No thanks, if that’s ok with you: a people-pleaser’s (ongoing) guide to saying no
Despite being tied for the 2nd shortest word in the English language, saying the word “no” is curiously difficult for many of us.
Once we recognize the uncomfortable reality that time doesn’t seem to give a shit about us, we can begin to explore possible solutions. More specifically, we can find ways to make our time more meaningful, and one of the best paths to meaningful time is learning to say no.
We touched on this briefly when we attempted to solve the problem of burnout, but more broadly speaking the inability to say no can contribute to many issues throughout life. Nearly any skill that requires focus (which is probably all of them) can benefit from a strong wielding of the word.
While the inability to say no is the bane of all people-pleasers on the planet (a fan club I’m both a card-carrying member of and also the president), this problem also afflicts people beyond this category. So today, we dive into a few reasons why we can’t seem to say no, why it hurts so bad sometimes, which types of no’s are the worst, and how we can improve.
Why Saying No Hurts So Badly #1 – Evolution
When it comes to conquering the world, we’re something of a big deal. What’s impressive is we’ve managed to do it with very little physical prowess. Chimps top out at the height of most 4th graders, and they could rip your arms off. Throw a dart at a world map, and you have only a 20% chance of sticking it in a place that wouldn’t leave you dead within an hour.
Yet here we are, leaving our indelible mark on the world. We’re even doing a decent job of cluttering the galaxy, which is no small feat. How we got here is unnecessarily complicated for today’s topic, but we can zero in on one main advantage. Most notably, what we lack in the physical, we make up for in the mental. Considering we spend so much time killing each other, it’s easy to forget we are pretty great at cooperating (sometimes even cooperating to kill each other).
These tight social bonds we form are critical to our success and survival. Cooperation got us the throne, so evolution has made damn sure that we’re rewarded for it. Without social interaction, we get physically sick, which is evolution’s cheeky way of saying “fall in line or die.”
Fitting in feels positively amazing. Being a desired part of the team is a delicious experience. Conversely, not being a part of that team feels like actual death because that could be the result. Being cast out is a significant problem, so our minds work overtime to ensure it doesn’t happen.
And so it is that we run into our first hurdle in saying no: it’s usually an unpopular thing to say. Will it get you ejected from your group? Probably not, but maybe. That “maybe” is generally more than enough to keep us in line.
Fitting In: Morphine for the soul
When we say that being seen as a helpful cog in the machine of society can be euphoric, we have some science to back that up.
In Matthew Lieberman’s book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect” the author points to several studies highlighting “separation distress vocalizations” in mammals. Because mammals are useless at birth, they need a way to signal that they need help. The caregiver goes away, the baby makes a sound, and the caregiver returns.
Going deeper, we can see that separation produces the stress hormone cortisol, and if severe enough, we start to see long-term social and cognitive deficits in the growing brain. For example, separating a child from a parent (physically or emotionally) can sometimes lead to learning deficits and elevated cortisol levels even decades later.
In the late 1970s, researcher Jaak Panksepp hypothesized that the social pain of rejection might piggyback on the body’s physical pain system and interact with natural opioids released within the body. While most people today think of drugs such as fentanyl, morphine, and heroin when they think about opioids, the body has natural opioids that it releases in times of need. The synthetic versions we find on the streets and the natural kind within us can create addictions and withdrawal symptoms all the same. Social connection acts like a painkiller while losing social connection drops the opiate levels, which lights up the body’s pain apparatus.
How did Panksepp prove his hypothesis? He mixed many people’s two favourite things: puppies and morphine. When separated from their mother (Panksepp, you monster), their distress cries were eliminated with low doses of morphine. This finding was repeated in many mammals, strengthening the idea that we need those sweet, sweet painkillers when we feel disconnected. Furthermore, these findings opened us up to the idea that social and physical pain are handled similarly within the brain and body.
So all this to say: when you find yourself tongue-tied and oddly agreeable when you should be declining something, your bodymind is trying to keep you from the legitimate physical pain of being disconnected from the group. It may be wrong in doing so, but give it a break, it’s trying to help.
Why Saying No Hurts So Badly #2 – Your parents and a bunch of other idiots
Long before you realized that your parents carry heavier emotional baggage than you do, you thought they were the bee’s knees. Even if your parents sucked–and statistically they probably did–you had to find them amazing because the alternative was terrifying. That means everything they said could be taken as gospel. You were pretty sure they knew goddamned everything. This isn’t your fault. You were a kid, and kids play stupid at the Olympic level.
For all their faults, they tried. They did their best to teach you the mysterious ways of the world. One of those lessons was undoubtedly how to fit in, and again, statistically, they probably taught you poorly. Not totally their fault though; they were taught poorly too (thanks, Grandma).
So by the time puberty rolls into town, you’re already a bit of a mess. Not fitting into your family unit feels like a life-or-death situation, but now there are peer groups, and the feeling is oddly similar. You find pretty quickly that you’ll do almost anything to fit in. You’ll be cruel, manipulative, and you’ll abandon all sense of self. You’ll drop activities you love in the blink of an eye when some moron who still picks his nose in public makes a joke about it being lame.
