5 Reasons Why You Can’t Say No

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Do you ever find yourself taking on too much? Do you feel you get overwhelmed with your to-do list, yet for some reason, you just take on more?

Saying no can be one of the trickiest things for some people. It can be fraught with anxiety, wondering what people might think of you if you say no. Or trying to find the right words so as not to offend others.

Hopefully this article might explain some of the reasons why you struggle to say no to others. Developing this self awareness is the first step to making changes. And scroll to the bottom for my tips on how to say no.

1. People Pleasing

Graphic of people pleasers showing 6 identical smiley emojis and underneath them the text reads Happy, Angry, Scared, Frustrated, Sad, Surprised

You’ve probably heard the term “people pleaser” before – describing someone who lives to make others happy. Perhaps this is you. Do you go out of your way to make sure others get what they want before you ask for your own needs to be met?

When asked where you want to go for dinner, do you find yourself saying “I don’t mind, wherever you want to go” – even though you know you’ll hate the place they will choose? Or do you give up the comfiest seat for someone else, even though you’ve got back pain that day? Do you have such an urge to make others happy and not want anyone to think badly of you? Then you’re probably a people pleaser.

Arguably not the worst thing to be, continually people pleasing can nonetheless cause some issues. If you’re trying to make others happy, it’s going to be very hard to say no to someone who is more assertive about asking for what they want. Or to say no to someone who you’re trying to impress at work for instance. For more insights into people pleasing see my article, 5 Traps That People Pleasers Fall Into.

2. Authority Figures

Image of police officers in uniform walking away from camera in a crowded street

A lot of us have difficulty speaking up to authority figures. Often based on childhood encounters with parents, teachers or services like the police, no one likes that feeling of being ‘told off’, and consequently some people would do anything to avoid it.

So what happens when a manager at work asks you to do something you’re not comfortable with? Or someone in a uniform asks you to move your car? Do those feelings of being told off as a child come flooding back? Those feelings can be so uncomfortable that we daren’t say no to someone in authority. Have a think about your feelings towards the person giving you instructions. Are you agreeing with them because it’s a good idea or the right thing to do? Or is their status or uniform all you’re seeing?

3. Fear of Failure

Woman at computer with her head in hands.

This is a big one. Fear of failure can stop us doing so much.

Sometimes when we have a lot on our plate, rather than slow down, we take on more. In an effort to prove we can cope, we say yes to more things coming our way.

And why does this happen? Usually because there’s a fear of not being able to do it, a fear of failing. So saying no to something now would be admitting that it’s too much, that you can’t cope. Far better to say yes and muddle along as best you can.

But of course in stressful times that’s just not sustainable. And can lead to burnout.

Have a look at your patterns when things get tough. Does stress make you stop and reassess your workload, or does it make you work harder in an effort to prove yourself? See my 5 Tips for Preventing Burnout to try to reduce the likelihood of it all getting too much.

4. Unmet Needs

Heart shaped sweets with caption “I need You”

Sometimes our needs which went unmet in childhood can inform how we behave as adults. So, if your need to be safe and secure as a child wasn’t fully met, you may have developed coping strategies, like people pleasing (see above), to help you get by. If you come from an abusive or somewhat manipulative family, it’s quite possible you learned that the way to keep safe was to keep others happy. And to say yes.

These coping strategies from childhood can be carried on through to adulthood when past wounds are triggered.

5. Lack of Boundaries

Image of chainlink fence with a hole

Often stemming from low self worth, having a lack of boundaries can be problematic as an adult. Perhaps you’ve struggled in the past to set boundaries in some of your relationships. Maybe you blur the boundaries in an attempt to get people to like you, or to achieve a goal.

My article on how counselling can help with boundaries gives some more insights into boundaries and might give you some ideas of what you can do.

If you don’t see yourself as equally worthy as others, it can be easy to let people walk over you. You have to feel your value in order to be able to put in those boundaries that are needed.

If you feel low about yourself it can be incredibly hard to say no sometimes. It may be useful to have a look at how you can increase your self awareness, to help identify the areas you may need to work on. My article, 3 Ways To Be More Self Aware will give you some quick tips on this.

My Tips For Saying No

Image of hand with “No” written on the palm

Once you’ve had a think about what’s behind the reason why you struggle to say no, you can start to work on how to do it.

So my 5 top tips:

  • Don’t put it off, prolonging it can make the thought seem worse
  • Make it short, don’t feel you have to over justify it. You’re allowed to say no!
  • Be polite
  • Don’t make up reasons
  • Try to offer a different solution

And for some practical help, try some of these alternative phrases.

Graphic of ways to say no without saying no

Amy is a counsellor specialising in neurodivergence and the founder of Newglade Counselling. She has created a team of neurodivergent counsellors who work online and face to face around Canterbury, Kent. Amy also provides parent support sessions, clinical supervision and delivers training in therapy and neurodivergence. For more information about our services contact us here

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