This Is Why It’s So Hard to Say No

And why you should do it anyway. 

should-say-no
Photo by Jessica Hische

It’s such a little word, but wow is it tough to choke out in certain moments. “We have an instinctive need for connection to other people—it’s essential to our survival. We worry that saying no will break these bonds,” says Vanessa Bohns, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. Specifically, we fear that the other person, whether a child or a coworker, will feel rejected or take it as a personal affront. “Saying no stirs up intensely negative emotions—embarrassment and guilt,” says Bohns. To avoid those feelings, we often say yes even when it goes against our ethics. In one of Bohns’s studies, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, more than half the subjects agreed to deface a library book (by writing the word pickle in pen) when asked to by an interviewer in the library. “The subjects voiced objections like ‘It’s not right to hurt property’ but complied anyway, because saying no to another person felt so difficult,” says Bohns.

Also at stake: our own self-image. “We all have identity stories we tell ourselves. ‘I’m someone who lends a hand.’ ‘I’m a very involved mom,’” says Heen. Refusing a request calls this rosy bio into question. And women—who, it seems, are called on more often than men to pitch in—seem to have a harder time saying no. “We are socialized to feel responsible for the feelings and well-being of those around us,” says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker in Salt Lake City and the author of The Assertiveness Guide for Women.

So you say yes. To too much. And while that approach may help you avoid immediate discomfort, there’s a long-term toll. Instead of protecting relationships, it can build resentment. (Is she just using me as a free babysitting service?) It’s also a major source of burnout. “I see lots of women who come in depressed, anxious, and depleted,” says Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut. Block out regular time on your calendar for the things that sustain you—exercising, meditating, talking to your sister—and stick to those commitments. If someone asks you to post bake-sale flyers during that time: Sorry, you’re already booked.

“I tell clients, ‘Pay yourself first.’ Self-care is what allows you to show up and say your yeses later,” says Melissa McCreery, Ph.D., a psychologist and the founder of too much on herplate.com. Decide on your priorities and make them Official Personal Policies. I’m out only two nights a week so I can eat dinner with my kids. Or, I budget for these five charities, so I can’t give to other pledge drives this year. Write them down and post them where you field requests (by your computer perhaps), says Maralee McKee, an etiquette coach in Orlando and the founder of mannersmentor.com.

Still lying awake at 3 a.m. imagining your book club assembling with pitchforks because you declined to host? Know this: “Humans have a harshness bias. We believe others judge us a lot more critically than they actually do,” says Bohns. “Most people have completely forgotten about your answer and have moved on to ask someone else,” says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and the author of The Book of No.