Learning to say “No.”

No is a complete sentence.

Jane Fonda, Harvard Business Review

I chose the cover image because it looks like I’m telling Mary Poppins off. I’m definitely not. But if you can say “No” to Mary Poppins at Disney World, you can probably say it to anyone.

I’ve been working on saying “no” lately. It’s really hard for me to say it and to leave it at that. I always want to leave wiggle room, or soften it with an explanation. I feel guilty saying no, it feels like letting someone down and the pleaser in me really struggles with the idea of that.

Here’s a thing that I’ve realized that makes it easier to just say “no” and not feel the need to explain. Explanations are often what makes a no painful or harder to take. In fact, explanations often trigger people to feel offended. It’s like we’re waving our arms around and asking them to notice that we’ve said no to something and that they should want to know why.

Why should everyone get to know why I make every decision? Why do I feel that I owe the world an explanation or a justification for the things that I decide?

I don’t.


I often find that clients struggle with guilt and shame in situations where they’ve been criticized or made mistakes. They feel scared about how others will see them going forward and worried that whoever offered them the commentary will never think well of them again. Even worse, they often worry that the person was right.

Why do we give others that power?

It takes session after session for them to start to believe that they’re doing the best that they can and that, if they’ve made a mistake, it certainly wasn’t because they’re evil or wishing harm to the party affected by that mistake. I try to get them to see that the person pointing out the mistake might have motives that are not clear to them – they might be seeking an advantage in a negotiation or, most likely, they’re just giving the person a chance to correct whatever they’ve done or not done.

But why do we feel the need to apologize for doing what we do? Why do we feel the need to explain that we weren’t trying to hurt someone or that we had good reason for our actions or beliefs or wants?

I think it comes back to a driving need for people to like us. To feel we are a part of the herd and that we won’t be rejected or ostracized. Humans are pack creatures by nature. From an evolutionary perspective we needed to form packs to survive and we still rely on a larger societal pack to function.

We desperately fear that if we exercise agency and that agency doesn’t comport with the decisions of the herd that we’ll be left out and alone. Which feels dangerous (and was dangerous from an evolutionary perspective).

But we’re not in danger just because we’re left out of a herd (not that I believe that taking agency will actually result in being ostracized, the herd also respects leadership and relationships are built on vulnerability and openness – on being who you are). There are more herds available. We might not enjoy looking for one, but if the herd that we’re currently a part of cannot accept or celebrate our agency, then its better for us to find one that can.


All the above aside, the real selling point for saying “no” and having it be enough? No is a way to preserve relationships. It’s the only way. When I focus on pleasing others and going along and getting along, I start to feel (over time) resentment and frustration. Why do I never get to do what I want? Why is it always their way? are questions that run through my mind. Those resentments don’t go away if you ignore them. Like Pandora’s Box, they just get stored up waiting for the lid to get blown open and to explode all over the other person.

If we never say no. If we never act with agency and on our own behalf. Eventually we feel that the relationship is not one that takes our needs into account. Nevermind that we’ve never voiced them or given the other person a chance. We end it. Or we have a huge fight.

No. A complete sentence and a relationship saver.

Published by alexm1008

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Houston, Texas. I specialize in helping clients develop skills and strategies to feel more in control of their emotions and behaviors. I am also a wife and mother of two who loves to run and travel (particularly to Disney World with my kids and without).

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