practice big no moments with for a chance to rehearse. The more you do it, the easier it will get.
Saying no is easier when you say what you are willing to do
While you don't always need to provide an explanation, it can be helpful to have a plan to say yes to what makes you feel comfortable. So, prepare to follow up your no with a quick offer of things you are willing to do. For example, consider the case of Joe. Joe wants to spend time with his friends after work, but has family responsibilities he must attend to. Joe is introverted and shy, and appreciates when his work buddies reach out. He is afraid that turning them down might result in their not asking him to hang out again. Here's how he handles it:
Jim: Hey, do you want to grab a beer with me after work?
Joe: No, not today, but maybe we can get lunch tomorrow, does that sound good? If Jeff is free, maybe he can come too.
Joe creates his own opportunities and another concrete event to look forward to without experiencing the fear of missing out (FOMO).
It is not uncommon for people who struggle with co-dependency to experience anxiety and worry that they are missing out, or that others will judge them harshly if they don't say yes. Some people might feel pressured to say yes out of fear of losing other opportunities or friendships. Take the case of Carla, who is a stay-at-home-mom new to her neighborhood and enjoys going to a community playgroup. The group is usually hosted by neighborhood fixture Jenna, but this week her house is being fumigated. When Jenna asks Carla to host playgroup at her house, Jenna feels uncomfortable because her house is smaller and she is unsure how many moms and tots will come. Additionally, she has a dog that does not like unfamiliar visitors. Here's how she handles it:
Carla: My house probably won't be as good, but I can call some of the other moms to see if they'd be willing, or maybe we could check out the local park if the day is nice? We can have a picnic.
Jenna provides herself with another task to be helpful and remain connected to her new mom group, without sacrificing her own sense of comfort.
Saying no can be empowering.
It's true! Establishing a boundary for yourself also lets others know that you're comfortable asserting yourself. This is an enviable trait, and by carefully choosing what you do say yes to, you will also begin to prioritize your needs over those of others. Saying yes too frequently might cause you to feel overwhelmed and resentful, but a sense of empowerment will come from truly dedicating yourself to the requests that matter. The more empowered you are, the easier it is to say no the next time you're asked to do something you'd rather not.
So, give it a try. You never "no" how it feels until you say it!