This is a difficult time, but again, it’s not your fault, given your terrible training and half-raw brain. Nonetheless, this is where we find ourselves. Moulded by a series of confused architects, we’re unable to question them until well after the cement has dried. So be a good person, don’t let anybody down, be helpful, be popular, and be valuable.
These aren’t necessarily bad traits, but to do them without reservation in every interaction quickly gets out of hand. You surrender your health and sanity as you abandon yourself for everybody else’s needs.
Where saying no gets even harder
Oh yes. It gets worse. The problem of saying no is often framed as being you versus the thing you agreed to but super don’t wanna. Those extra reports you decided to take on at work, or going to that party that was framed as a casual get-together, but you know at some point somebody is bringing out scented candles and a catalogue full of more scented candles, and if you don’t buy a few you’re a terrible friend. If you’re lucky it’s a sex toy party, and maybe you go home with something fun, but more than likely? Lavender.
You should say no to these things. Most people (who aren’t actively baiting you into a pyramid scheme) would agree these are not worthwhile things to do. But, as an actively reforming people pleaser, I understand how hard it can be. So hard many people will never succeed. Some of us will literally lay forever in a casket we didn’t even want, but the nice man at the funeral home was so sweet and looked like he needed a win.
There is a more challenging “no” to deliver, and it involves the things you want to do.
Life is a steady stream of experiences. Many of these experiences will probably feel like garbage, but there will be plenty of good ones. Because this stream started long before you arrived and will continue long after you end up in that gaudy over-priced casket, it’s not out of line to say the stream of experience is infinite (at least as far as you’re concerned). So put on your optimism hat because we’re going for a bit of a ride. Ready? Good shit will happen forever. FOREVER. Yeah, lousy shit too, but stop being a downer.
This means that from today until the day you die, you will be bombarded with cool, interesting, profitable, or invigorating options. To make matters “worse,” this “problem” is not getting any “better.” Just look at the flow of information we’re exposed to these days. As referenced in Johann Hari’s brilliant book “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again,” what we expose ourselves to daily is growing exponentially. A study run in 2007 comparing information flows found that in 1986, all the information that would hit a person (TV, radio, and reading) would amount to approximately 40 newspapers worth each day. By 2007, that number had jumped to 174 newspapers each day.
This was a time when social media was still in its infancy. Twitter and Facebook hadn’t taken off yet. Internet speeds were just beginning to rise to the point that YouTube could become a practical idea. To assume we’ve blown past the 174 newspapers of information each day is a reasonably safe bet.
But it’s not just news, is it? It’s every detail of existence flying into our eye holes at all hours of the day. The potential for a soul-crushing fear of missing out is at an all-time high. Even a cursory stroll through your favourite social media platform on a Monday morning will drown you in all the incredible experiences everybody had over their weekend. Never mind that you didn’t actually want to do any of those things, and you had a pretty decent weekend anyways. The fact that something happened without you can sting a little. You may find yourself wanting to do all the things.
You definitely shouldn’t do all the things
As far as tips go, this one is pretty manageable because aside from being a bad idea, it’s also fucking impossible. You could try if you wanted, but because the stream is never ending, you’ll expend all your energy only to find more and more that you didn’t get to.
A more fulfilling direction might be leaning into things you find meaningful. The rub, of course, is that we typically need time and focus to find meaning in something. Put another way, to get good at things that matter to you, you must develop blinders to the fireworks of distraction that explode outside your window 24/7.
There’s a story often attributed to super-capitalist Warren Buffet (because everything eventually gets attributed to Warren Buffet). Whether it’s true or not needn’t concern us, so treat it like a fable if you have to.
One day, a young person asks Warren how to get ultra-great at things. Warren answers that it’s a matter of priority. He asks the young person to write down 20 things that matter to him most in order of their importance. Next, circle the top three items. Those become your primary focus. Then circle the remaining 17 things and put a giant fucking X through them because they are now dead to you. And so concludes the lesson on how to get ultra-great at things.
This story is wonderful because it violently snuffs out the damaging idea that we can have it all. Oh, if we’d just learn the latest life hack or stopped watching Netflix, then we could be the incredible parent, attentive spouse, rockstar career professional, kale-eating weight-lifting superhero, and champion of our mental health that we all know we can be! Fun fact though: that person doesn’t exist. Some people are outrageously good at one of those things, and maybe a special few can even juggle a couple. But all of them? At the same time?
We so desperately comb through the autobiographies of super-successful people, trying to biopsy their triumphs for our own good. We find that behind every Steve Jobs is usually a family that wondered why they weren’t valued as highly as an iPhone to dear old dad. Do you think Jeff Bezos is teaching his kid to throw a curve ball? I’ll bet you $50 right now that Elon Musk can give you a financial rundown of his companies faster than he can tell you his children’s birthdays (a task made ever-easier as he drives everything to $0). All the great people you know and look up to are shit-in-a-ditch at most things. That’s what makes them “great.” They’ve focused on a series of things at the expense of what they deemed less necessary.
