What is it about the word “no” that makes it so hard to say? It’s a simple, one-syllable word. And yet, despite your best intentions, when you try to say “no,” you utter “yes” instead. But saying yes to everything isn’t realistic — or healthy.
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Psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, offers insight into why it’s so hard to just say no, plus tips for how to stay sane by saying yes less often.
Why do we say “yes” when we want to say “no”?
“The human brain likes the feeling of closure: People often strive for the feeling that everything is right and finished,” says Dr. Bea. “Often people work late, only to stay even later when a new email comes. They want to tend to it so their inbox is clear the next day.”
Other reasons people tend to say yes too often:
- To avoid confrontation: “Let’s face it, few people enjoy conflict,” says Dr. Bea. “I don’t meet many people who say, ‘I like a good confrontation.’ ”
- FOMO: Some people want to be in the room where it happens at all costs. For them, adding an extra task to get closer to power or prestige is worth it. But everyone has a breaking point.
- To please others: People who routinely overdo things may be pleasers who are concerned with how others will perceive them. “People pleasers may say yes to try and ward off feelings of guilt or to avoid disappointing someone,” says Dr. Bea. “They may do this because they have some history of guilt that makes them feel bad.”
- Compulsivity: Some people naturally feel compelled to overdo it. Their brains are hard-wired to persist, even if the workload becomes uncomfortable.
The consequences of saying yes
“There’s a lack of balance in our lives when we do too much,” notes Dr. Bea. “Overdoing anything — whether working, eating or exercising — can have painful consequences.”
Those consequences could include:
- Less time to devote to activities you enjoy.
- Feelings of anger or resentment.
- Physical symptoms of stress such as muscle pain or gastrointestinal discomfort.
Pinpointing when saying yes will have painful consequences isn’t always easy. “Think about it as carrying a set of logs in your arms,” says Dr. Bea. “There’s going to be one log too many at some point, and they will start falling to the ground. Try to notice if tasks are falling off your radar or you’re missing deadlines. That’s a clear sign you’re overdoing it and need to take a step back.”
Why we’re not used to saying no
As Dr. Bea explains, “Saying no is not a well-developed skill. We generally have long histories of complying with authority figures — parents, teachers, religious leaders — so we don’t come to adulthood with much experience. Growing up, we were rewarded for compliance and experienced negative consequences when we didn’t perform a task.”
If saying no to your boss sends a shiver down your spine, that’s natural. But it’s essential to accept the discomfort that comes with saying no. Dr. Bea offers these tips for making it easier:
- Rehearse: Spend a few moments rehearsing how you will say no when offered an assignment or promotion so you feel prepared when the time comes.
- Be direct: “Don’t equivocate, but do it with a sense of empathy,” says Dr. Bea. “It can be effective to acknowledge that you might be creating difficulty for the person by saying no.”
- Offer alternatives: If possible, direct the person to a resource they might not have considered to help remove a burden for them.
- Keep the door open: “Suggest you’re appreciative that they thought of you and had confidence in you,” suggests Dr. Bea. “Let them know you are open to reconsidering at another time.”
- Get help: Sometimes, you may need some outside help. Consider talking to a therapist to help you sort through the reasons behind your struggle to say no.
Skip the passive-aggressive behavior: Just say no
Sometimes we say yes but mean no. We might do this to stall the negative consequences we think might occur if we refuse. “Some people want that immediate tension reduction,” says Dr. Bea.
But saying yes when you have no intention of following through could create worse consequences than if you’d said no from the get-go. “The person you said yes to will likely feel betrayed and let down when you don’t come through,” says Dr. Bea. “They will regard you differently and the impact will be longer lasting than if you’d been direct in the first place.”
So say no with confidence and remember: Practice makes perfect.