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  • Writer's pictureMegan Filoramo

Why we don't say no (and what to do about it)

Do you ever find yourself saying "yes" to something while your brain is screaming “NOOOOO”?

Maybe it’s an extra shift, or participating in a committee, or an afterwork obligation.

We say yes and then we are resentful…or disengaged…or just plain pissed off.

To make things worse, on top of that we get mad at ourselves for saying yes AND mad at the people who asked us in the first place.

So why don’t we just say “no” when we want to say “no”?

It is one of the great mysteries of life.

Except it’s not actually a mystery. Let me explain.

We don’t say no because we don’t want to be uncomfortable. We think that by saying “no”, someone else will be unhappy with us. This, in turn, makes us feel in danger of rejection (and uncomfortable). We think that by saying “no” it makes us a bad person, or a bad team player, which makes us ashamed (and uncomfortable). We think that by saying “no”, something bad will happen, which makes us feel guilty (and uncomfortable).

When you look at it this way, it seems self protective not to say “no”. Who wants to feel rejected, ashamed, guilty or uncomfortable? Not me, and most likely, not you.

We think that by saying “yes” that we are somehow controlling how other people feel about us. (We actually have no control over how people feel about us- I keep trying but it doesn’t work).

But what happens when we actually weigh the cost of saying “yes” to something that we really don’t want to do?

What IS the cost of not saying “no”?

On one hand, we have the fear of rejection, shame and guilt but what is really on the other hand? Rejection of ourselves, shame that we aren’t standing up for ourselves and guilt that we don’t want to be doing what we are doing.

Both sides have discomfort.

We protect ourselves from nothing by saying yes.

Sit with that for a moment. In an effort to protect ourselves from discomfort, we just choose another form of discomfort without any net gain.

We don’t look at the whole equation because the fear of discomfort prompts us into quick action to say “okay, I’ll do it.”

We don’t realize that it’s a balanced equation and both sides have discomfort.

Why does this matter?

If we are going to be uncomfortable either way, let’s choose the way that ends up with a net positive outcome. It’s like exercise, let’s make the pain worth something.

So how do we do this?

  1. Acknowledge that we do uncomfortable things all the time… if we think it’s worth it AKA we can manage a little discomfort. We drop family off at the airport, not because it’s convenient or fun but because we want to be the person who helps our family. We work long shifts because we believe the work is important. We have difficult conversations with patients because we know that is how we can best care for them. We can deal with discomfort. The discomfort of saying “no” is not any worse than the discomfort we experience in these other situations.

  2. Sometimes saying “no” is what is actually in the best service of the person putting in the request. If you are invited to something and don’t want to go, is it really beneficial to the organizer to have someone there who is resentful and out of sorts. Is it loving to show up and be miserable? Do you want someone to be at your home who doesn’t want to be there? Me neither.

  3. Remember that the only person whose feelings you can control is yourself. No one else can control how you feel. This means the responsibility lies on you. If saying “no” supports your overall wellbeing, that is a good enough reason. If your well-being falls to pieces, you are not going to be able to help anyone else anyway.

Of course, there is a caveat here. I am not recommending that we just say “no” to everything that we don’t feel like doing. There is value in doing difficult things for other people but you will know the difference by how you feel. If you are saying yes so that you don’t have to fill the short-term discomfort of saying no, you will feel awful. If you are saying yes for a more truly altruistic reason like compassion, purpose, service, or the general greater good, you will feel motivated, driven, inspired, or determined… aka there is a net positive gain. These feelings feel great and allow us to get through the discomfort of the task at hand.

We don’t have to say “yes” all the time. We don’t have to say “no” all the time. Treat yourself with the compassion and dedication that you want your patients to treat themselves with. Be as fiercely protective of your wellbeing as you are fiercely protective of theirs.

The net gain is you will feel supported,

and supported people can make a huge difference in this world,

even when they sometimes say “no”.


P.S. If you need help setting some healthy boundaries in your life, boundaries that you can feel good about, reach out and let me help you :)

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