Although many find it difficult – even painful – to say “no” when asked to do something, the ability to set limits and establish one’s personal boundaries is integral in order to feel balance in one’s life.
Navigating between the needs of self and others can be a delicate dance and may require some exploration of barriers to asserting oneself in addition to experimentation in different scenarios. If you find that this is consistently a difficulty in your life life, it makes sense to process why that may be the case.
In her article, “The Power of NO!” Judith Sills, Ph.D., stresses the importance of balancing one’s boundaries with the needs of others. Sills describes the word “no” as an empowering tool that may be used to maintain integrity and to shield oneself against exploitation. Furthermore, she finds that “no” is often the necessary and responsible choice, because it establishes legitimacy and respect within a relationship, therefore allowing us to become “the agents of our own limits”.
So, why do people hesitate to act assertively in certain relationships, if the ability to say no is a characteristic of powerful and well-respected individuals? It seems that many have a hard time saying no because disagreeableness is not usually perceived positively. In other words, “saying no may not be the easiest way to make friends.” “No” also has the ability to hurt people, and brings about the potential grounds for conflict, which is threatening to any relationship. In addition, if someone close to you negatively reinforced you in the past for doing so in some way, it is likely that you have internalized the idea of asserting yourself as a negative, rather than a positive, act.
Although quarrels are unfortunate, confrontation is usually not a good reason to give in to requests that make you feel uncomfortable or disrespected. Remember, having self-respect and setting boundaries in relationships does not mean you are being selfish, but that you are standing up for yourself because you are aware of your needs. If you feel you can’t say no, at least to some things, some of the time, this may be something to examine. In her article, Sills explains that there is a line separating an individual’s control over the situation, and the situation’s control over the individual. Finding yourself on the correct side of this line can be a difficult task. However, it is possible to stand your ground, all the while pleasing others when the time is suitable for you.
Sills believes that every individual identifies with two features of “no”: saying no to ourselves (exhibiting self-discipline), and saying no to others (creating boundaries). Balancing these two features essentially leads to being effective and responsible, but how do we control saying no, while lowering its cost to our relationships? Sills talks about five generalizable situations, in which one should say no in order to hold onto their honor; “when it keeps you true to your principles and values,” “when it protects you from cheerful exploitation by others,” “when it keeps you focused on your own goals,” “when it protects you from abuse by others,” and “when you need the strength to change course.”
Nonetheless, it may not always be easy to muster up the confidence to say no. Some techniques that Sills suggest may be used to gain confidence in intimidating situations are as follows; “replace your automatic yes with an ‘I’ll think about it,’ soften your language, contain your feelings, refer to your commitment to others, realize you represent others, and rehearse.”
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant points out some of the many benefits of saying no. Grant says,
“The power of no is necessary to carve time for one’s own goals and agenda. Without it, other people dictate your schedule and limit your accomplishments.”
“No makes other people respect you and your time more.”
“No makes your yes more meaningful. No pays off in the personal arena as well as in the professional one.”
“No tests the health and equity of your closest relationships.”
“Personal integrity requires the power of no.”
All in all, saying no enables us to self-actualize, maintain relationships, and protect ourselves from being taken advantage of. With a simple “no,” we are capable of changing the dynamics of any relationship.
Written by Niloo Dardashti, PsyD, HHP