I was recently asked to do a presentation during my lunch break to a group of mental health professionals. I like to take my lunch breaks to eat, rest, maybe enjoy a cup of coffee. But I said “yes”.  Afterwards I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.  Why did I do that? 

Those of us who have a hard time saying “no” are usually nice, responsible people who care about the feelings of others and want to do the right thing. But is our reluctance to say “no” always based on compassion and consideration?. If you are someone who has a problem saying “no” it may be based more in fear than compassion.  I was afraid that turning my associates down might disappoint them, and that this disappointment might lead to rejection of some kind. The “monkey mind” part of my brain that is constantly on the lookout for my safety was overestimating the threat. If you disappoint others, they might not like you as much or will possibly reject you.  Saying “no” could get me kicked out of the tribe!

To avoid the potential loss of love and belonging, many of us go about our lives anticipating—and acting to prevent—other people’s feelings of disappointment. When presented with any request or obligation, our default response is “yes”. This over-responsible mindset has serious consequences.  Putting others’ needs before our own leads to stress and burnout. Watching others fail to do their fair share of the work, and feeling compelled to volunteer to fill the void leads to resentment and self-pity. If you don’t stand up for yourself, who will?

If you are ready to make a change and start to say “no” when you need to, great! I have 8 simple steps to help you get there.

Step 1: Think up a situation that you need practice saying “no” to.  Don’t pick a situation that’s too difficult. For example, I had a client whose work, school, and family responsibilities were getting in the way of her personal self-care, like going to the gym and reading. She decided that to stop agreeing to join committees at her children’s school would be a better place to begin her saying “no” practice than to stop volunteering to help solve the various problems of her extended family.

Step 2: Identify the values you would be cultivating by saying “no”.  Remember that safety and security are overvalued by the monkey mind, and that this is why you have been saying “yes” so often. My client came up with the following values: health, courage, fun/pleasure,  responsibility (to herself),  and compassion (for herself)For a list of values click here.

Step 3: Identify the monkey mindset that is getting activated. This is what my client came up with: I am responsible for other peoples’ feelings. If I set a limit that upsets someone, it is my fault.  If I upset someone I may be abandoned and alone. For a list of over-responsible assumptions, click here.

 Step 4: Identify an expansive mindset to counter your monkey mindset. My client came up with: It is not my responsibility to keep people happy at the expense of expressing myself. Saying no and setting limits is part of good self-care. If I am abandoned by someone, I need to learn to cope with this and not live in fear of it happening. Remember, you don’t need to believe it at this point, but it does need to sound true to you. Click here for a list of possibilities.

 Step 5: Identify your Safety Strategies.  These are the things you do to keep the worst from happening—in my client’s case, keeping people from feeling angry or abandoning her. Her standard safety behaviors were: Say “yes” before I even think; Over explain why I can’t do it.  Make up an excuse or even lie about why I can’t do it.

Step 6: Identify your Expansive Strategies. These are usually the opposite of your safety strategies.  My client came up with: SayLet me think about this and get back to you.” Say “no” without over explaining or making a huge excuse.  It can be very useful to role play saying “no” using your new expansive strategies with a supportive friend or family member.

Step 7: Identify —and accept—the emotions your new strategy brings up. Whenever you behave in a way that challenges the monkey mind’s agenda of safety and security, you are going to be hit with negative emotions.  They are a call to action, Something is wrong, do something!

Expect these feelings and remind yourself that they are necessary for you to grow in your desired direction of better self-care. Using the welcoming practice is a powerful tool to help you to tolerate them.

Step 8:  Reward yourself!  This is a very important step so please don’t leave it out.  Whether or not you actually disappoint others when you say “no”, the negative emotions and scary rejection scenarios in your head can feel like punishment. To counter this, review your expansive mindsets and strategies, steps 4 and 6, and check off the ones you tried. Then pat yourself on the back. Saying “no” is hard work—and crucial work—to make a stronger, healthier and ultimately happier you!



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