When I talk to clients about boundaries and the kinds of issues that get them into conflict situations, one of the most common problems I hear about is people who have a hard time saying “no”. As a result, they end up taking on too many commitments, doing work outside their competence that really doesn’t light them up or feeling resentful because everyone seems to take advantage of them.
One of the best things you can do if you find yourself playing out this pattern of behaviour is to look at the underlying reasons behind your habit and develop tools to help you strengthen your boundary in the moment, with each decision you make.
In this blog, I unpack three different reasons for saying “yes” when you really wish you had said “no”, and for each one, I suggest a way that you can flip your thinking so you can support yourself to make decisions with integrity, be true to yourself and express what you really want.
When your “yes” comes from a fear of rejection
Many of the people I work with are givers, rescuers, healers, carers. They are always pouring out love to others, putting others’ needs before their own, but it never feels like enough. They often perform the role of martyr, sacrificing the joy from their life by taking on the stress and suffering of others, in exchange for a sense of belonging and being appreciated.
At the heart of this behaviour may be a core wound of feeling unloved. Your subconscious is whisper-shouting “if I say “no” to this request, they won’t love me anymore.” Instead of filling that empty void inside you, the habit of saying “yes” to everything can expose you to manipulation and selfishness, leaving you feeling abused and exhausted.
There are a number of ways to strengthen this boundary so you can learn to distinguish between a “yes” that comes from a heart full of love and willingness to be of service, and a “yes” that comes from a place of need and a desire for other people’s approval. Before you say “yes” to anything, stop and ask yourself “do I really want this?” Ask “is this for my own highest good and the highest good of any others involved?”
When you hit pause on your decision-making and give yourself permission to identify your real pain and focus on healing that – instead of saying “yes” indiscriminately and numbing the pain with an endless quest for appreciation – you can start consciously practicing the art of receiving without needing to constantly over-give in return.
Another tool that can help is to give yourself permission to notice all the different ways that people say “no” to others without causing offence. People say “no” all the time. The world doesn’t end, they are not avoided as outcasts, they do not lose the love of other people simply because they set boundaries around what they are prepared to agree to.
Once you start noticing this, you may also notice that those who are careful with their energy and can say “no” without the fear of rejection are more fulfilled – and more loved – because they are acting from true generosity that fills their cup and is returned in kind, rather than wasting energy chasing the good will of others (which is never enough to fill the empty void).
When your “yes” comes from a fear of disappointment
The flip side of worrying about other people not loving you if you say “no” to them is the fear that you might stop loving yourself – that you may prove to yourself (and everyone else) that you are truly unloveable. If this resonates with you, you may recognise that your generosity of spirit is an essential part of your sense of self. This is wonderful when it comes from a place of abundance but can lead to burnout when it comes from a place of lack – a need to constantly demonstrate that you are worthy of love, that you are a good person.
As a result you end up saying “yes” to tasks, events and people that drain your energy without reserve, and this can lead to resentment. When you are tempted to say “no” to a request, you end up feeling guilty and beat yourself up for your selfishness and lack of concern for others.
It’s a no-win situation because you end up bending over backwards to prove that you are a good person, but you can never satisfy your own expectations about what is “good enough”. You are always disappointed with yourself, or afraid of disappointing someone else.
One way to start weaning yourself from this behaviour it to slowly raise your risk tolerance by stepping outside your comfort zone – giving yourself permission to disappoint people in small ways – and noting the consequences for yourself and others. Does the world end? Does anyone die? If not, take that as proof that you don’t need to be ashamed of caring for yourself enough to set boundaries.
You can also build up your self-worth by consciously choosing to show yourself the same compassion you show to others. When faced with a tough decision, where you feel that you “should” say “yes”, even though you would much rather say “no”, try roleplaying what you would say to your best friend if they came to you for advice in a similar situation, and then apply that advice to yourself. If you acknowledge that you would not think badly of someone you love for prioritising self-care, it is easier to extend the same level of respect to yourself.
When your “yes” comes from a fear of missing out
Another common cause of saying “yes” when you mean “no” is FOMO – the fear of missing out. This “yes” carries the strength of envy and desperation to belong, the desire to be connected. It feeds on social anxiety and insecurity, pushing you to do more and be more without stopping to consider what kinds of interaction really light you up.
When this fear is driving your decision-making, you may get caught up in the trap of making choices based on your internal perception of external expectations. (What you think others’ want from you.) You also become more vulnerable to peer pressure and may find yourself changing your attitudes, values and behaviours to conform to the influence of others, rather than staying strong and aligned with your core sense of integrity and what is true for you.
You may feel that you have to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes along, as you may not get a better offer. This can lead to working with unsuitable clients who push all of your buttons or putting yourself and your clients at risk by working outside the scope of your competence. It can lead to financial difficulties if you overstretch your resources to buy courses and attend events that you don’t really need and can’t really afford.
If this is something you struggle with, try focusing with gratitude on the abundance in your life, rather than giving in to a sense of lack, or comparing what you have with others. Another great tool is to remember that when we fill up our time and attention with unsatisfying people and activities, we are actually blocking even better things that could be coming our way. When you tune in to what you really want to experience in any given situation, you can choose to say either the whole-hearted “yes” of eager participation, or the “no” of integrity that protects your energy and opens space for even more wonderful things to enter into your life.
How I can help
As we have seen from this little exploration, when you say “yes” out of fear, you open the doors for burnout, resentment and conflict, which places your business at risk. In my signature risk-management program, Castle Quest – The Serenity Shift, you are guided to unpack these kinds of limiting beliefs and identify how not having strong boundaries around saying “no” with integrity may be exposing you to real world danger.
Scientific studies have shown that having confidence in your ability to make good decisions actually helps you to make better decisions in the future, so the encouragement and accountability Castle Quest provides not only improves your ability to protect yourself from the energy drain of unwanted obligations, you will be taking positive, proactive steps towards building a safer business and a stronger and more resilient sense of self-worth.