Being a people-pleaser and agreeing to every favor can lead to stress and anxiety—instead, put your foot down firmly (but nicely)

By Jenna Birch
June 15, 2015
Corbis Images

It's a two-letter word, yet it's probably one of the most challenging in the English language to actually utter: "No."

Whether you feel pressure from your BFF to jet off to Vegas with her next month, or your colleague wants you to weigh in on a project she's working on, sometimes you know you're overextended. And despite a lingering feeling that you should turn down that proposal to save your sanity, you end up smiling and saying, "Okay!"

Not good. If you constantly pile obligations onto your plate for others, important things lined up in your own life-relationships, personal growth, your own workload-may begin to fall by the wayside. Learning to say "no" is a crucial asset in your arsenal for creating and maintaining balance. (Breathing, believe it or not, helps too. Try one of these Breathing Exercises to Better Any Situation.)

Luckily, it's a skill any yes person can develop. "Ultimately, after saying no to a few things, you learn that other people will step up to take care of them, and that you do not always have to be the one to handle issues that come up," says Art Markman, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Easier said than done, right? Not so much-just keep reading.

Why Saying No Is So Hard

Before you can start saying no, you need to know why you're always saying yes (knowledge is power!). It's likely because you've been conditioned since childhood to go along with what's asked of you, explains psychologist Kristen Carpenter, PhD, Director of Women's Behavioral Health at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center. "We're not socialized to say no," she says. "We're raised to be nurturing, cooperative, and sharing in ways little boys are not. This sets us up for life, and it's difficult for some women to be assertive."

In fact, most women are higher than men in a one of the Big Five personality traits developed by psychologists all the way back in the 1880s: agreeableness. "That refers to how much we want to be liked by other people," says Markman. "Agreeable people tend to say yes to requests, because that makes the person who asked like them in the moment. On average, women rank much higher in agreeableness than men."

In our culture, says Markman, men who are too agreeable are "seen by others as weak, and so there is pressure on them" to be assertive. On the other hand, a woman who is too disagreeable or assertive, says Carpenter, "is seen as aggressive or bitchy."

And since we don't want to be seen in such a negative light, we are rarely disagreeable. "To assert oneself feels like the wrong thing to do," Carpenter says. "But you should be able to express your thoughts, feelings and rights, and do so in a direct, open and honest manner."

How to Effectively Say, "No"

Women are plagued with a host of problems when confronted a request. Carpenter says women are more often to be asked why they won't do something than a man, and Markman says women are often faced with guilt if they say no-especially at work, where your climb to the top is harder. "Because women are still breaking into the highest levels of leadership in many companies, there is pressure on women to agree to tasks so that their refusal will not be held against them later," he explains.

The key is being strong, firm, and knowing your worth. Markman says if you are generally helpful, you should not worry about saying no to requests you don't have the time to take on. Here's exactly how say "no," do it right, and really mean it.

Consider a request first. A lot of women immediately respond to a request. Try not to let that be your knee-jerk reaction. "For women who are highly agreeable, it is important to thank people for asking for their help and to say that they will check their calendar and get back to them soon," says Markman. "Taking the time to think over a request gives the person control over when she responds rather than having to do it under pressure." Let "I'll get back to you" be your go-to response to a request.

Go straight to the source. Don't play telephone just because you'd rather not turn someone down to her face. If Susan asks you to help her with a spreadsheet, don't let word filter from you to Katie to Susan because you fear her reaction. "Take the message right to the source," says Carpenter. "The purpose of this is owning it. You have to own your response."

Be very clear. Don't mince words or waffle. Carpenter explains that lot of women will say, "I don't think I can take that on right now," leaving room for the asker to muscle them into doing something they don't want to do now or later. "Women are more inclined to leave the door open, or end a sentence with a question instead of a declarative," she says. "Be specific, clear and direct." As in, just say no.

Do not feel the need to explain yourself. Why? Because you don't have to. "There is no reason to give an explanation beyond, 'That is not something I can take on right now,'" Markman says, noting one exception: if someone has asked you to do something that you really would like to do given more room in your schedule. "Then the purpose of this explanation is not to justify saying no, but to let the requester know that you would like to be asked again in the future," he says.

Do not back down. If you consistently say no to requests, but then simply relent later on, you're setting yourself up for burnout-and giving the impression that your "no" is flimsy. You'll constantly be pestered after you've already given a response, says Carpenter. "You have to stick with it," she explains. "When you say no, mean it."(Feeling confident in yourself are is the first step to being firm. Use these Confidence-Boosting Tips from Real Women for inspiration.)


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