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Two Big Signs That You Need To Say No More Often

Emily Roberts, M.A., LPC
By Emily Roberts, M.A., LPC
Emily Roberts, M.A., LPC, is an NYC-based psychotherapist, parenting consultant, educational speaker, and author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are. She received her master’s in counseling psychology from St. Edward’s University.
Photo by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy

Two of the most common ways people subvert their own emotions are through people-pleasing and passive-aggression—two different sides of the same coin, both of which are equally dangerous in different ways. They're both ways of saying yes when you really mean no.

The way you communicate with others has a direct correlation to your physical and mental health. I've spent a majority of my career teaching assertiveness, which is the key to building and maintaining healthy relationships, as well as cultivating self-confidence. When you express your wants and needs with others, it allows them to hear you and help. When you hold back or suppress what you are feeling, you are the one that suffers.

What happens when you can't say no? 

If you struggle with people-pleasing—saying yes because you want to be nice, caring, or unoffensive—people will continue to ask for more. If you communicate using passive-aggression—saying yes begrudgingly or while complaining to everyone else but the person asking—then you become the nexus of super-negative energy. The person who is aggravating you doesn't know what they're doing is wrong because you haven't said anything to them. The only thing that changes is your level of stress and frustration, which hurts you in the long run.

When we avoid speaking up and expressing how we feel or what we need, we are sabotaging our self-esteem and allowing negative feelings to build up internally. For example, passive-aggressive people withhold expressing their emotions due to fear, even though they may not even be aware of this. Often people who suppress their feelings are afraid of asking for what they need or expressing their emotions. Passive-aggressive people can't muster the confidence within themselves to be straightforward and earnest, and so they express their feelings via an angry rant on social media or by complaining to someone else, leaving a note, or blaming another person for their emotions. If they express themselves in these indirect or halfhearted ways, they at least feel a tiny sense of relief—though it never equates to feeling satisfied or allowing others to know how they really feel. These people end up having more resentment and repressed anger, which leads to more stress on the body from holding in their feelings.

Both people-pleasers and those who are passive-aggressive displace or repress their emotions, which leads to more physical, mental, and emotional distress. And we know that when stress goes untreated, it builds up internally1, leading to more anxiety, depression, interpersonal conflicts, and physical strain on the body's ability to cope.

Passive-aggressive people are also often more pessimistic and have a negative view of the world. In psychology we know that negative thinking leads to less motivation whereas positive thinking has been scientifically linked2 to longer lives, lower rates of depression, increased immunity, and reduced risk of cardiovascular illness.

You're not helping anybody by ignoring your no.

People-pleasing in particular can be a tricky trap because it prevents you from focusing on yourself and your needs, which in turn ends up hurting the very people you care about.

Think of the mom or dad who puts their family first. At first it seems commonplace to put children ahead of your own self-care, but over time, you begin to create stress and avoid your own personal health and hygiene, and it leads to frustration nobody understands. This kind of behavior—pushing yourself to the limit and putting yourself last, which is the same as saying yes over and over when you need the no—can lead to tremendous stress within the body and mind.

Therein lies the problem: It may seem like it's the selfless thing to do, caring more for your family and friends than yourself, but continually ignoring your own health and wellness in an attempt to satisfy others can lead to chronic stress and its litany of adverse health effects. Your body and brain never get a rest, which we know leads to physical burnout and emotional exhaustion. That makes you less effective to yourself and the people you are caring for.

People can't help if they can't hear you.

The way you communicate informs people how to treat you and is a direct mirror for how you feel about yourself. If I give in to the colleague at work who wants me to do something that I don't have time for, what message am I giving off? That I am available. She doesn't know that she's annoying me or that I have so little time, and she will continue to ask me to do things I have no time for. But if I keep "giving in" because of my fears, I burn myself out—all while also building resentment. It will happen again because the person asking has no idea the issues and problems they are creating for me. So the cycle progresses, and I am the only one who suffers. 

When you give in to others' demands, you are expressing that you don't value your time or feel worthy of respecting yourself. If you don't speak up for yourself, it gives others the impression that you have little self-respect. The same is true when you express yourself in a flippant or aggressive manner; people stop listening and lose respect. However, when feelings are effectively communicated, others hear you. This creates healthy relationships and increases confidence to manage feelings and builds self-esteem.

