Learning To Say No

‘No’ is the most powerful word in the English language. Due to social conditioning, many women and some men have difficulty saying this simple word.  That’s because our brain has been trained to operate in pathways that tend to avoid the word ‘no’. It can be intensely stressful to ignore a well reinforced pathway and forge a new one.  Saying ‘no’ to the things we don’t want (for people who tend to have difficulty with it) is a habit that must be worked at consistently, until it becomes second nature.
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I was not born assertive.  But I was always curious about how the world works.  And that includes me, who I am, and how I respond to various situations.  As my self awareness grew, so did my ability to say ‘no’ to things I did not like.  If we do not know who we are, it’s hard to assess what we want.  Knowing what we want can help us turn down the offers we don’t want.
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However, self awareness takes us only so far.  The ‘yes’ response is so primeval that we may say it even when we don’t want to and are aware of what we dislike.  Saying ‘yes’ to things we dislike or are uncomfortable with can build a lot of stress – in some cases, this can even lead to severe anxiety or other psychological illnesses.  It is therefore crucial to understand the subtleties surrounding this ‘yes’ inducing behavior and keep those in mind to counter it.  On my road to becoming increasingly assertive, I’ve tried to observe myself and understand what makes me say ‘yes’ when I don’t want to.  Based on these observations, I’ve tried to come up with certain strategies that would help me counter this illogical urge to say an unwilling ‘yes’.  I hope you find these strategies useful.
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Know your rights
In many Eastern cultures, a sense of entitlement and the need for conformity can create relationships driven by control.  Unsolicited advice (with intentions ranging from well meaning to downright evil) is given in the name of caring for the other person. Resistance is often greeted with a range of negative emotions.  In all cultures (including Western), there is at least some degree of societal pressure to do things that someone else sees as appropriate.
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Know that other people cannot tell you what to wear (except for reasonable professional requirements in a workplace ), what to eat, how to schedule your day (when to wake up, shower, etc).  As an adult, you get to decide when to go out, who should or need not accompany you, where to go, and whom you’d like to hang out with, and how you get to spend the money you earn.  You alone have the right and responsibility for ensuring your well being, safety, and financial upkeep.
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Many of us know these rights but conditioning keeps kicking in – so reminding ourselves of our rights is a good idea.
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Recognize signs of boundary crossing
If the in-laws or neighbors are giving unsolicited advice, it is easy to recognize that a boundary is being crossed.  It is much harder to recognize this when it happens between spouses or partners.  There is so much common territory and lots of room for error.
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A spouse can make positive, relevant suggestions regarding children, finances, or house work because those are all joint responsibilities.  It is best for a spouse to stay away from advice regarding choice of friends or activities (unless these are directly impacting his or her rights in some way).
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A good way to recognize right from wrong is to ask what the impact of the actions of one are on the other.  If there is no impact, then there should be no criticism/suggestions for improvement.  My husband’s tendency to while away his free time following a certain baseball team (incomprehensible to me) is really none of my business.  If he does that when it’s his turn to cook, then it impacts me, and I have the right to bring it up.  My tendency to be OCD about house cleaning is none of his business unless my extreme cleaning has a cost to the family’s well being.
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Recognize coercive speech
When you finally muster the courage to say ‘no’, it can be greeted with resistance.  You will be told things that are meant to change your mind. Coercive speech looks like this –
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“I thought you were better than this.”
“You always ……”
“You never ……”
“My mom would’ve done this for me.”
“I’m not sure I can love you the same way if you do this.”
“Where in the world did you get this crazy idea??”
“Is this your crazy side talking.”
“Did your friend give you this advice?”
“Do you want to end up like him?”
“You are beginning to turn into your dad.”
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Recognize coercive behavior
Your ‘no’ can be greeted with coercive behavior.  Coercive behavior is harder to recognize than words because it is less concrete and attacks our vulnerabilities (someone social is more easily weakened by being shut down, by being refused conversation).  Coercive behavior can look like this
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– not talking, sulking
– not eating
– giving disappointed looks or mean looks
– avoiding interaction
– appearing sad, depressed
– banging doors, put objects down with force
– long periods of silence with deep sighs
– making indirect negative/mocking remarks about you while talking to someone else
– doing things that annoy you, being petty, getting back at you, making simple things harder.
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Buy time
If you are struggling to say ‘no’, buy some time with responses like –
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“Let me think about that and get back to you.”
“I have to go now, let’s talk about this later.”
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Giving yourself space and time to understand what you might me getting yourself into can be helpful.  You can mull over things, understand the consequences of giving in to pressure, reaffirm your dislike or discomfort with the offer, and come back with a much more confident ‘no’. A confident ‘no’ is important because a weak ‘no’ is just an uncomfortable ‘yes’ waiting to happen.
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Turn it back on them
Some well meaning people give advice when they think that the whole world thinks like them – therefore what they like, others must like, what works for them must work for others.  In such cases you can turn the advice back to them –
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Consider this suggestion: “You should wake up early.  You can get a great, non-stressful start to the day that way.”
You could respond, “Are you an early riser?”
And if they respond yes and rave about this habit of theirs, you could say “Good for you!  I’m glad you’ve found a way to get in your exercise!”
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To: “You should dress up more, you look so pretty with jewelry!”
You could respond: “Do you like jewelry? What kind do you like to wear?”
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Of course, the straightforward way is to simply say things like –
“I will wake up when I want to.  What’s your problem?”
Or “I don’t like wearing jewelry”
Or “I feel pretty being myself”
Or “I don’t care if you think I’m pretty or not.”
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But it may not be so simple for some people.  Dismissing unassertive behavior as “getting what they deserve” is unhelpful.  Human behavior can’t be easily explained.  We don’t always do what’s logical – that is what’s good and healthy for us.
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Therefore the above suggestions (turning it back on the person giving advice, etc.) are for people who struggle with making such assertive statements – or for people who live in such a strong culture of hierarchy or conformity that a ‘no’ to advice invites a distinctly negative reaction.
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State the problem
If you stay away from the ‘no’ word for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, you can spotlight your own discomfort, thus taking the focus away from “criticizing” them
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“I don’t like being told what to wear. I prefer deciding for myself.”
“I feel uncomfortable being asked to go to this party.”
“I don’t enjoy being forced to make a decision on this.”
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No matter how you say it, learning to say ‘no’ is one of the most important things we can teach our kids.  And as for us adults, it can be extremely liberating.
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If you’ve always been assertive, good for you!  If you are working on it, what do you do and what has worked for you?  If you struggle with it more than the average person, what could be getting in the way?  Please share your thoughts and experiences.
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24 thoughts on “Learning To Say No

