The simple answer is that people can’t say no when they are afraid of the judgement of others, when they think they have to earn love, acceptance, and respect from others by putting them first, or when they have a deep seated need to seek approval from others. In other words, when they do not value themselves enough and their self-worth is tied to what they think others think of them.
The more complex reason is because their childhood experiences of being parented conditioned them into conforming. Their experiences of society provided constrained choices about how to live life and express themselves so they had a limited option to say no. And they were never taught how to say no in the various contexts that we have to say no in and deal with the guilt, doubt, and fear that comes with saying no. Together, these issues distorted their sense of self-worth and robbed them of their ability to express their true selves.
But to really understand these more complex reasons to really answer the question, why can’t I say no to anyone, we have to dig a little deeper into these reasons. After all, without knowing these deeper reasons we cannot address them to breakthrough these personally damaging patterns of behaviour.
We can’t say no because of our childhood experiences of being parented
It is obvious that our parents or caregivers had a huge impact on us. And no matter how hard they tried, and while some may have been better than others, they could never get it right all the time. Instilling a sense that we should not say no is one of the more common issues parents pass down to their children.
All parents want their children to be well behaved. To achieve this the child needs to conform. Conformity is achieved by trying to get the child to do what we want, i.e. not to say no to expectations, requests, or demands. This is not abusive or manipulative, rather it is part of good enough parenting, providing those expectations, requests, and demands are age appropriate, reasonable, and provided with sufficient flexibility to allow the child to conform in a way that allows them to express themselves within those boundaries.
The problem is that parenting in this way is extremely hard. Add in work pressures, money worries, relationship issues, a lack of social support, a lack of knowledge and experience of such parenting, siblings, developmental stages, and all the other every day issues that families face and this task becomes even harder to achieve.
Some of us have experienced authoritarian - or strict - parenting, which provides a high degree of expectations and demands with significant consequences for failure to conform to them. These consequences can range from implicit displeasure to outright forms of abuse and maltreatment. At the heart of all of these behaviours are, however, a clear message that you are not allowed to say no and saying no results in you being unloved and unaccepted as a worthy human being with the right to express yourself, your ideas, and feelings.
Others have experienced a much more uninvolved - or neglectful - form of parenting that does not provide effective boundaries that allows the child to learn who they are or gain a sense of self-worth at home. Instead, the child feels lost, and without a clear foundation for their sense of self, seeks the approval and acceptance of others to gain a sense of connection and belonging.
Others still have experienced a more engaged form of parenting but that the roles in the relationship are inappropriate. This may be because the carer is suffering in some way, has unresolved personal issues, or they feel particularly insecure that the child becomes a source of support, resolution, or self-esteem. The child can start to take responsibility for the carers wellbeing, feeling pressured to make them feel good by putting the carers needs before their own, and being praised for it. ‘Our …. Is such a good girl. She is so helpful and always thinking about others.’ However, always thinking about others leaves the child unable to think about what he/she wants and what he/she is entitled to.
The result of all of these caregiving experiences is that a person learns that they are not loved, accepted, and respected simply for being who they were. They were rejected, told - in various ways and means - that expressing themselves is bad and wrong, and that to gain a place in the family, and in the hearts of those they know and love most dearly, is by earning their affections by conforming and performing to expectations.
We can’t say no because of our experiences of society
Societal expectations obviously exist within families, and parents and caregivers pass on societal messages to their children. But that is not the whole story. Strong messages about how to behave, who to be to gain approval and acceptance within society exist in schools, religions, sports and social clubs, friendships groups, conversations with people we hardly know, the media, and the messages from famous people or politicians. We soon learn the consequences for failing to conform to these expectations.
Some feel indirectly excluded, such as by not being included in messages, images, and stories that are shown and told in class, in discussion, or in the media. Such exclusion gives the message that certain types of people do not belong. For many, the answer is not to say no to try and earn acceptance. This simply hides who they really are to try and gain inclusion.
Others feel more directly excluded, through being judged and criticised and blocked from engaging in things that would allow them to express themselves authentically. You may not be allowed into certain places wearing certain clothes, people may turn their backs on people who speak in certain ways, others may not let people into friendship groups simply because they don’t like some aspect about them. However it is done, direct exclusion is painfully rejecting and can lead people to consciously or unconsciously start to conform to gain acceptance and belonging.
Others still may experience an even more painful form of exclusion via being shamed and humiliated by others for not conforming. These experiences are much more direct in their rejection of the person for who they are, rather than aspects of their behaviour. They are a clear rejection of them as a person and a clear message that they are undeserving of the rights and privileges, such as information and companionship on one end of the spectrum to personal freedom and choice on the other, that the social group provides. Public shaming and humiliation does serious damage to a person’s reputation and social standing in the group, which limits their ability to interact and express themselves as they desire. The message is clear: do not say no and conform or be condemned and constrained.
