Imagine hearing these questions from people in your life:

  • “Can you pick up the kids at school today?”
  • “Can you donate just $5 today for this worthy cause?”
  • “Can I borrow the car?”
  • “Can you serve on this committee?”
  • “Can you host the family holidays at your house this year?”
  • “Can you help me move on Saturday?”

Do you notice any resistance coming up in your body? Does your cynical side kick in because you’ve heard some of them all too often? Do you automatically feel guilty just hearing the questions, because you immediately want to say “No” without hesitation, but feel like you’re supposed to want to say “Yes!”?


Where Does All This Trouble and Stress With the Word “No” Come From?

When you were a child, were you ever in a situation where you really, really wanted something, and the answer you got was “No” – but you kept pushing anyway, hoping your persuasive powers would move the parental decision mountain and get you what you wanted? And did the conversation ever end in your parent saying, “I said NO, and NO means NO!” ?

Those two little letters, taken together, sure packed a wallop, didn’t they? And they play a pretty big role in our process of learning what’s possible and what isn’t in our lives – including what we have control over…and what we don’t.

Isn’t it interesting, then, how we never questioned our parents’ inalienable right to say “no,” yet we so often feel that we don’t have that same right in our lives?

The difficulty many people have saying “no” has been the subject of numerous books, articles, lectures and therapy sessions. What makes this one word so hard to say without anger, guilt or resentment? And why is it so hard to hold your ground when you say it? Many people feel so guilty when they say no that they then have to justify, explain or defend their response – but our parents didn’t have that problem with saying “no” to us! Why is that?

Saying this one seemingly simple word carries a ton of emotional energy for most of us because of the meaning that we attach to it. The act of taking a clear stance that doesn’t immediately give the other person everything they want makes us uncomfortable because it feels like we’re:

  • being selfish or self-centered
  • being stingy
  • being mean or unreasonable
  • rejecting them
  • opposing them
  • hurting them
  • fighting with them
  • ignoring their needs
  • interfering with their happiness

We have a set of hard and fast rules in our heads, learned from parents, teachers and others, that say we’re “supposed to be” agreeable cooperative, self-sacrificingly generous, always inclusive, kind, philanthropic…you name it, the list goes on and on!

In fact, I really encourage you to identify your own list of meanings around why you’re not supposed to say “No!” Do you feel burdened whenever you even think about saying “no” to anyone? Do these feelings stop you from saying it? If you finally do say it, do you feel guilty, or like you’ve just done something wrong? Identifying the particular words that come into your head is extremely helpful in starting to understand the meanings you are attaching to saying “no” and in beginning to understand not just where those meanings came from, but how to start replacing them with new, more self-empowering meanings.


Here’s a hint: All saying “no” really means is that you’re setting a limit – that’s it! You’re verbally communicating that, in that moment and that situation, you are choosing to limit what you’re willing to invest. It doesn’t even go into the “why” of your choice, so how could anyone possibly judge your motives with any accuracy? It doesn’t brand you forever as being a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you might not make another choice on another day.

Usually the “why” is because it makes us feel safe, manages our personal resources (time, energy, emotions, etc.) so we don’t get depleted, or reflects a value that we hold as important.

So, give yourself a pat on the back the next time you say “No” – acknowledge yourself for honoring your right to set limits that take care of YOU. Allow others to have whatever reaction they have, knowing that they are operating from their own set of rules and meanings, not from a perspective of what is best care for you.

Say “No” with pride! And know that you just might say “Yes” the next time!


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


I’d love to hear from you about what situations you find most difficult to say “No” in, and what thoughts, feelings and self-judgments come up for you when you actually do say “no,” or just think about saying it. What is your history with this word? Have you gotten better at saying it over time, or do you feel stuck and frustrated that you still can’t use it with confidence and inner serenity?

Send me an email at describing your experience with this tiny yet powerful word, and let me know if it’s for my ears only, or if I can share it with the community!

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