“I can’t say No” // “I don’t know how to say No.”
Sound familiar? I hear these statements all of the time in my work. But I’m about to tell you what you already know:
You can and you do.
And here’s the thing: Being able to do something and knowing how to do it doesn’t mean it’s easy to actually do. I get that. But I believe in the power of language, and I think it’s important to challenge the words “can’t” and “don’t know” in our personal-belief vocabularies.
For those who think you can’t say No: you can. We were given free will - we can all do whatever we want (freaky, I know). Despite having the ability to do whatever we want, we don’t, because of social norms or for fear of consequences. We can go up and kiss a cute stranger, but we don’t because that’s just not how people introduce themselves! We can take a week off work without telling our boss, but we don’t because we’d get fired and be out of a paycheck.
So when we have this belief that we are just the type of person who can’t say No, remember this: we can, but we aren’t. Why aren’t we? Maybe the norms within your relationships tell you not to. You may have been raised in an enmeshed family system - one that expected you to follow a certain set of rules or beliefs, or relied heavily on one another and encouraged secret-keeping. Setting boundaries within an enmeshed family would be a disruption to the system, and may even be seen as a threat to the family’s survival. This could explain why an individual would choose not to set proper boundaries. Setting boundaries by saying No isn’t normal; over-exerting oneself, doing things that one doesn’t want to, and bottling up emotions is.
The trick here is remembering this: what’s considered “normal” within your relationships might not actually best serve your mental health and well-being. If you’re feeling overworked, under-appreciated, and a general lack of stability, it might be time to find a new normal.
And for those who think that they don’t know how to say No: you do, because everyone knows how to say No. It might have even been your first word as a baby! And how easy it was to say it then, before we understood rejection and fear. There are, of course, helpful and unhelpful ways to say No, but you know that too. You know that saying “No” with an attitude isn’t going to serve you or your relationships. You know that if you scream “NO!!!” in someone’s face, they are likely to get heated or defensive. Trust your intuition and don’t complicate it. Saying No is setting a boundary by simply Saying No.
Some helpful tips for saying No:
- Be direct - and you can do this without being harsh. Keep your voice at an appropriate volume and embrace a compassionate tone. You can take care of your needs while still wishing the best for the needs of another.
An example might be, “I’m not going to be able to take your shift today. I really hope you’re able to find someone else!”
- Be consistent. When you start setting boundaries by saying No, your family, friends, co-workers, or partner might be a little surprised - after all, this is new for you! They may ask you for what they want several times, meaning you may have to say No several times. That’s ok. You don’t have to explain your reasons for saying No if you don’t want to. You can simply keep repeating your boundary: “Again, I’m not going to be able to cover your shift."
- Be honest. When saying No, you may be tempted to stretch the truth; for instance, you might tell your co-worker that you can’t take her shift because you have a dentist appointment, but in reality you don’t have one - you’re just sick of her constantly asking you and you feel like you’re being taken advantage of because you always say Yes. Practice saying No without the little white lie. Empower yourself to see that you are able to say No just like that - “No, I am not able to cover your shift,” period.
Saying No is a crucial component of learning to set boundaries. It’s a way of protecting ourselves: from exhaustion, burn-out, discomfort, and feelings of depression and anxiety. You can say No, you know how to say No, and you deserve to say No to the things that aren’t serving you. ◼
P.S. Need a little more help in the communication department? If you have trouble expressing your needs without arguing, learning how to make I-statements is a great place to start. Check out my post about that here!