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  • Writer's pictureAnneka Barrett

The power of saying NO

It is a running joke that the first word that most children learn is ‘No’. My own observation is they are exceptional at using it. It is immensely frustrating as a parent and yet from a psychological point of view kind of amazing. I say amazing because we humans appear to have an instinctive ability to assert our boundaries as toddlers and yet by the time we get through our teens we have usually all but lost that internal compass.

As a society we teach our children the importance of putting others' needs first. This is not in itself a bad thing, however by putting others' needs before our own we ignore ours. We value the validation of hearing from others that we have done a good job or we are a good person. We learn to suppress our own needs and values. Pleasing others becomes how we measure our ‘goodness’.

The intrinsically negative impact of this people pleasing behaviour means we lose our innate ability to understand our own boundaries. When we lose this innate sense of what is right for us, we leave ourselves open to being in positions where our boundaries can be violated and because we are trying to please the other person we can find ourselves helping this to happen.

We’ve all been there, doing something for someone we really didn’t have time for because it was ‘the right thing to do’. Sometimes that works out fine and we feel good because we receive praise and validation from others, but this can also lead to a raft of physical and emotional ailments. From outburst of anger and sadness for example or maybe physical symptoms like being run down to the point of illness and exhaustion.

Given the impact poor boundaries can have on your wellbeing I believe it’s important to relearn how to say NO.

The first step is to learn what your boundaries are, this is something I’ve written about in more detail here. This is easier said than done. Like a lot of people you’ve probably spent years suppressing them in order to put others first. A good place to start is to think about when you’ve wanted to say ‘no’ and didn’t. Or perhaps when something has been asked of you and you had a physical reaction telling you something wasn’t right about the request. Maybe you felt a tightness in your chest or your heart felt like it was beating faster. These are your markers of a boundary violation and your first steps and finding your boundaries. The more time you spend exploring them the more they become clear.

The second and probably the scarier part is relearning how you say no. We don’t like to say no. We feel guilty about putting our own needs first. You can’t say it like you did when you were three, with a firmness and tantrum to match. That wouldn’t get you very far as an adult. It can also be scary to start saying no to things that you have up until now said yes to. There are some simple and universal phrases to play with that may help get you started in your journey to a confident no.

‘That doesn’t work for me’

‘I’m not going to be able to do that going forward’

‘This isn’t OK for me’

‘This no longer works for me and I’d like to discuss a new way of ….’

When you begin to explore saying ‘no’ there is a further hill to climb. People don’t like hearing the word no. It is inconvenient to others when their ‘go to people pleasers’ no longer go out of their way to please. This can be confusing and uncomfortable. Understanding what your boundaries are is really important, knowing that your ‘no’ is an act of self care will help you manage any push back from others as they get used to your new boundaries.

Saying NO can be scary, but doing things that no longer serve us and that cause us pain is worse. There is a reason for most of us that our first word was ‘NO!’, and there is power in relearning that.

Remember, whatever you are going through you aren’t alone.

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