Have I become allergic to the word no

In a society that has for too long celebrated the agreeable and co-operative woman, is this the reason we find ourselves in the crossfire of situations that really, we don’t want to be in. Psych-she discusses why saying ‘no’ can be the word avoided by so many and with an expert opinion delving into the psychology behind why. 

I have lost count of the number of times I have found myself in uncomfortable and tedious situations which I could think of a thousand other ways I’d much rather be spending my time. All because my pitiful self has become incapable of saying no to plans. I only have myself to blame, no one else is agreeing to these things on my behalf, so I can’t continue to complain about it if I refuse to address and change it. 

Nilou Esmaeilpour, a clinical counsellor in women’s and relationship issues who graduated with a Psychology degree, says, “Women have difficulty saying no, the answers to explain this lie in social conditioning and gender norms.

“Women of course have more likely socialized into the priority of relationships and harmony, in holding others in value above self. This results in deeply inculcated sense of duty to help others and a fear of being seen as selfish.” 

When I think back to my childhood, I have vivid memories of witnessing my mum jumping from plan to plan, chaotically trying to juggle the millions of commitments she had dedicated herself to doing. Whilst doing it all, with an undertone of moaning that she was overworked, didn’t have the time or was too tired. I remember feeling adamant that I would not end up repeating the same thing. Sure that when I became an adult I would have a better grasp on only doing what made me genuinely happy and prioritising my time. 

Here I am, in my early years of adulthood and I can already feel the debilitating shame if I am to turn down plans or say no when asked for a favour. I don’t ever remember witnessing my dad having the same issue as my mum. Saying no to him always seemed, effortless and thoughtless. Why is it women seem to have an innate guilt that by prioritising themselves feels selfish.  A study by YouGov UK revealed women are more likely than men to agree with the statement that, “I often say yes to things when I want to say no.”

Self-esteem has a major effect on the ability to say no to plans,” says Nilou. “People with high self-esteem are likely to view themselves as capable to point out the limits that are needed and taking precedence over a need and desire without being judgmental.” 

I have said yes to too many plans over the fear of judgement if I were to cancel or say no. I don’t know why I convince myself people really care about me that much. Of course, I’m sure my friends want me at events, but the reality is I don’t need to go to everything. Being absent from the odd thing, isn’t going to ruin anyone else’s day or end the whole occasion, I wish I was that special. 

I’m not sure where the fear of saying no stems from, I never used to be like this. Influenced by growing up with a mum who constantly did everyone favours and helped anyone and everyone who asked. At her own expense. I thought this engrained in me the importance of sometimes putting myself first and learning to say no.

Theirs’s no point showing up to things for people if I’m going to be offering half of myself anyway. But I’ve noticed, especially since moving away from home, I’ve lost sight of my younger outlook. I have found myself more frequently than not, agreeing to whatever is asked of me. It’s frustrating when I know this isn’t an inherent personality trait. Instead it feels like a repercussion of society’s expectations on women and external factors which have influenced me as I have become a young woman.

I think as you get older naturally you feel more responsibility for things and feel a bigger sense of obligation to commitments you’ve made, which is probably is why I’ve found myself now starting to repeat behaviour I saw in my mum. I witnessed this trait not only in my mum but many other older female influences growing up that I didn’t notice in my male influences.

I’m aware that my description of my mum’s inability to say no sounds like I’m being negative, it’s simultaneously been something I’ve always admired about her. I have often thought I will feel happy if I’m even half as kind as my mum. She’s always there for anyone who needs her and gives everyone the time of day. But at times watching it be at her expense can feel like I have wanted to shake her. She shouldn’t have to obligate herself to everything leaving her the one, burnt out or exhausted. I want to make sure I am also able to remind myself that saying no is okay. 

Nilou says, “Stress and anxiety are big determinants of whether one will be able to say no to another person’s plans. High stress levels can impair thinking due to the impairment of executive function, which is the brains mechanism of self-control.” 

I’ve always been stumped by the fact it does always seem the more I have going on and am trying to multi-task, the more I seem to agree too. It’s always left me dumbfounded and incredibly frustrated. But listening to Nilou’s explanation, I can see more clearly the logic behind why I do this. The more chaos going on inside your brain, the harder it would be to sensibly rationalise what you should and shouldn’t be agreeing to. Instead your running through the motions of life, without taking time to think about what you are even agreeing too.  

Often pleasing someone else by saying yes to a favour or plans, offers an instant feeling of relief that you haven’t let anyone down. But, is this worth the long-term anxiety of adding another thing to your plate, and sometimes inevitably having to let someone down later down the line. 

I need to do a better job at reminding myself that offering a half-hearted and worse version myself for the sake of saying yes, is far worse for everyone involved than saying no but being able to offer the best version of myself to everything I am committed to. That way I’m also able to genuinely enjoy social events and feel good about the favours I do, instead of a constant feeling of pressure of who I’m going to let down next on the list of things I’ve oversubscribed to.

Expert insight: Nilou Esmaeilpour 

Nilou Esmaeilpour is the founder of Lotus Therapy, which was created with the vision of helping people heal. She is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and holds a graduate degree in Psychology with a specialisation in women’s issues, relationship issues and self-esteem.