How to stop saying ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’

Emily Whitton
By Emily Whitton,
updated on Feb 1, 2024

Image shows a girl smiling with the sun setting behind her.

'No.' It's a powerful word that can keep us grounded, so why do we find it so difficult to say? We explore why we can easily sway towards saying 'yes' and how to keep boundaries in place

Have you ever said ‘yes’ to something when, really, you’d rather not? It’s something that we’re all likely to have done, even with our best intentions of protecting our boundaries. In fact, saying ‘no’ is something that many of us have difficulty doing, but why is that?

Above all, agreeing just feels right. Particularly for people with people-pleasing tendencies, saying ‘yes’ naturally seems like the polite or kind thing to do. You might also feel some of the following, which can lure you into agreement.

  • feeling guilty 
  • feeling obliged
  • you don’t want to experience FOMO
  • fearing rejection or abandonment
  • fearing conflict

There are so many reasons why we might put on a smile and say “Yes, I’d love to” but it seems that often, we’re reading into the potential consequences of saying no a little too much. Interestingly, a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that invitees overestimate the negative ramifications of declining an invite. 

The research found that many of us often agree to something for fear of annoying the person who invited us, no matter what the relationship is between them (whether that’s a friend, colleague or partner, for example). The study examined the thought processes of the invitee as they weighed up their decision. Another factor which influenced their ‘yes’ was based on the fear that they wouldn’t be invited to other events in the future, effectively causing a snowball effect. 

Invitees were so sure that the people who had invited them would be focused on their decline when, in actual fact, they were more attentive to the reasons why they said ‘no’ and that speaks volumes. Perhaps we’re just underestimating how much those closest to us understand our motivations for saying no. 

Now, here’s some more food for thought. When you say ‘yes’ to others, you’re actually saying ‘no’ to yourself. What exactly does that mean? By agreeing to things when you simply don’t have time or just don’t want to, you’re not honouring your personal values or priorities. 

As psychotherapeutic therapist, Steve Fayers, notes, saying no “defines a boundary and acts to preserve us; preserve our integrity, preserve our self-image, preserve our sense of self and sense of self-worth.” 

Forcing yourself to commit to something that you don’t have the space for means you’re not meeting your own needs, and how can we possibly please others if we’re not satisfying ourselves?

So, is saying ‘no’ really as bad as we think? The honest answer is, well, no! 

How can I learn to say ‘no’? 

If you recognise these traits in yourself, you’ve already achieved step one - awareness. Once you’ve acknowledged that this is common behaviour, you can start to question why it is you’re saying yes to things you don’t want to do. Is it because you want to minimise conflict, or perhaps you want to please your friend? Whatever your reason, bringing yourself back to your boundaries will help you decide what you will and won’t go through with. 

How do I set boundaries? 

Setting boundaries with yourself and others takes time. The key is to start by taking a step back before jumping straight in with a ‘yes’. Decide what you want, rather than focusing on what you think other people want from you. Think about your values and priorities – you don’t want to say yes to everything and risk burning out. Consider what you really want to make space for. 

How can I politely say no?

It’s important to remember that standing up for your own needs doesn’t make you wrong or a bad person. Of course, declining an invitation can be done politely and with grace. You can also soften the blow by acknowledging your appreciation for their invitation. For example, “I’m sorry, that just doesn't work for me but thank you for thinking of me!”

Sometimes, offering an alternative can be a great win-win. Say your friend asks if you want to go for drinks, but that’s not your thing, you could ask if they want to meet up for a coffee, instead. 

And lastly, the power of ‘later.’ This doesn’t always have to mean ‘no,’ but gives you a buffer and the space to think it through. For example, “That would be lovely! Let me check that I haven’t got anything else on that day and I’ll get back to you.” 

Remember, saying no doesn’t mean you’re rejecting the other person. It simply means that you don’t have the energy or resources to meet their expectations at that time. So, start honouring yourself and say ‘no’ a little more often. It might be more freeing than you think! 

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