People pleasing, codependent, Midwestern nice: we have a lot of words to refer to a broadly common cultural experience where many people have an extremely difficult time saying no (or really anything that isn’t what we think the other person wants to hear). Ironically, though these behaviors usually grow out of a desire to maintain our relationships and people’s good opinion of us, many of us find that the opposite occurs over the long term. Relationships of any kind thrive with direct communication, and when we’re consistently saying yes when we want to say no, our relationships with others quickly become stunted and mired in resentment.
Even when we recognize this, however, making a change is hard. If you’ve spent your whole life believing you need to be as agreeable as possible at all times, even starting to learn how to say no or really express yourself honestly can feel impossible. Here’s a place to start:
Think about why you struggle with saying no
Many of us struggle with saying no — and with boundaries generally — for a variety of reasons. It can be as simple as gender; women are generally socialized to be agreeable and nonconfrontational, and you may have watched your own mother or sisters overextend themselves in significant ways. For people who grew up in unstable or traumatic home environments, saying no may feel like it puts you at risk, because at one point it did. If you came from a “guess” culture, even within the US, saying no in a direct way may have been considered extremely disrespectful or aggressive.
The way forward to healthier relationships is clear regardless of the reasons you struggle with this, but understanding where your concerns are rooted can help you approach this area of growth with more compassion and understanding for yourself, and work through this process more effectively.
Notice where resentment is showing up in your life
Resentment is a normal part of everyone’s emotional spectrum — but every emotion has a function, and resentment’s function is to show us where we need to set better boundaries for ourselves and say no. Is there a place in your life — your relationship, your work life, your family, your friend group — where you’re feeling a simmering anger? Maybe it’s a way you feel taken for granted by your partner; maybe it’s a colleague who always seems to feel comfortable asking you to take work off her plate. Maybe it’s the way your mother assumes you’ll travel home for every holiday, or the anticipation of the next time your friend will ask you for yet another ride somewhere.
It’s natural to feel like the other person should get their act together in these situations — be more thoughtful, notice the toll their asks are taking on you or work to be more equitable. That’s not untrue, but the way for that to happen is for you to begin saying no to these requests, not for you to wait for the other person to have a moment of clarity while you nurse your resentment silently.
We may feel in these situations like we’re left without options – the other person is “making you” take on these extra tasks or putting you in a position where you “can’t” push back. In reality, saying no is virtually always an option we have available – when we feel like we “can’t” say no to things, it usually means we feel worried about social consequences of doing so – like someone potentially being displeased with us, or that we might lose a self-perception of being “perfect.” This doesn’t change our responsibility to ourselves. Anytime resentment begins to crop up, it’s a sign for you to take an action.
Practice saying no in small, low-stakes situations
The idea of starting to set more boundaries or say no more often can feel like an extreme one. If we come from a culture or family where saying “no” is considered out of bounds, then when we imagine ourselves doing so we can feel like it’s going to be outrageously harsh or that saying no will involve a full dressing-down of the other person. We may even have had this experience – if you’ve been overextending yourself and saying yes to things you want to say no to for a long time, you may have previously found yourself exploding or lashing out when you feel like you’ve hit a limit — and this is your only context for saying no to anything.
In reality, saying no can and often is calm, low-stakes, and non-confrontational. Often, when people ask you things or make requests, it isn’t an attempt to manipulate you into doing them at any cost, it’s a genuine and open curiosity about whether you’re available, and a simple “no” will be received as what it is — information that allows them to make a choice about how to proceed.
Don’t believe me? You can test this theory out for yourself. The next time someone asks you for something minor — a ride to the airport, a tampon out of your purse, to cover a shift at work — practice saying no casually and politely, even if it’s something you could actually do. Try to do so without too much effort; you don’t need to explain yourself in great detail or apologize profusely. “I can’t, sorry!” will do. “I’m not crazy about that restaurant; let’s go somewhere else.”
Notice what happens when you do this, both in yourself and the other person. Do they get mad? Do they sulk or punish you? Do they act hurt or wounded? Most likely, they don’t; they might appear momentarily frustrated or stressed, but you’ll see they’ll move on almost immediately. And what comes up for you? Do you feel guilty or stressed? Do you feel the urge to apologize, or offer something else to make up for it, or find another solution for this person? Notice those feelings come up, and let them pass.
Work on saying no in more important contexts
Of course, this practice becomes more difficult with higher-stakes conflicts — and yet those are exactly the times we need these skills the most. When the easiest thing to do would be to say yes to our partner for the thousandth time, but doing so would entrench a pattern of resentment that is slowly poisoning our relationship.
Steadfastly saying no in these contexts often isn’t easy — that’s why building up our skills around it is so important. When the time comes where we feel the resentment building and know that we need to make a change, the same rules apply as above. You need only calmly and directly state what you are and are not available for, and that you’re open to hearing your partner’s reaction to that but that it won’t mean your decision will change. The goal is for you and your partner to be able to come up with a solution together that gets both of your needs met, but that doesn’t involve either of you accommodating beyond what’s healthy and sustainable for you. This could look like:
“I can’t host your friends for a dinner party when I’m on deadline at work. I would love to host a different time, or help you figure out a different plan for your event.”
“I’m not comfortable spending Christmas at your family’s house given the way that your mother treats me; we can talk about staying at a hotel in the area instead, or if you want to go visit them without me I’ll understand, though it would mean a lot to me if you were open to visiting my parents during the holidays.”
“I know you like doing that in bed, but it doesn’t feel good to me. Is there something else we can try?”