4 Reasons I Struggle To Say No & How I'm Overcoming Them

mbg Contributor By Sebene Selassie
mbg Contributor
Sebene Selassie has studied Buddhism for over 30 years and received a bachelor's from McGill University in Religious and Women’s Studies and a master's from the New School, where she focused on cultural studies and race.
Distressed woman against colorful background
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I've never been good at saying no. People pleasing, compulsive compassion, Wonder Womaning, Parker Posey party girling, and exaggerated empathy have long led to cycles of overdrive followed by burnout. These imbalanced ways of reacting to the world are definitely learned behavior.

Growing up, I got plenty of messages about being a caretaker and putting others first while also being successful and sexy-Enjoli (look it up, millennials). But I am a grown-ass woman now and am learning to say no. My friend Maria uses the phrase "Inner No-ing." I say, say yes to Inner No-ing. "No" is a complete sentence.

Why I've struggled to say no.

But why is it so hard to say it? And mean it? For me, there are a few things operating (they feed into and on each other):

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1. The need to please.

This one is my kryptonite. I have a voracious need for approval. It's wound up closely with No. 2 but is more outwardly focused—it's about the actions I take more than the messages I receive/interpret. In the past, the need to please had me accepting almost every invitation that I received.

2. Fear of rejection.

It's embarrassing how much positive feedback buoys me and how much criticism cuts. I'm not the only one: I have a friend who remembers nothing of the multiple good reviews written about her artistic project from 20-plus years ago, but she can quote entire sentences from the one bad review (from a shitty publication). The need to belong is wired into us for survival. And maybe it's been taken a little too far—we will not be eaten by wild animals if we don't go to someone's birthday gathering.

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3. FOMO, aka greed

"Fear of missing out" is really an acronym for greed. And greed is really a not-so-smart strategy for dealing with the impermanence and unreliability of life. If I distract myself with all the things to do, the things to visit, the things to read/watch/eat/consume, maybe that will keep suffering at bay (um, nope). A smarter strategy is, as Suzuki Roshi describes, "accepting that things go away."

4. The pull of culture and my own conditioning.

The Buddhist path (or any spiritual practice) is described as "going against the stream." That's how the Buddha described it 2,600 years ago, and there was no social media then. Now it's like going against the tsunami. It's hard not to be pulled by the messages of our time, including hyperproductivity and overwhelm as norms (even badges of pride).

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Where I'm focusing my no's.

Here are four areas where I am focusing my no's (and they are also messily interrelated):

  1. No to obligations: not saying yes to things out of guilt or shame.
  2. No to (the need for) confirmations: not needing approval for every decision.
  3. No to distractions: not allowing my attention to get hijacked by the priorities of others.
  4. No to compulsions: not allowing my decisions to be determined by unhealthy habits and patterns.

All of these require me to cultivate awareness and presence, which requires me to slow down, which requires me to create space and time for meditation or other contemplative practices. "No" requires pausing. Pausing is a radical "no."

As a young adult, I explored transgressive spaces and acts and was exposed to boundary-pushing in every domain. I remember wondering at 19 or 20 what (if anything) would seem truly radical once all the boundaries had been challenged in work and art and sex and life?

Today, the most radical act I can imagine for myself is to love myself with abandon, to indulge in self-care with no sense of guilt or obligation. No consuming. No constructing. No compulsion. Just being—followed by a long nap.

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