These people have mastered saying no to everything that detracts from their singular focus, even when that thing might be something most of us hold as irrefutably important (like kids). I’m not suggesting you do the same, but I am suggesting that should you be emulating them, you must also consider that they may not share your ideals.
Anybody who’s tried to have it all (which, if I had to guess, would be most of us) runs into the same problem. It’s that old bastard, Mr. Time. There are still only 24 hours in a day. You’ll need to sleep about 8 of those away to be effective. The remaining 16 hours are insufficient to conquer parenting, partnering, working, and selfing. The coldest and harshest truth here is that you’ll have to choose. It sucks, and I’m sorry. I don’t like it either. Take it up with Mr. Time.
A possible solution
So how do we do it? How do we say no in a society that has convinced us we can’t but also demands we be flawless at everything? If you stay late at your job, your kids must miss you. If you’re staying home because those same kids are sick, sorry you didn’t get that promotion, but Brian just showed a bit more dedication last quarter, so we have to reward him!
The game is rigged, and the first step to winning any rigged game is not to play at all. You can’t tell me you’ve never walked past somebody playing a carnival game and felt a little superior. It’s ok. Embrace it. You are. Now recognize that most of society is a carnival game, and you’re trying to win the impossibly big stuffed Tiger, and it will cost you everything. Leave the tiger. It’s a ridiculous monument to your ego, and even if you manage to win it, everybody will laugh at you as you try to fit it in your car.
A vital tool to say no is finding a way to give less of a damn about what people think. Your peers, family, co-workers, and boss are probably (hopefully) all fine people, but at certain junctures, we must release our need to impress them. If you’ve ever explored the idea of breaking through a midlife crisis, you may have heard about reconnecting with your authentic self and living for yourself instead of everybody else for a change. You must listen to your bodymind to find what you truly need.
Like everything else, this is far easier said than done. The problem of not caring what people think is tightly related to the problem of saying no. Caring what people think is the reason we can’t say no in the first place.
To stop caring what other people think so we can deliver a decisive “no,” we turn to Mark Manson. If you don’t know who Mark is, you’ve probably seen his influence in your local bookstore. You know how every self-help book has to have an edgy curse word in it, cleverly censored with an asterisk? If you’ve ever had to sheepishly walk a book called “How to Use Excel Like a F*cking Boss” up to the till, you have Mark to blame. He started that trend with his book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.”
Mark’s solution for how to say no is this: what you do has to matter more than other people’s opinions. It has to move you deeper; you won’t care what people say once it does. As he says, if you and a group of friends pass a burning building but only you notice a child inside, you’ll run in even if all your friends call you an idiot as you do. They don’t see the bigger picture as you do because they’re missing critical information. Their words don’t matter as much when your actions are so necessary.
So does this mean you have to rearrange your entire life and discover your higher purpose right this very moment? Not necessarily (although if you want to give that a stab, I won’t discourage you). You can start by just noticing the healthy things you do in your life and recognizing how they affect you. For example, if you don’t already, start giving your sleep twice the attention you currently do. Pay close attention to how you feel after poor sleep and good sleep. Watch how problems seem to mysteriously arise after the former and how problems mysteriously fail to capture you after the latter. After a few weeks of this, you may find your relationship with sleep begins to change, and you find it matters to you more deeply.
This doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly be able to turn down your coworkers who ask you out for a late night after work, but you might find turning down their request a little bit easier. This is the first step to proving you can prioritize yourself when needed. From there, we can tackle more and more things. What are you like when you’ve been socializing with friends? What are you like when you’ve been eating real food? What are you like when you lean into your values a little bit more?
Once you get here, we can start tackling the higher-meaning stuff. This is more difficult, but it works the same. What would it be like to try out that thing you’ve always wanted? Writing a book, building an app, learning guitar… what would life be like if you gave something like that a go?
Of course, though, who has time to follow such flippant passions? There are not enough hours in the day, and we have too much to do! In truth, you might have a bit more time than you realized because since you started saying no to more things in the name of your values, you’ve freed up more time to explore the authentic you.
Welcome to the glorious flywheel of saying no. Saying no frees up more time, and you can spend that time on what fills your cup, which gives you a higher purpose and makes saying no to more things much easier.
Saying no hurts severely for two reasons: evolution and your parents. First, evolution deemed full cooperation necessary for survival in the super dangerous caveman-eat-caveman world we developed in, so saying no could’ve been legitimately deadly. Your parents, meanwhile, still felt a hint of that evolutionary pull, so they taught you to conform to a society that also demands fierce obedience.
Not only is the world no longer so deadly that we must band together in the night to fight off the lions, but the rapid development of communication has ensured that we’re bombarded with requests and options all day long. As a result, saying no is now not just an option but a necessity.
It’s one thing to say no to things we don’t want to do, but it’s quite another to realize that saying no is a skill that is probably more important in the realm of things we might wish to take on. We require time and focus to succeed in anything, which are quickly drawn from us through our phones and other digital connections to the world.
One possible solution to this mess is to spend considerable time finding the thing that fills your cup with meaning. Working on something bigger than yourself can leave you feeling aligned, and suddenly you may find the constant requests for your attention (both internally and externally) become much quieter and easier to manage.