Learning to Say “No”

For a long time I had trouble saying no. I think it had to do with the notion that people would like me more if I gave them what they wanted combined with an intense terror and anxiety about what would happen if I were to say “no”.

Realistically, there were many years where I just did what everyone around me wanted me to do. I relied on everyone else to make up my own mind for me.

Go on a special diet? Ok.

Hang out with an emotionally abusive friend? Ok.

Watch my boyfriend spend our anniversary hanging out with his friends? Sure.

I don’t think it is that I didn’t have any of my own opinions, I was just afraid of what would happen if I expressed them.

After all, if I told my boyfriend he was being a dick, wouldn’t he break up with me?

And if I told that emotionally abusive friend I didn’t want to hang out, wouldn’t she verbally attack me until I gave in anyway?

And if I went against a doctor’s orders, would I be blacklisted from their office or… well… die?

That might sound a little extreme, but fear can take you to many odd, irrational places.

The breakthrough came when I met with an art therapist named Sandy who told me I could say no. There was something about someone I respected giving me permission to say no and stand up for myself that gave me a nudge in the right direction.

I slowly switched tactics, saying “no” when I could muster the strength to do so by adding an explanation in my response. My intense anxiety dictated that the explanation always be true. That way I wouldn’t feel “caught in a lie” if the other person tried to call me out, and I would feel better defending my original response.

The explanations I gave felt necessary. Part of me didn’t believe that if I just said no, people would take it at face value. There were so many people in my past who would poke a prod if there were any air of mystery around what I was doing, so I let them know immediately.

To be honest, this system was a great stepping stone for me, but something about constantly explaining myself to others made me feel vulnerable and like I was looking for their approval. It wasn’t until my latest therapist that I heard a thought that would change everything.

“You don’t have to give any explanation, you can always just say no.”

I laughed at that, it boggled my mind at the time. I couldn’t really believe anyone could say no without being completely trampled by the person they were saying it to. I’m sure part of that comes from a life with so many people who have trampled me, and the unyielding urge to remain as un-trampled as possible.

Still, about a month ago I found myself sitting on the floor with my phone. A friend had asked if I wanted to hang out and I was racking my brain, searching for a reason for not doing so that would sound good. I wanted to have a reason for saying no that wouldn’t offend them, something that would still make them feel important… but without lying. I was having trouble coming up with the words.

After thirty minutes of rolling around on the carpet contemplating the situation a lightbulb went off in my head. I could just say, “no”.

So I did.

A few minutes later I got the response, “ok, no problem.” And that was it.

I leapt up and danced around the apartment as Corey rolled his eyes at me. “I just said ‘no’ with no explanation!” I shouted as I wiggled around the living room, throwing my hands in the air.

He didn’t see the significance, but it was the first time I’d ever just said no.

Maybe this change is fueled partially by my age, as I feel more and more comfortable asking for the things I want and being ok with my own preferences. At the same time, it has taken me years to cut the people out of my life who make me feel small and insignificant and replace them with people who respect me and the things I have to say. Doing so has given me an environment where saying what is on my mind has little chance of emotional backlash, and though it still feels terrifying (at times) expressing my needs I am coming to realize that there is no point being afraid of the ghosts of a precarious past that has long passed.

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4 responses to “Learning to Say “No”

  1. Several years ago my girlfriend and I saw a couple’s counselor. She gave us something called “The Assertive Bill of Rights.” There are copies floating around the Internet. It covers saying “no” and a few other aspects of being assertive. It was helpful to me.

  2. Great Post! I know saying “no” and being assertive is often an issue for those with OCD, and you give a great account of what this internal struggle is like. Thanks!

  3. Stephanie Gonzalez

    I learned to do that with my friends and family, but not with my boyfriend. For 15 years I didn’t say no. I was miserable. And I’m 51!

  4. Great post, and so true! We were just studying in my university psychology class how important the feeling of power over your own life is when it comes to being mentally healthy. What’s more powerful than being able to just say ‘no’? I know it helped me.

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