Some people can’t say no to anyone because they fear the consequences. Add in to this the very real, everyday, struggles of money worries, job insecurity, family problems, relationship issues, and inherent differences between people and these consequences become an ever present threat for failing to conform because for most people most of the time it isn’t even possible to.
We can’t say no because we aren’t taught to say no
While a skill is defined by many as a general ability, after Fischer spent time studying it he argued that a skill is instead an ability to do something in a particular context. So we may not have a problem saying no when we are babies but our context changes as we get older we need to develop new skills to be able to say no within these new contexts. I may be able to say no to my younger sister but much less able to say no to my boss at work. I may be able to say no to my friend but I might not be able to say no to my partner, for example.
How many times in your life have you been taught how to say no? I would guess that is close to zero. It isn’t that you do not have the capacity to say no - it is after all one of the simpler words in the English language. It is managing the emotions that come with saying no that is hard to do. So it is easier to say yes than feel guilty for saying no. It is easier to go along with things than to feel rejected. It is easier to do things we do not want to do than to feel uncomfortable.
It is, therefore, probably more of a question of how many times in your life have you been taught how to understand, use, and manage your emotions? How many classes have you had that help you deal with guilt, rejection and pain? I would again guess that this is close to zero.
The consequences of not being able to say ‘no’ when we need to are many and deep (See Why The Body Says No by Gabor Mate). Mate poses the probability that people who can’t say no are far more likely to contract a serious and debilitating illness than those who are more assertive and caring of themselves. He has based this on many years of research and case studies involving people who are terminally ill with cancer, have MS, MND, Autoimmune diseases like Lupus and Vitiligo, suffering from chronic lung diseases, diabetes and many other illnesses, which nobody would consciously and willingly Invite into their bodies.
The message of Mate’s book is that if we can’t say ‘no’ the body will do it for us by becoming disabled or so ill that we cannot function as we did before. According to Mate, anger is one way of enabling you to set boundaries and say ‘No’. We have to learn how to express anger in a way which contributes to ourselves and others.
Many people, however, are afraid of their own anger. The fear is that people will not like them and they will ‘hurt peoples’ feelings’, so they swallow their anger at their own expense. They become ‘nice’ and ‘helpful’, always putting everyone else before themselves. Such actions result in a loss of the ‘self’ from the consequences of putting others first. People who follow this pattern often end up not knowing who they really are.
Each time we do not say no when we want to or know we should, takes us one step further away from who we really are and finding out what we really want and need in life. In that context, learning to say no is a vital life skill. Which is another way of saying learning to deal with our emotions is a vital life skill.
So how do I stop not being able to say no?
You need to start asking yourself some tough questions. What do you think you are entitled to? What are your ‘entitlements’? Are you entitled to be loved, respected, listened to and nurtured? Or do you feel you have to earn these privileges, and to do that you must be perfect, good, always thinking about others and looking after their needs and well-being. If so you would be absolutely incorrect.
You are entitled to all those items in that list without doing anything to ‘deserve’ them. You deserved them just by being born into this World. I spoke recently to someone who has a terminal prognosis for his cancer – and it is not too far in the distant future. I was telling him something of the above and he said – Oh that’s me. I am always doing things for people but that is where you get your sense of worth from isn’t it. I informed him that this begat a false sense of worth, that he was worthy of being loved etc just by virtue of being human. He was not convinced. But being ‘helpful’ and responding to the needs of others at the expense of his own has made him ill.
You do not earn the respect of others by having no opinion or having no boundaries. That is the path to being a doormat. You need to take care of yourself and learn to put healthy boundaries around yourself. This does not mean that you will become selfish and self-centred, although, if you do, perhaps you need to just for a while in order to adjust the balance. If you never put yourself first and always put other people’s needs before your own then you will harbour resentment and grudges which will eat into your soul.
You cannot step out of this pattern unaided. It requires a drastic change of mindset and the capacity to deal with all the feelings of doubt, guilt, and fear that will accompany this or any other change that you make. You will have to cope with the outrage and discomfort of others too as you deviate from your ‘normal’ pattern. After all they have been onto a good thing. They will attempt to pull you back into ‘being yourself’. But that was not who you are, it was who you have been led to believe you have to be in order to be acceptable and loveable.
You will need the support of others in order to do this and not slip back into self -destructive ways. Group work is excellent for this and you could look at one of our courses that would provide this for you. It is so easy to see in others what you cannot see in yourself and also to realise what others need to do about it. Much more difficult to do it for yourself. You also have group support in making changes.
Take care of yourself and you will find caring for others without feeling obliged to do so becomes more fulfilling and rewarding than you can ever imagine. And you don’t have to die or become seriously ill while doing it.