I was on the phone coaching a dear friend recently.
Let’s call her Sarah.
The moment I picked up the phone she told me upfront – even though it was obvious from the tone of her voice –
“I’m nervous, angry and agitated and I need help to sort this out.”
I’ve reassured her that I’m open to listening to her and to support her in whatever she needed at that moment.
I validated her present state adding a few more emotions there, asking if she felt those too.
Sarah confirmed and then I invited her to tell me about her situation.
Sarah’s fear of saying NO
Long story short, a few months ago she had received an invitation to do a barter exchange with someone. Each person had to create something for the other and send it when it was ready.
In the spur of the moment, she said “yes”.
But immediately after she felt like that was not an authentic Yes.
She usually has a process when she creates her art for other people, she only does it if she feels a strong yes in her body. She takes her time to answer and only after checking in with herself she agrees or not to do something.
This time she didn’t respect her process.
Sarah hoped that in time she would feel the Yes and she would be able to create and deliver the promised object.
Soon enough the other person sent her the object they created. And then every couple of weeks asked about when will they receive theirs.
She kept answering that she needs more time or stuff like that.
But slowly she began to feel pressured and trapped in an agreement she was not supposed to be in from the get-go.
After another message exchange, Sarah hastily made the promised object. She sent some pics to inform the other person. But she still couldn’t bring her self to the post office to send it.
Weeks passing by the other person inquired again about what was going on as in why was she taking so long to send the object.
So this is when she called me.
Who are you angry with?
After I listened to the whole story I asked her about the target of her anger. She realized she was not really upset with the other person. She was angry with herself for various reasons:
- for having said yes when she was supposed to say no in the first place.
- for waiting so long for a miraculous solution instead of admitting the truth and informing the other person.
- for being afraid to say NO and sort out the situation in a mature way instead of procrastinating and keeping the other person in uncertainty for months
She quickly realized what her responsibility was and what she needed to do.
She decided to write the other person a message to explain the whole situation, to ask for apologies and to inform them about the next steps to settle everything in a beneficial way for both of them.
The moment she told me the rough version of that message she calmed down.
She relaxed and felt at peace because she was now expressing her truth.
No blaming, no accusations, no anger.
She stepped out of the Victim and Abuser game and was now acting from love and truth.
I asked her if she could remember other similar situations from her past.
She easily recalled two relationships, a similar work one and a friendship one where because of the fear of saying NO she ended up creating similar frustration and friction.
I explained her my view on the fear of saying NO from my own process of moving from being scared shitless to say NO to an empowered, relaxed, natural NO.
How we develop a fear of saying NO
Because of the dysfunctional families we grew up in, most of us – people who are afraid to say NO – have become conditioned to:
- care more about other people’s feelings than about our own.
- be overly responsible about how other people feel – meaning way care more than it is healthy and empathically normal to care for that
- feel that if we do something that might upset someone else we are “bad” people; we develop a belief that other people are like China dolls, they will break into pieces at the smallest upset coming from our side
All this conditioning is mostly unconscious until we start working on ourselves through some kind of therapy or ideally, various types of therapeutic approaches.
Because of all this bad programming, it takes a while to start behaving like a person who has had the luck of growing up learning about healthy boundaries and healthy NO.
Useful phrases when you’re just starting to say NO
So it might start with you learning to use simple phrases such as:
“I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you right now. I’ll call you later or in [insert your comfortable time delay here]
“No, Tuesday it’s not a good time for me. I am open on [insert your preferred dates here].”
“I feel tired, I want to go home now” and leave, even if all your friends are asking you to stay at the party a little longer.
Back to Sarah’s situation.
We hung up and she took some time to write the message. She then sent it to me to check it out for grammar stuff as she is not super fluent in the language she had to write in.
We then jumped on the phone again.
She told me she had just had a friend call her while she was focusing on writing that message. She realized she waited 10 minutes until she noticed she was getting nervous and she was not really able to listen to her friend.
At that moment she told the friend that she was not in a position to talk and listen as she was busy with something else.
We both laughed at the coincidence, it was like the Universe kept sending her situations that made her say NO.
I told her I felt the message she wrote was perfect, I’ve only made a few grammar corrections.
Then she said something like
“Should I do something extra so the other person doesn’t feel upset?”
At that moment I told her that I felt she was taking responsibility for the other person’s feelings, and this was not her job.
She had written a message that was non-violent, non-accusing, non-harming and coming from love and responsibility. What the other person will do and feel upon receiving it is their responsibility.
Stop sugar coating your NO – it’s not a doughnut
Sarah was trying to put some sugar on top of her message to make it a bit sweeter, easier for them to digest. As if they were not an adult, totally capable of managing their own emotions and reactions.
She agreed that it was exactly what she was doing and to stop trying to sugar-coat her message.
It’s a long process to transition from “afraid to say NO” to “relaxed, calm, authentic NO”.
After becoming aware of the unconscious conditioning you’re not going to instantly become an expert at saying NO.
But you’ll start making small steps. Sometimes you’ll take two steps forward and one step back. It’s OK. Sometimes you’ll realize you’ve fallen in your old conditioning patterns a day or two after you did it. In time you’ll realize it minutes later. Then right in the process of doing it. Then you’ll catch yourself before that.
And slowly you’ll be able to honour yourself, your needs and your boundaries most of the time in a natural, relaxed, calm way. You’ll slip back sometimes but just for brief moments.
And the more you have compassion for yourself when you make mistakes the easier it will be to learn and evolve from them. And at the same time you’ll become more compassionate towards others too.
It’s a process all of us people-pleasers, yes-sayers need to go through if we ever want to have harmonious, honest, thriving relationships.
If you feel like you’re struggling to say NO in key areas of your life check out the free series of articles in the “Say Yes to your NO” challenge.