You’re just in the middle of cooking dinner. The phone rings. You look down. It’s mum calling. You pick up for the chat even though it isn’t the best time. She knows this is when you usually have dinner, and yet she always seems to call just now. Something gets burnt, another thing doesn’t get cooked. By the time you’re done, this isn’t dinner, it’s just a hotchpotch you can’t face eating.
Fast forward to the next day. You’re at work, about to leave and heading off to meet some friends to see a film. Your boss asks you to do one more thing, even though you’re in a rush. No problem, you say with a smile (on the outside.) Running late, you meet up with others. Someone suggests going for drinks instead. Ok, you say, but inside you think, damn I really wanted to see that movie.
Why is saying no so hard?
So you didn’t say ‘no mum, now’s not a good time’ or to your boss ‘sorry, I’m in a hurry can I do it tomorrow first thing?’ or ‘Actually I’d really love to see the film,’ to your friends.
What is it about saying no that’s so difficult? For some people it’s the most excruciating thing to contemplate, the idea that you could actually not accept to do that thing, meet that person.
Here are some of the reasons why you might have shied away from saying no before:
Fear of disappointing someone – the idea of letting others down feels really uncomfortable
Fear of missing out – if you don’t do this thing, will it mean you aren’t asked to do something with this friend or group again in the future?
Fear of being judged or disliked – if you say no, will this person think badly of you?
Feeling good about the attention – it’s nice to be asked after all, so you don’t want to risk losing that
Fear of letting go – if you don’t do this, no-one will, or it won’t get done properly
Beyond these fears you may also experience some uncomfortable feelings. Perhaps you start to feel anxious or stressed when it comes to saying no.
Often, along side the anxiety, you can start to feel depressed or in a low mood, relationships suffer if you always find yourself saying yes, when no is what you’d prefer. Or you can find yourself snapping, angry for apparently no major reason, as resentments start to accumulate.
Where the trouble starts
The trouble really starts when your saying yes, overrides all your sense of what it is you really want or need at any time. Losing touch with your deeper needs, you also start to open up your boundaries and risk being overrun.
We all need boundaries. They are the lines we decide can’t be crossed, because when they do we start to feel uncomfortable, stressed, scared or even angry.
These might relate to personal space, morals and values, religous view points, relationship and sexual preferences. These boundaries help to keep you safe and to be clear about what is acceptable to you and what isn’t.
Each person’s boundaries might be different. At the start of the article, I gave the example of mum habitually calling when it wasn’t convenient. That might be fine for you. But something else might not.
It could be her going into your room or through your things as an adult or a child, which drives you crazy. Again, for some people that might feel ok. For others, it could feel a complete violation of personal space.
How your body can help you tell when to say no
A great starting point for really getting in touch with your boundaries is to start noticing your body response in certain situations. When you want to say no, but don’t, do you start picking at your fingers, twitching your foot, does your chest tighten up, or your face flush. Do you put your hand over your mouth, or touch your neck?
Your body can be a really helpful indicator of what it is you really need but can’t say. Tuning in to that body feeling can help you know what feels right for you in the moment.
What is it about boundaries?
You might be wondering why setting boundaries is so hard in some areas of your life.
Often, automatically saying yes comes as a learned response that saying no wasn’t acceptable. If you describe yourself as a ‘good boy or girl’ a ‘pleaser’ or someone who doen’t like to upset others, it may well be that you had to adapt your behaviour when you were younger, to feel wanted or accepted.
At the heart of that feeling, there is often shame for being who you are. You learnt to keep the peace, maintain love, kindness and warmth around by not rocking the boat. Rather than feeling that shame, it’s a lot easier (though costlier in the long run, in terms of emotional wellbeing) to just keep saying yes, to accommodate rather than to challenge and push back.
Of course, sometimes saying yes can be very helpful but if it comes at the price of following your own heart and your own needs, then it might be time to work this through in counselling.
Counselling and psychotherapy can help you understand what your boundaries are and how they get infringed or disrespected by others. It provide a safe space for you to explore what saying no feels like and to know when it’s ok to say no, and ok to say yes.
If counselling isn’t right for you, here’s a Lifeline you can practise by yourself.
This week’s Lifeline
This exercise is all about tuning into your wants and needs so you can start to reacquaint yourself with what may well have been pushed aside.
This approach is taken from Mindfulness and also inspired by the work of Babette Rothschild and body psychotherapy in trauma recovery.
The idea is to give yourself a binary choice to make, such as having a shower or a bath, a beer or some wine, walk to work or get the bus. You get the idea.
When faced with such a choice, try and tune in with real attention to all the signals in your body about which choice feels right to you, at this time.
You might want to notice any body sensations, any thoughts, feelings or impulses that come up in response to the choice you are making. See if one feels more comfortable than the other. Or if there are ‘louder’ resonances which can help guide your decision making.
Developing this awareness can be really helpful in re-establishing your capacity to say no. Unless you know what it is you want, it an be hard to connect with whether you want it now or not or whether it doesn’t matter at this point.
Find it hard to say no?
If you struggle with boundaries and saying no and would like a safe space to explore this, why not get in touch for a first appointment? I offer counselling in Totnes and online, and work frequently with people looking to re-establish their sense of self in the world.