    • A very well articulated post. Our disposition to say yes is like the default setting in our head. Its probably to do with saying ‘yes’ to teachers, parents, grandparents is always rewarded and the child who has a mind of his own is considered difficult. Atleast when I was a child. A lot of times it happens in a very subtle and insidious way and children pick these up subconsciously and it becomes a pattern. Putting other’s comfort before ours is considered to value which you can see glorified through many facebooks posts as well. I don’t have a problem with that but a lot of times ‘other’s comfort’ is their whim, respect is equated to agreeing. Its not enough to encourage children to just think for themselves if their convictions are not allowed to be put into action. As we grow older some people become aware of this conditioning and attempt to unlearn, others continue to conform even it makes them unhappy. Thinking for ourselves is considered selfish while making someone,who is below in peking order,to do your bidding is considered their right. Why do people have to justify their ‘no’ with reasons, excuses to avoid being considered as arrogant while those who are demanding always never think that response to their demand could only be a 50 percent ‘yes’? Why is it always assumed to be a ‘ye’s so that ‘no’ has to be justified.

      I write and illustrate children’s book. Priya, your post gave me some food for thought for my next book. Maybe I can make a story on loving yourself, listening to your inner voice and being assertive and being able to say ‘no’ or many ways to say ‘no’. Will definitely give you credit for that if that book happens. Please let me know if you would like to collaborate. And ofcourse I can take a no! haha.

      I have written a post on ‘Unsolicited advice’. IHM, would it be okay for me to post a link?

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      • Yes, teaching kids early to learn to say no is teaching them a lot of things – knowing what they want and learning how to communicate it. Children’s books? How lovely – I feel there are not enough good children’s books written for Indian children using an Indian context. I’m open to collaborating with you – you can send me an email to wordssetmefreee@outlook.com. Thanks for reading this and the great thoughts.

