Updated 17 July 2013

Learn to say no

You've just put down the telephone after agreeing to something you don't really want to do. You feel as if you have, in some way, betrayed yourself. Why on earth did you say yes?


You've just put down the telephone after agreeing to host the Book Club at your house at extremely short notice. You feel angry. You're still recovering from flu, you have your in-laws visiting and things are hectic. This is the last thing you feel you can deal with right now.

You feel as if you have, in some way, betrayed yourself. Why on earth did you say yes?

"There are many reasons for this," says Cape Town psychologist, Ilse Terblanche. "Firstly, we are all taught that we must be nice to people, and that often includes agreeing to do things for them, even when it is difficult or inconvenient for us.

"Secondly, we think people will only like us if we're at their beck and call. We are scared that they will dislike us if we refuse to do what they ask us. Also if we are dependent on others' approval, we are scared to invoke their wrath by refusing to do what they ask of us.

"Thirdly, if one has a low self-image, being compliant and bowing down to someone else's wishes, is a way of gaining approval from them, because one feels that inherently one lacks worth."

Learning to say no

It's a very powerful thing to learn to say no, but it isn't easy, says Terblanche. Often therapy is required, as this behaviour pattern has to do with deep-seated perceptions about oneself and relationships.

"Sometimes, in an effort to become more assertive, people can become quite aggressive. The secret lies in finding a healthy middle way."

Steps you can take

  • Ask yourself whether you will be angry with yourself for agreeing to do something once you have put the phone down.
  • Say, "Let me think about it". This buys you time and avoids you being pressurised into something against your will.
  • Partial agreement is a halfway mark. If someone asks you to collect five carloads of stuff for the bazaar and to man the stall on the day, you could agree to the one, but not the other. This gets the message across that you want to be helpful, but also have other responsibilities.
  • Don't feel that you have to make excuses. A simple statement such as, "I am sorry. That will not be possible this week," should be quite sufficient.
  • Ask yourself if the person asking you a favour would oblige if the situation were reversed.
  • Remember that real friends or people who love us, don't always expect us to agree to everything. If we sometimes say no, it gives them greater freedom to ask, because they know we would not agree to something if it was really inconvenient.
  • If somebody gets angry at us because we say no, they're most probably used to manipulating us through guilt and our own low sense of self. They have their own issues about being in control to work through, over which we have little control.
  • Remember the powerful phrase, "I don't think so". It enables you to say no in a non-confrontational manner, yet gets the message across that it will not be convenient for you at this point – possibly another time.
  • Ask yourself whether the benefits to the other person will outweigh the inconvenience for you. If you have to cancel a dentist's appointment you made six months ago to fetch someone's child at the crèche, when she could easily have asked someone else, the inconvenience outweighs the benefits.
  • Start feeling the benefits and the liberation of saying no. Others might initially be surprised, but all people who care about you will not react negatively to your refusing to be at their beck and call.

(Photo of assertive woman from Shutterstock)


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