The High Cost of “Yes” and Learning to Say “No”


World-renowned family therapist Virginia Satir used to wear a medallion around her neck. The word yes was emblazoned on one side, the word no on the other. She believed one of her primary tasks was to help her clients learn to say yes when they meant yes, and no when they meant no.

Those working in addiction recovery, especially recovery from codependence, emphasise the need for personal integrity—honesty with yourself and others. Charles Whitfield, MD, calls codependency ‘The disease of lost selfhood’. He believes it is the root of all addictions. It results from focusing too much on what is outside of yourself and thereby depending on others to define what you think, feel, and do.

The high cost of ‘yes’

While an attitude of openness to life is health-promoting, saying yes to life also means saying no a good deal of the time. People who are afraid of disapproval from others say yes regardless of their true feelings. The question can range from the trivial (‘Would you like a coffee?’) to the serious (‘Can I stay at your apartment next week?’). When dealing with doctors or other caregivers, many fall into the trap of being a passive patient, afraid to say no to a suggested procedure, for instance, even when feeling ambivalent about it.

There can be a high price to pay for not saying no. Here’s why:

  • It’s stressful. Holding in feelings of anger or frustration while smiling and saying yes causes tension. Over time, it may erupt in physical symptoms or emotional confusion and instability.
  • It’s confusing. Other people will read the true message in your body language, tone of voice, or energy level. They will be unsure of what you are really saying, and question your trustworthiness.
  • It undermines yourself. You erode your self-esteem when you deny your insights, opinions, intuitions, and value judgments. Saying yes when you mean no, you lose your vote over what goes on in your life. The more you deny yourself, the more you feed feelings of low self-worth, setting in motion the cycle of dishonesty/guilt/self-hatred/depression.
  • It disempowers others. When you assume others will be upset because you say no, you assume they don’t have the strength to hold on to their own convictions. Genuine friendship or colleagueship cannot grow from such a weak foundation. Loneliness often results.

Learning to say ‘no’

Saying no is not easy after a lifetime of yes-saying. You may find you are less popular with certain people (especially those afraid to think for themselves). Remember saying no does not require being nasty, cold, or arrogant. No is just no; and can be said respectfully.

Start with matters of small consequence and work up to bigger ones. Ways to begin:

  • Practise on yourself. Stand before a mirror and practice different ways of saying no. Experiment with different phrases: ‘No thank you, but thanks for asking.’ ‘Doing that requires more (time, work, money) than I have right now.’ ‘I’ve decided to reduce my outside commitments in order to put more time into my (home life, schoolwork, relationship with spouse).’
  • Write, in simple sentences, the clear no message you may be afraid to deliver. Use this script when you need to call someone to say no or practise it before meeting someone in person. For example: ‘I know you need help on this project. It was great to work with you last year, but I have other priorities to meet right now, so I can’t assist you. Good luck getting the volunteers you need. Call me again next year.’ Avoid apologising. Practise your script until it sounds natural. The more you speak in ways that are congruent with your own thoughts and feelings, the easier it becomes.
  • Examine the ways you currently spend your time and energy. Determine which activities no longer support your wellbeing. Make a list of No Mores. Post it where you will see it often. Check off one or two items you could most easily drop, and plan to do this right away.
  • Recall the last time you wanted to say no but didn’t. Recall, as fully as possible, your feelings about that situation. Forgive yourself for your lack of honesty. Decide whether you want to remedy that situation by saying no now. In any case, reaffirm your intention to say no in the future.

Reflect on the following integrity statements. These form the context for saying yes or no in a way that honours yourself and others. Which of these appeal to you? Which would commit to?

  • I am willing to be responsible for my own life in thought, speech, and action.
  • I want to support others (in a manner that is kind, generous, and compassionate) in being more responsible for themselves.
  • I wish to value interdependence in my life (we’re all here together), and to live in harmony with that realisation.
  • I wish to honestly acknowledge both mistakes and successes, in myself and others, without judgment or overindulgence.
  • I am willing to honour and respect my whole being: body, mind, emotions, and spirit.
  • I want to remain open to feedback and flexible in my dealings with others.
  • I value my word as a sacred pledge, to myself and to others, and wish to be more trustworthy and dependable, in small matters as well as in large ones.
  • I wish to honour my dreams, goals, and ideals and work toward bringing them into reality. I wish to honour the dreams, goals, and ideals of others, and to assist them in bringing these into reality.
  • I wish to ask for help and to allow people to help me as an expression of shared humanity, even if I’m feeling guilty, unworthy, or dependent.
  • I wish to honour and trust my basic goodness.

Reprinted with permission from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, and Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001.

Published in Kindred issue 28

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