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        • Priya you are right that there are not very many Indian children’s book which are can be relatable to Indian children. I am glad that I am getting work where the requirement is not blue eyed blonde kid. My book is very Indian with the character from a particular region. Will email you the link as I would not like to hijack this blog for my self promotion. Would be great if we can collaborate on come up with something on this very topic. I feel going through a good children’s book is great way for parents to learn too.

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  1. That’s a great post Priya. Loved it❤
    I have learnt to recognize coercive behavior the hard way (after suffering many devastating consequences from not saying 'no' and giving into things my gut raised a red flag for right at the start).
    I love the way you've talked about how to put our foot down without coming across as rather 'hurtful'. A 'No' is going to hurt the first time & perhaps a number of times thereafter but eventually, it does set us free from obliging to do things we don't want to do.

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  2. Excellent post Priya. Very important points mentioned there, specifically the part at the end where you write – “learning to say ‘no’ is one of the most important things we can teach our kids.” I was brought up in an environment where I was trained to not question, not express, and not say no. Yes, I remember being specifically told to “not say no” and was admonished for refusing whatever my father decided for me. I no longer live in that environment or with those people and yet I am still not comfortable to say no when I should. As a result of this kind of socialization, I realize I have accepted abuse, harsh criticism, discrimination, and other instances that I regret very much. I realize I have to try very hard to refuse to accept what I don’t want; sometimes I am successful, sometimes I am not. Probably, many parents don’t realize the extent to which such training impacts a child’s personality. In many cases, it takes years for us to even realize why we are unable to say no; unlearning that training and changing that behaviour even takes longer. This post will be helpful to many of us who were brought up to ‘never say no.’ Thanks IHM and Priya.

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    • I hear you very much Ami. I was constantly praised as a “good child” and used as an example for other “unruly” kids. Compliance is treasured in our culture. The contradiction is – the same obedient child is expected to grow up and handle challenges on her own. How is that going to happen if you don’t teach her to think for herself? Glad you found this useful.

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  3. Hi priya! Nice post!
    I would like to know what you feel in my case. I will soon get married to a guy who is simple, soft spoken , jolly and nice. I really like him. The only thing is he always wears very decent cloths. Like he will always wear only check shirts. His t-shirts will be with collar and with horizontal lines. He will not even mind buying same kind of shirts again and again. Just because he thinks he looks descent. Or it comforts him. Or maybe he is just afraid experimenting. Or maybe because he is elder in family so he likes to maintain that image. But honestly, it sometimes annoys me. So I would like him to wear some printed t-shirts or something colourful of course not in office or other such places but at least at picnics or on dates. So I tried telling him to get some different types of clothes. And even I myself gifted him. He is jolly person, so he cracks some funny jokes but he tries to change.But sometimes when I think I feel maybe I am I am enforcing my choice on him. I don’t want to give him unnecessary stress by not even letting him wear what he wants. I know how it feels to wear something that we don’t like.I don’t want it that way. So what according to you is right thing for me to do here?
    I am looking forward for your reply and I will surely consider it.
    Thanks!

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    • Hi Dee Jay, of course, the two of you need to figure out and work this out between yourselves, but here’s my 2 cents:
      I think you should let him be. He is this jolly, checks and collar shirted kind of guy. That’s what makes him unique. If you are planning to marry him, that means you have seen other qualities in him that you love and respect – qualities that will ensure a happy relationship for both of you. How he dresses will not and should not matter. My husband, for the longest time, would wear frayed collars and let one of his pant legs get stuck in his sock, wear loose jeans rather than well-fitted jeans. That’s who he is (or was). Now in his forties, he has decided to smarten up his wardrobe. He looks dashing now (to my prejudiced eyes at least:) Point is – we must all be allowed to remain who we are or re-invent ourselves or go back to the old ways or whatever’s working for us:) At least when it comes to personal choices.

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  4. In India it’s not enough to say “no”. Others will go ahead and expect you to do what they want anyway if you’re female and/or younger, ‘cos you’re just being difficult. My ILs decided that “no” wasn’t enough when it came to certain rituals at my wedding. They went ahead with their plans and expected my husband and I not to make a scene at the wedding venue.

    After that event, I was fully prepared. If I said “no” and my MIL insisted I wear something and was hoping I did not make a scene, I just got up and left the room. I would do it every single time she started something. When I said no religious gifts, please, and she insisted on giving me religious portraits, I would hand them right back to her. If she gave them to my husband, he would hand them back to her. If she tried to be sneaky and keep them around my house for me to find later, they got mailed back to her with delivery confirmation. Imagine, my “no” actually meant “no”.

