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The Psychology of Saying No

I recall a time at work when I was asked to take on yet another project. My schedule was already packed, and I knew it meant working late nights. The weight of the word 'yes' hung heavy on my tongue, but the thought of saying no filled me with dread.

A tree trunk with 'Just Say No' written on it.
Photo by Andy T on Unsplash

The insane pressure that can be felt when wanting to say no and not upset someone can be overwhelming.

Why is the evolution of our decision-making process, strung on the opinion that if we say no, bad things will come?

How does past actions influenced by negative biases, irrational reason, sudden emotions, and skewed memories​​ mean that 'yes' is always the better response that leads to greater outcome, even if it means being mentally and physically exhausted?

Well, I decided to look into it more.

Here's two interesting learnings I found when researching cognitive and emotional processes in decision-making:

  1. Familiar situations often lead to fast, automatic decisions based on experience. In contrast, unfamiliar situations require more time to weigh benefits and risks, increasing the likelihood of mistakes and negative consequences.

  2. Decision-making can be stressful, involving emotions like panic, fear, and self-doubt. Effective decision-making requires clear thinking, setting priorities, and committing to a choice​.

So the takeaway from these learnings are that if you've experienced negative outcomes from a decision in the past, saying no is easier, but if you haven't and you have no time to think about it, you're more likely to say yes through panic and poor reactions.

Therefore, (also backed by point 2), you should always give yourself some thinking time to weigh up the risk to award ration before saying yes. Especially with big or unfamiliar decisions.

So actually, it could be a self awareness or understanding issue. Perhaps, saying no isn't just about refusal. It's about knowing yourself, your limits.

Maybe it's also a self-acceptance problem too and that you should start valuing your time and well-being more over the fear of resentment that could come from saying no.

I remember the day not so long ago, when I reached a tipping point. Exhausted, I realised that I had been equating saying no with failure. It dawned on me that respecting my limits was not a weakness but a form of self-care and strength.

Overcoming The Barriers to Saying No

The fear of rejection, or rejection sensitivity, is an obstruction to our success and happiness which impacts our emotional well-being, interpersonal relationships, and psychological functioning.

Fear of rejection annoyingly influences our self-perception, decisions, and pursuits of our goals.

It's engraved in our psychological makeup to avoid pain at all costs, and our minds see rejection as emotional pain.

Fun Fact: Painkillers can reduce the emotional pain caused by social rejection, indicating that rejection is indeed a painful experience.

So what can you do to overcome the barriers to saying no?

Well, it's not going to be easy.

Like all fears, the most effective way to handle them is to face the fear head-on, learning to be comfortable with discomfort.

Now, the main solution is to understand that saying no doesn't mean you are failing others.

Instead, see it as you are respecting yourself.

People who are good at saying no often have unshakable self-awareness, understanding their values, priorities, and limitations, developed through introspection and self-evaluation.

They have the courage to face discomfort, and clearly understand that saying no can lead to uncomfortable situations, but it is ESSENTIAL for healthy boundaries.

The ability to handle guilt, and knowing that feeling guilty is natural but not letting it dictate actions, is important​.


So, here's my message: Saying no is not just a word. It's a journey towards self-respect and empowerment. It's tough at first, but trust me, it's worth it. Learn to embrace the power of no and regain the love for everything that makes you, you!

Saying no is a declaration of self-respect.

As I share my journey, I invite you to reflect on your own. Think about the times you said yes when you wanted to say no. What held you back? Comment your story for others to know they are not the only ones who struggle with saying no.


Thanks for reading.

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