NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Why it’s so hard for people to say no

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...
“I have great trouble saying no to people, and at times it makes me miserable. Why is it so hard?”

It’s such a little word, just two letters, but not being able to say it can be downright dangerous, and can also quickly make life unmanageable. Even if you’re safety isn’t at risk, too many “yes when you mean no” moments leads to resentment: the wish to be agreeable is eclipsed by exhaustion, and the growing pain of our own needs and wishes becomes ignored.

The real problem though is when our belief in our own value is so skewed towards what we do, rather than who we are. That’s when the possibility of disappointing others takes on an extra dimension: What if they don’t like me any more?

Childhood, schooling, and our work-obsessed culture can all convince us that our value and sense of self lies in what we do. To be useful is to be valuable.

The problem with this is it means our self-esteem, our regard for our self, is conditional. Conditional on what we can achieve, and what we can do for others.

Learning to say no then is not just about practicing the use of the word, although that can be useful: one strategy is to practice saying no to things that don’t really matter.

But ultimately what helps is to work on changing the way we value ourselves: to make our belief in our self worth unconditional.

This is one of the cornerstones of what is known as self-compassion. The idea that our worth is not measured through achievement or action, but is inherent: all human beings are deserving of love and have value.

Even you.

Saying no then becomes an act of self-care. A way of being able to actively value ourselves, to put ourselves first, and consider ourselves worthy of care and attention.

It’s such a little word, but it’s so important.

All of this might sound rather fanciful, but if you’re someone who habitually says yes to everything and regrets it, you’ll know what I mean.

However hard it is to do, it’s important, but just coming right out and saying no can be a bridge too far. So a useful strategy can be to just slow things down. Try saying: “Yes, but I need to think about it.” Or: “I’m not sure, I’ll get back to you.”

Give yourself time to think, and see it as an opportunity to value yourself. Because when we say no to others, we are also saying yes to ourselves.

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