Why Is It So Hard for Me to Say No?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I feel so strung out lately. I definitely consider myself a people-pleaser. I tend to go out of my way to make sure friends, family, and coworkers are happy, even if it leaves me feeling drained and dissatisfied.

This problem is probably best exemplified by my difficulty saying no. Whether I’m being asked to help someone or getting invited to lunch, I don’t know how to decline without feeling terrible about myself. I want to be a good friend, and part of being a good friend is being there for people. It just leaves me ragged sometimes because, as an introvert, I need a good amount of time alone to recharge. I’m rarely able to do that. So I’m stressed a lot and just have the sense that time is flying by. I don’t feel grounded and at peace, and I think it all comes down to not attending to my own needs.

Do you deal with this a lot in your practice? What do you tell people who have a hard time saying no to others? Some practical suggestions for how to say no respectfully would be helpful as well. Thank you. —Yes Woman

Dear Yes Woman,

It sounds like you are exhausted in every conceivable way—it must be a difficult way to live your life. You are consistently putting everyone else before yourself, to your own detriment. One place to start tackling this issue is with a thorough exploration of it and its meaning to you. For example, what would it mean to you to say no? Are you concerned about what others would think, or not think, about you? How would this impact your relationships? How might it change how you view yourself? Partnering with a therapist to answer these questions could be quite helpful in developing a deeper understanding of the beliefs and feelings you have around this pattern of behavior.

With a greater awareness and embrace of the many facets of your identity, saying no might naturally become much easier.

I wonder if engaging in such a process would lead you to the realization that being there for people is part of how you identify yourself. If this bears out, it seems possible that disappointing anyone feels so unthinkable because it effectively serves as a threat to your identity. If you view yourself as a “go-to” kind of person who always “comes through” for others, the simple act of saying no might challenge how you see yourself and your purpose in the world. If so, a therapist could be helpful to you in uncovering other aspects of your identity and shifting your focus to developing those areas. With a greater awareness and embrace of the many facets of your identity, saying no might naturally become much easier.

I also want to be respectful of your request for some practical suggestions for saying no respectfully. You mention that even saying no to a lunch invitation is difficult for you. What if, instead of answering either yes or no, you allowed yourself to say something like, “Well, I can’t do it today, but how about next week?” As for requests that are less social and more about helping someone else, you can still try to schedule those things in a way that doesn’t feel overly burdensome for you. Sometimes, all the creative scheduling in the world won’t work and you may just have to say no. Even in these cases, you can still offer help through brainstorming about how else to address the issue and express your sincere regret that you aren’t able to help this time.

Regardless of whether you choose to try some ideas for saying no or dive in to an exploration of the larger issues, you deserve to learn how to prioritize yourself and your needs. I hope you are able to find some ways to give yourself this gift.

Kind regards,

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • Gary J

    March 12th, 2018 at 3:29 PM

    It’s so hard to change out of this place though. How do you start saying no without experiencing heavy losses in areas of your life? If most of your friends like you because of your willingness to please others, or if that willingness has become taken-for-granted at your workplace, suddenly starting to say no could do more harm than good.

  • Lacey

    March 27th, 2018 at 7:28 PM

    This is so me!! I feel guilty saying no especially to invites from friends even when I REALLY don’t want to. But people really can guilt-trip me and I hate that. Id rather just say yes and not get blamed.
    I know this sounds bad sometimes I say yes but then make up an excuse last minute to say no or not go

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