Do you remember the first word you said as a baby? I certainly don’t, but I would bet that it may not have been the first word, but “No!” was probably in the top 5 of my first words. Most babies get ‘no’ a lot from parents. This makes sense, it’s important to tell babies what not to do sometimes more than saying ‘yes’. We don’t want the baby to get hurt and the ‘no’ just comes out. Before you know it, you’ve got a toddler bumbling along telling everyone and the family dog, “No!”
So most of us have known the word ‘no’ since we were very young. We still know how to use it in the case of correcting a child’s or pet’s behavior. It’s in our vocabulary, so why can’t we seem to get it out of our mouths when we really want to turn down an offer or an invitation – or especially a request?
If you have a difficult time saying no to requests made of you, especially things you do not want to do, you aren’t alone. It’s very hard to say no for many reasons, a good number of them being how we were raised and our culture, especially for women. We’ve learned growing up that it’s good to be a helpful person. People that are helpful are given positive feedback when they help, and that positive feedback increases depending on how busy that helpful person actually is! You’ve heard this, “She’s so busy with her family and work and yet she’s always the first to volunteer when the (school, church, club, neighborhood, etc.) needs help!”
It feels good to get this positive feedback…in the moment. But what about when you’re taking the time from your family or yourself to go do something for someone else? Helping out when you can is appropriate and when we do, I think most of us hope that in our time of need we can expect help from those we’ve been there for.
It becomes a problem if you’re the type of person that never says no, because you feel guilty or you may like the initial praise, or other reason. Not only are you sacrificing yourself, you get labeled as someone that can always be counted on to help. You become the default helper – if no one else volunteers, everyone knows you’ll say yes. Once you’re in this position, it’s tough to get out. But you can – it just takes saying no!
Start Working Out That ‘No’ Muscle
Learning to say no is similar to training a muscle – it takes a very conscious effort to begin and it’s best to start slow and gradually work up to using it more often. Like conditioning a muscle, you may experience some “soreness”, or guilt, in the beginning. Over time, however, it gets easier and you will find yourself using your ‘no muscle’ more and more. You’ll see the power in giving yourself permission to say no and to let others take care of things that you have always said “yes” to, whether you wanted to or not.
This is part of self-care. Self-care is essential for having a balanced, happy life and for keeping the important people in your life happy as well. Self-care also helps maintain or build your self-esteem and reduces stress. Using that tiny two-letter word more often can have a powerful impact on your entire life!
Being able to say no to things that really don’t serve you and/or do not fit into your values or priorities is an essential skill that most happy and successful people work on consistently. They are aware of how difficult it is to fulfill a commitment that they have said yes to, when they really wanted to say no instead. They know that they likely will feel taken advantage of, or angry at the requester and/or themselves, which would make it even more difficult to continue with whatever they said yes to. To avoid this, they keep their ‘no muscle’ in good shape!
Because saying no is so important when someone really doesn’t want to say yes, I often will give my clients an exercise to find something to say no to during the week. The emotional backlash of saying yes to something you would rather say no to is usually much stronger and harder to deal with than the temporary discomfort of saying no.
This backlash can lead to the use of a coping mechanism, which for many people is emotional overeating. Emotional overeating in turn will lead to feelings of guilt and shame, which then can lead to the urge to go on yet another diet to “control” the eating and make up for potential weight gained during overeating. This vicious cycle will repeat as long as you continue to sacrifice yourself and say yes to things you can’t or don’t want to do.
It may have sounded crazy to say before reading this, but if you don’t learn how to say no when it is in your best interest to do so, it can lead to weight gain! It is also another good example of how feeling out of control will drive many to overeat followed by dieting, hoping to find some sense of being in control.
No is a Complete Sentence
Saying no when you really want or need to will also help if you find yourself overeating due to stress, or overwhelm, or other emotions. If eating is your coping mechanism, eliminating things you must “cope” with is going to dramatically reduce your mindless, automatic eating that happens when you aren’t hungry and you aren’t tuned in to your own needs.
Once you get in the habit of saying no when asked to do something you don’t want to do, another consideration is how you say no. Do you say “no, but…” or “no, I’m sorry but I can’t because…”? Some time ago I learned something so profound that solves the issue of giving a reason or an excuse every time you say no. What I learned is that “no” is a complete sentence.
Here’s how it looks: “No.” See? It doesn’t need anything else, no explanation needed. I know this is a bigger step than just using the word ‘no’ more often. You don’t have to do everything all at once. Babysteps are just fine, take it one thing at a time!
If you’re still uncomfortable with the concept of saying no to someone, here’s something you can use while you’re strengthening your no muscle – when a request is made of you to do something, tell the person that you would really like to answer them, but you need some time to think about it.
This works great when you’re worried that you can’t get ‘no’ out of your mouth as well. Take some time and put together what you want to say and how you want to say it. By preparing for it, you’ll have an easier time saying no than being caught off guard when you are asked. Reminding yourself that saying yes could cause you to gain weight and/or feel horrible after overeating may also be a tool you can use when necessary.
As I was writing this, the show “Friends” came to mind. It’s one of my favorites and I still watch the reruns. In the very first episode, Joey asks Phoebe if she wants to help put Ross’ new furniture together and Phoebe, with a straight face, says, “I wish I could, but I don’t want to.” I think sometimes we could all stand to be a little like Phoebe!