Feeling overwhelmed? Keep agreeing to do things that you just don’t want to? Sick of being a doormat? You need to learn the power of no, as life coach Zeta Yarwood explains.

Not being able to say no is a common issue for many people. Whether it’s to friends, family, colleagues, your boss, kids or even complete strangers – even just the idea of saying no can cause a level of internal conflict that many find distinctly uncomfortable.

On the surface, being unable to say no might not seem like a big deal. However, research has shown that people who can’t say no are more prone to stress and burnout than those who can.

If you are a perpetual yes-sayer (editor’s note: except for the parents of young babies, you’re the most exhausted person in the room) then don’t worry. Help is at hand.

There are three main steps to learning how to say no. The first is to understand what is driving the behaviour in the first place. The second is to understand the upsides of saying no. The third is to look at what other healthier habits you can install instead.

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Generally, people who are unable to say no are what we would call pain-avoiders. They focus on the pain of what saying no could induce, rather than the pleasure. They then do what they can to avoid that pain.

Generally, we fear the other person’s reaction to the word. Taking it to a deeper level, we actually fear our reactions to the other person’s reaction – because it’s our reaction that causes us the pain, right? People who can’t say no often have thoughts such as: what if I offend them and they don’t invite me to anything else in the future? What if I upset them and they think I’m horrible or selfish? What if I say no and my child/boss/husband/wife throws another tantrum? In all of these examples, their key focus is avoiding the pain.

Reasons why you can’t say no

You believe saying no might offend or upset someone

Here you are avoiding either a) the pain of potential rejection if that person judges your behaviour harshly or b) the pain of the guilt, shame and critical self-talk that follows after you’ve said no.

You believe saying no might resultin a tantrum

Tantrums can be exhausting and sometimes even embarrassing if in a public area. Giving in and saying OK allows you to avoid having to deal with the pain or shame of the outburst.

It’s important to note here that anger and frustration are an expression of fear and/or shame. The next time you experience someone else’s tantrum and you get stressed or angry, ask yourself: what pain am I experiencing right now? What am I afraid of or ashamed of? This will give you an idea of what pain you are trying to avoid.    

You believe saying no will change your identity as the ‘helpful’ one

Some people identify themselves as being the helpful one. It’s their role – generally in both their family and social circle. They have taken on this identity because at some point in their upbringing they learnt that being helpful got them noticed, recognised and loved. It met their needs. Suddenly starting to say no might result in people no longer seeing you as the helpful one. Meaning a loss of identity to you – and removal of love and attention from them. Here you are avoiding the pain of both the shame and fear that without being helpful, you won’t be enough to be loved or noticed any more.

Once you have identified the pain you are avoiding, you can start to get an idea of what saying no means to you. The fact saying no causes you pain indicates that the meaning you have assigned to the word is wrong. If you think “saying no means I am a horrible, selfish person” – then you’ve given the word the wrong meaning.

To help identify what could be a better meaning – so you can get into the habit of giving it a better meaning – we need to look at the potential upsides of saying no.

Reasons why you should say no


You allow yourself the space and time you need to recharge your batteries

When exhausted, our emotional well-being suffers. And when our emotions are all over the place, this has a negative effective on our behaviour? When re-charged we feel better, meaning we make better decisions and take action. This is not only good for our self-esteem but also our productivity. Remember: a dead battery is of no use to anyone.

You can be your authentic self

You enforce emotional interdependency and not co-dependency – meaning you’re not responsible for how others feel nor governed by other people’s emotional states. This gives you the freedom to be yourself.

How others interpret what you say and do is up to them. And if they choose to feel a negative emotion because of that interpretation there’s not a huge amount you can do about that. Of course, this isn’t to say we can go around doing whatever we want. We still have to be respectful of other people’s boundaries. What this does mean is that how we feel isn’t tied to anybody else’s emotions – giving us the space to be who we are and not worry about how we make others feel.

You’re teaching important life lessons to others

Firstly, by demonstrating self-care and setting healthy limits and boundaries, you show others how to do the same. Secondly, saying no to someone (particularly those who constantly need help) actually provides them with an opportunity to learn self-reliance, independence or perhaps even a new skill. Finally, teaching others that they won’t always get what they want in life gives them an opportunity to learn how to deal with disappointment, and self-sooth in the future.

There are many upsides to saying no.

And in many cases, by not saying no you are actually doing yourself and others a disservice. Saying yes all the time deprives you and others of some potentially wonderful opportunities to grow and experience enhanced emotional well-being. And this is where you can start to get into the habit of saying no.

The reason you can’t say no right now is because you have a particular thought process around saying no.

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Let’s take, “If I say no that means I am a selfish mother”.

Is that true? What if in saying yes you were actually being a selfish mother? Depriving them of a great learning opportunity just so you can avoid feeling some pain? This is not to say you’re a bad mother at all. You just might have a belief that is not actually serving you and the idea is to eradicate the belief that saying no is selfish.

What if instead you thought, “In saying no, I am being the best mother I can be. Because that will mean I will have time to re-charge my batteries, allowing me to be the best version of myself in front of my kids. Meaning they are learning how to model their behaviour and thoughts from that version of me, rather than the exhausted, stressed version”. Or “By saying no, I am giving my child an opportunity to learn how to cope with disappointment and self-sooth – giving them a skill that will set them up for life.”

Of course we don’t want to be saying no all the time. Helping and supporting others is important in maintaining good relationships. It’s when saying no becomes a problem – eg, you’re exhausted or flat broke because you’ve lent so many people money – that you need to assess your beliefs around saying no and start to look at ways to take better care of yourself.

So, from now on, do yourself a favour. Whenever someone asks you to do something, look at the reasons behind why you want to help them. If it’s to avoid pain, then take it as an opportunity for you to learn the art of saying no and do some work on whatever is driving that pain aversion. Get into the habit of looking at your time and energy levels and assessing whether or not you really can help this person – at no risk of potentially harmful repercussions on your side. Explaining your situation and making suggestions on alternative plans, solutions or times can help soften the blow of no to others. The key is to do what is right for you. Do that and your mind, body and everyone else in your life will thank you for it.

Zeta Yarwood is a career and life coach. Contact her at zeta@zetayarwood.com or visit zetayarwood.com.

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This article was originally published in Good magazine.