    She couldn’t wrap her head around my “lack of adjustment”. If my FIL made a sexist comment or MIL demanded that I go with her to a temple, they would look bad in a roomful of people if I got up and left. It took ten years for them to figure out that “no” meant “no”. If their son-in-law said “no”, though, they got it right away.

    “No” is not enough with narcissists and entitled “elders” who don’t feel they owe you basic courtesy. Follow-through is.

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    • You are absolutely right Indian Warrior – what if we finally learn to say ‘no’ firmly? That takes care of some people but others (especially entitled ones) can be persistent. What if people still keep forcing us? Your experiences and the way you handled these situations outline the next steps in assertiveness – thanks for sharing!

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  5. Great suggestions. I am hardly a meek person, but I find it very difficult to say no. I feel guilty somehow, like I need to explain why I am saying no. And then I go back and over-analyze why I reacted the way I did by explaining so much. Quite a few takeaways for me here.

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  6. I was just telling my son the other day not to start a sentence with ‘NO’,🙂 anything the teen is told he replies back with a No so i told him to start positively and then put int he NO , and then i see this post🙂
    But i agree 100% with this , we need to be able to stand up and say NO.

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    • ha ha:) true … depends on the kid … my older one was born a teenager …. ‘no’ is probably the next word he learnt to use after ‘mamma’. I often tell him to try to keep an open mind. My younger son often worries about hurting people’s feelings … I’m trying to teach him to be more assertive🙂

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  7. Priya, I LOVE your posts and keep a copy for me to show it to my daughter later. My daughter is 18 months old. How can I teach her early on the importance of “no.” My husband and I definitely do not want her to be conditioned to say “yes” for the happiness of others. Thanks!

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    • k, thank you for your kind words. For such a young child, I’d say, a ‘no’ doesn’t have to be taught explicitly but the spirit behind the word – assertiveness can be taught in other ways –
      – pay attention – watch and listen closely to her preferences (when we wait a couple of minutes, even very young children will clearly indicate preferences)
      – let her take the lead non-verbally (when you take her to the park, set her down and let her walk to where her feet take her – swings/slide/whatever she likes)
      – give her choices where it makes sense (apple or banana? the green dress or the yellow one?)
      – let her make mistakes and self-correct (don’t fix her sand castle on the beach, don’t run and pick her up every time she stumbles – let her steady herself, if something’s out of reach, wait for a second to see how she problem solves herself
      – and every time she does problem solve independently, acknowledge it/praise or smile, and if she doesn’t, then help her or show her how it’s done.

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  8. Love this post! I have always been assertive, and have no issues saying no to people, but with age I have learnt to say no in a “diplomatically correct” manner. Saying no outright is often seen as being rude, and because I do want to avoid altercations esp with in laws/extended family, I have modified the way I put forth my views firmly, but by also keeping the no word to the minimum.
    With my 2 year old, even though he says no a LOT, I have learnt to respect his NOs. Of course, if it is a tantrum, I do not give in to his demands, and he understands mommy is the boss during those times. But in things like if I need a hug from him and he is not in a mood to cuddle, he will say “mama stop/no”, and I back off. It is important to teach children that their parents respect their wishes too.

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  9. I completely agree, and I also am thankful for this post. Makes you think….

    1. If you cannot say “no”, how will you deal with situations where you need to be assertive?
    2. Following everything that is said blindly will do more harm than good where it will take a toll on you physically, mentally and emotionally. (In a dangerous situation like possible rape, are you going to just allow the guy to hurt you because you can’t say “no”?)
    3. Nowadays people need to learn to think for themselves and make choices that are applicable for their situations. The world has moved on from the past, and those who are still stuck in the past and think they can still control their kids, well it’s tough luck for them.
    4. Independence will not be achieved.
    5. Even though the word “no” may cause some outburst, it will help you how to develop thick skin, especially if you are sensitive.

    I agree that we should teach young kids this, but not overdo it where they will say no to things they need to do (homework, eat dinner..etc where parents need take control of those aspects), but in areas so that when they are on their own, they will thrive better.

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    • Yes – it’s especially important to teach kids that their body belongs to them, and no one can touch them without their permission, and to learn to say a big resounding NO to anyone who trespasses.

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