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Embracing the Power of "No" (and Overcoming the Guilt)
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Embracing the Power of "No" (and Overcoming the Guilt)

[7 Minute Read]

In a world that values busyness, constant productivity, and a "can-do" attitude, the word "no" can fill us with panic and dread. When we DO manage to say no, we feel de-stabilized: overcome with feelings like confusion, doubt, guilt, and shame.

The underlying reason behind this struggle often lies in the complex emotions associated with rejecting others or prioritizing our own well-being, as well as our own relationship with what saying "no" really means to us.

What can hold us back from saying no, even if we really want to?

1. The People-Pleaser Dilemma

One primary reason saying "no" is challenging is the fear of disappointing others. From childhood, most people are conditioned to seek approval and avoid conflict, making it uncomfortable to reject requests. The desire to please, coupled with the fear of being perceived as uncooperative, mean, or selfish, can lead to a constant "yes" mentality (even moreso if our caretakers, friends, or other family were disapproving when we stood our ground, or if we had to take on a role of serving others growing up).The more empathetic you are, the more your empathy can also trigger guilt when you anticipate the impact of our "no" on others. Whether it's declining a social invitation or refusing a request for help, our compassion for the feelings of others can amplify the guilt we feel about asserting our own needs. On the other hand, saying "yes" can also give us a little bit of satisfaction or pride. People asking things of us often means we're perceived as responsible, valued, or needed (and that's great!). But check in with yourself to see if that responsibility is one that you're able to realistically take on. (If any of this describe you, we made the Chrysalis Breaker card deck to help you overcome people pleasing and set healthier boundaries!) 

2. The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Another (more modern) factor contributing to the difficulty of saying "no" is the pervasive Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Everyone's experienced it at some point: You're having a relaxing evening and you pop onto Instagram to check your DMs. When all of a sudden...What's this? A friend of a friend has posted 10 photos from what surely must be the most exciting and glamorous vacation ever (all carefully edited, posed, and with ultra cool captions). You're instantly filled with existential regret. Your job's not good enough, you're not popular enough, and your life is going nowhere. You're riding a shame spiral and a cloud of gloom hovers over you the rest of the night. Social media bombards us with images of others seemingly living their best lives, fostering a fear that declining an invitation or opportunity might lead to exclusion or the loss of valuable experiences. Overcoming this fear requires recognizing that every "yes" to others is a potential "no" to ourselves, hindering our OWN personal growth and well-being. And, that a lot of what you see on social media is simply the "highlights" of someone's life - not the whole picture (just fyi: those people get FOMO, too). Instead, try on the concept of JOMO: the joy of missing out. Doing less can actually mean putting that time towards something you really want to do.

3. Internalized Perfectionism

Many individuals internalize a desire for perfectionism, believing they should be able to handle every request and accommodate every need. When faced with the reality that it's impossible to meet everyone's expectations, guilt can arise, fueled by a sense of personal failure or inadequacy. This is especially true of people in roles where decision-making is critical. If you're making decisions for others (in a team leadership role, for example), you may feel conflicted by the responsibility placed on you. Feelings of imposter syndrome rear their ugly head and all that doubt and worry swirling about can make your confidence in saying "no" plummet.


4. Cultural and Gender Roles

Cultural and gender roles can also contribute to feelings of guilt after saying "no." Societal expectations often place certain responsibilities on individuals based on their gender, and deviating from these roles may trigger guilt as we challenge established norms. Society places value on being accommodating and agreeable (especially true for women). Saying "no" can feel like a violation of these social norms, leading to guilt as we grapple with the perceived expectations of those around us and our conflicting need to challenge them.


5. Evolutionary Fear

Last but not least, the fear of rejection is deeply-rooted, going back thousands of years to when being cast out from a group was an actual threat to our very survival. While our lifestyles may have changed, we still see saying no as a challenge to the things that are necessary for our (modern) survival: financial security, relationships, feeling included, being productive in an increasingly overwhelming world. Humans are wired for connection and saying no presents us with the possibility of loneliness, failure, and abandonment.

So what can I actually DO about feeling like crap for saying no?

So you're probably thinking: "Great! I understand intellectually WHY it feels bad to say no...But it still SUCKS to say it! What am I supposed to do about that?" Well, here's the inconvenient truth...Feeling bad (or conflicted, guilty, etc.) is going to be unavoidable, in some cases. You're just going to feel shitty, no matter how hard you try to say no diplomatically and honor your boundaries. You're gonna f*ck up. You're gonna say it too harshly or clumsily. That's just normal. It takes practice, and even repetition will not always make it clean and easy.

Embrace the fact that it's just going to suck and you might not be good at it at times. You can also...

1. Build a Support System

Surrounding yourself with understanding and supportive individuals can significantly ease the guilt associated with saying "no." Communicate openly with friends, family, and colleagues about your need to set boundaries and prioritize self-care. Tell them when you are really struggling with saying "no". A supportive network will appreciate your honesty and may even encourage you and cheer you on.

2. Cultivate Self-Awareness

To break free from the shackles of saying "yes" when we mean "no," it's crucial to develop self-awareness. Understand your priorities, limits, and the importance of self-care. Reflect on past instances where saying "yes" led to stress or burnout, and use these experiences as motivation to set boundaries. Sometimes feelings follow actions, so start by making the right choice for you first, and the relief and understanding will gradually follow.


3. Learn How to say "No" Diplomatically

Learning to say "no" does not mean being rude or dismissive. Mastering the art of diplomatic declination involves expressing gratitude for the opportunity while politely and firmly declining. Offering a brief explanation or suggesting an alternative solution can soften the impact and help maintain positive relationships. If it helps, let people know your intention isn't to offend or hurt anyone's feelings. And, if needed, repeat yourself. Some people will not take "no" for an answer the first time around, but that doesn't mean you have to change your answer. A simple "I'm sorry, but that's my decision and it's not open for discussion" can bring things to a close. If you really have no idea where to start and need more help with assertive communication in general, I highly recommend The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy J. Paterson PhD. It explains what assertive communication looks like and gives lots of exercises on how to practice it.

And most importantly...

4. Sit with the feelings.

Yep. Just let them be there. The guilt, the self-loathing, the FOMO, the anxiety. Forgive yourself for how you feel about saying no. Then let them go on their way. They're just visitors, friend. Feelings are normal, even the "bad" ones like guilt, shame, and fear. You're feeling them because you're learning how to do something you probably don't have much practice in. What you're feeling is normal. Give yourself a hug or place a hand on your heart and tell yourself: "It's alright to feel like this. I'm still learning. I'm proud of me".

Saying "no" is not a sign of weakness

It's a demonstration of self-awareness and respect for one's own limits. Overcoming the guilt associated with declining requests requires a shift in mindset, acknowledging the importance of personal well-being and the power of setting boundaries. By cultivating self-awareness, practicing saying no, and building a supportive network, we can embrace the liberating power of "no" and lead more balanced, fulfilling lives.

So chin up, friend! You can do this! Let me know in the comments what your experiences with saying "no" have been like.


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