Is it difficult for you to say NO even when you want or need to?
Does the idea of having to say NO fill you with dread?
Do you start sweating, mumbling over your words, hyperventilating, or feeling disassociated when you need to say NO to something or someone?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you might have some people-pleasing tendencies or lack of assertiveness (or both!) that make it difficult to say no.
Let’s do a quick exercise. I invite you to look at this Tarot card:
I recently had a session with a wonderful, lovely, receptive client who was exploring what it means to say no… and why it’s been difficult for her to do so. When we asked the cards about this difficulty, The Tower came up.
As you can see on the picture, The Tower is a card of tremendous upheaval. The world is turned upside down. There’s nothing to hold on to. Things collapse all around you. The universe falls apart. People fall out of the tower and the sky is ominously black.
This is what it felt like to my client to say no. This was the internal emotional response to having to say no to something. Saying no would trigger fears of the world ending, things collapsing, everything falling apart.
As a lifelong people-pleaser, overachiever, and someone who generally wants to be liked, I’ve experienced this myself as well. (Still working on these patterns! It’s a work in progress.)
As you check in with yourself, does The Tower also describe your own internal experience at the thought of having to say no? If you’re nodding your head, keep reading. This post was written for you.
Essentially, if we really narrow things down, there’s often a core set of fears behind the difficulty to say no. In this post, I will lay out 5 of these core fears so you can investigate what’s really keeping you from saying no.
Being more aware of these fears and of your attachment to saying YES to everything and everyone is key. This will help you notice these patterns within yourself, when the fears become triggered, and how you can begin to shift your responses to external demands.
The point, ultimately, is for you to feel free and empowered in saying NO – and also saying YES – depending on the situation, your gut feelings, and your intuition.
FEAR #1: The Fear of Missed Opportunities
Sometimes, there’s a fear that if you say no to something, you’ll be missing out on an amazing opportunity. (Maybe THE most amazing opportunity that will ever come your way. That’s what your ego mind will try to tell you, anyway.) You might have a compulsion of saying YES to everything just to make sure you’re not missing out. This will often lead to overscheduling, overburdening, and overextending yourself. If you keep adding things on your plate when it’s already full, you will eventually burn out. And you won’t be able to eat anything on that plate.
The fear of missed opportunities is particularly strong in professional and business environments. Be mindful of this and notice if it’s one of the fears making it difficult for you to say no. And remember – and trust – that you will say YES to the most highly aligned opportunities if you really listen to your intuition and gut feelings. But those opportunities won’t come through if you’re already overloaded with a million other things you said YES to… just in case.
FEAR #2: The Fear of Not Being Liked or Not Getting Approval
If you grew up with the belief system that you must always put others ahead of yourself, it can be challenging to say no to demands from your partner, spouse, children, boss, coworkers, friends, pets, and whoever else. In this case, there might be a fear of looking selfish or like a “bitch”. There might be a fear that putting yourself first will make others not like you or disapprove of you.
If this is true for you, it will be important to go deeper and investigate where the need for approval really comes from. And who are you actually abandoning when you say YES to everyone and everything except for yourself? (Yup, you’re abandoning you.)
FEAR #3: The Fear of Retaliation
This one might feel a bit more irrational, but it can still be very strong. Sometimes, there’s a fear of saying no to the wrong person at the wrong time. What if you say no to a vengeful or powerful person who can ruin your reputation? What if this person can get back at you somehow?
In these cases, the fear is really driven by the desire (or coping mechanism) to appease others. If you grew up with very strict, unstable, overbearing, or toxic parents, sometimes this behavior of appeasing others became the only way you could survive. This behavior can remain ingrained in your body, nervous system, and emotional repertoire until you explore it and shift to others kinds of responses. Instead of appeasing, what if you asserted yourself strongly yet respectfully? And what’s the realistic likelihood that someone would get back at you for simply saying no?
FEAR #4: The Fear of Disappointing Others
This fear is, of course, related to fear #2 and the compulsive need to be liked. Is your behavior of saying YES to everything fueled by the fear of disappointing others? If so, you might want to ask yourself another set of questions:
- What does it really mean to “disappoint” someone?
- Have I ever actually disappointed or offended someone? What happened? What was the outcome of that? Did I do it on purpose, or was the disappointment simply the other person’s reaction (and none of my business)?
- Have I always tried my best NOT to disappoint others?
- Am I willing to compromise on my own values, sanity, and well-being to avoid disappointing someone else? Or can I practice speaking my truth and saying no EVEN IF others are let down temporarily?
You haven’t really lived a life of freedom and truth until you’ve disappointed someone. Because in the process of living your truth, you might say or do something that other people will disagree with. But living your truth must take precedence over keeping the peace or trying to please everyone.
FEAR #5: The Fear of Losing Love or Being Rejected
Ultimately, this fear is hiding somewhere behind all of the other fears listed here. The fear of losing love is a common fear we all share as humans. Losing love means being rejected from the tribe and cast out, an experience that would’ve led to sure death in primitive societies. We need love, safety, and community in order to survive.
But when it goes to extremes or if it’s totally unconscious, the fear of losing love can completely dictate your behavior and decision-making. Since this fear is tied to primitive emotions that are locked in your nervous and energy systems, creating more safety is really important. This will help you say no without panicking. Here’s a good exercise for this:
- sit in a comfortable, quiet place where you won’t be interrupted
- take a few deep breaths and get centered
- close your eyes
- with your focused attention, drop down to your root chakra (base of the spine)
- once you have a sense of being inside your root chakra (or connecting to it), repeat the safety mantra: “It is safe for me to be myself. It is safe for me to speak my truth. It is safe for me to say no. It is safe for me to disappoint others. I am safe, I am loved, and I will honor myself by saying yes and no from my heart moving forward.”
Overcoming the fear of saying no is not an easy process. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of presence and awareness to notice what’s driving you to say YES and why you break out into a sweat when you need to say NO.
I hope this post will help you examine these patterns for yourself and transform the way you relate to the word “no”. And, if you feel called, please let me know in the comments below which of these fears is strongest for you. When do you notice these fears coming up, and what has helped you to release them?