"What if someone gets mad at me?"

Being assertive means asking for what you want or need in a way that respects both you and the other party. Many clients I work with worry about hurting people's feelings if they act assertive; they think the other person will think poorly of them. These false beliefs can hinder you from getting what you want and need. Assertiveness is being kind to yourself as well as to others.

Say you are in a taxi and realize your driver is going the wrong way. Would you sit back, let him run the meter, and make you late? Would you call a friend and tell them that you're annoyed because of the driver's inability to navigate? Either way, saying nothing does not make it better. Actually, it makes it worse. A simple "Excuse me, sir, I feel like this isn't the right way; could we please go another route?" is kind and assertive. You don't overpay (which only leads to anger and resentment), and the rest of the ride is much calmer. Nobody is uncomfortable or angry, and in the end, you respected yourself and your feelings. 

Remember: Assertiveness is not aggressiveness.

How to be more assertive.

It is normal to experience people or environments that make it difficult to communicate. Becoming mindful of how these situations make us feel helps us to adopt new strategies to express ourselves and be more assertive. As a therapist, I have seen so many people feel better from developing more self-trust and confidence (and, as a result, healthier relationships). This inspired me to write my book on the topic, Express Yourself: A Teen Girl's Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are.

Assertiveness means expressing one's needs and desires in an effective and respectful manner. When we begin to integrate more assertive behaviors and effective communication into our lives, we build more self-respect and allow others to respect our time and energy.

One of the best ways to get used to asserting yourself is to write your script. This doesn't mean you need to get out a pen and paper (though that can help), but when you have a formula for asserting yourself, you feel more confident before you go into the situation.

  1. Identify how you're feeling. When you're clear about what emotion is driving your behavior, you can do something about it.
  2. Identify your goal. Even when the situation is overwhelming (talking to your boss or your overbearing mother-in-law), when you know what your goal is for the conversation you have an anchor point that keeps you from giving in or getting side-tracked.
  3. Set the scene in your mind before you say a word. Where would you have this conversation that would be most comfortable to you? How would you say it? Visualize how they might respond in the way you want them to. When we cope ahead and are mindful of how we would like the conversation to turn out, we are more likely to stay on track if it starts to deviate.
  4. Rehearse what you want to say ahead of time. Try the classic technique below for more support. Even if it's in the end going to be sent as an email or text, try to read it out loud anyway. When we hear it, we can edit or adjust our message.

This classic technique is extremely effective in asking for what you want or need from another person. The trick is, when we use an emotion or "feeling word," it grabs others' attention. They tend to listen more, and it sparks more empathy.

If you say, "I need you to ____" people often get defensive or turned off. But try this on for size: "I'm feeling worried about the presentation, so could you help me finish it up later this afternoon? I'd really appreciate an extra set of hands." Who wouldn't want to help you?

Try out this formula:

I'm feeling ____ ________, due to/because ____________. Could you please ____________?

Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Very often we worry that asking for help is a sign of weakness or that others will be critical of us. But the truth is, asking for help or changing your mind is a very common and realistic task. When others ask you for help, are you judging them or looking down on them? Probably not. Recognizing when it's too much to handle or that you need assistance is a sign of someone who is confident and assertive. You know your limits, and you value your time. People enjoy helping and look up to people who can admit that they can't do it all. It means you're human!

If others get mad because you respect yourself and your time, are they really people you want to be around or even care about what they think? These are people who will take advantage of you. The healthy relationships you have in your life are those who respect you and will understand that you can't and shouldn't do it all.

You can't be everything to everyone. At the end of the day, the most important relationship you have is with yourself. Making sure that you are respecting yourself first will allow you to be more present and positive in all of your interactions.

Emily Roberts, M.A., LPC author page.
Emily Roberts, M.A., LPC

Emily Roberts, M.A., LPC is an NYC-based psychotherapist, parenting consultant, educational speaker, and author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are. She received her master’s in counseling psychology from St. Edward’s University. The Guidance Girl is a concept she created as an innovative, powerful approach to help women and girls achieve goals and feel their best by redefining traditional therapy.