Top-Ten Reasons We Don’t ‘Just Say No’

One of the most-repeated catch phrases of the 1980s was, “Just say no,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to Nancy Reagan’s oversimplified solution to America’s drug problems.

Those of us who have felt pressured to reciprocate favors, take on extra tasks at work, down one more JELL-O shot at a party, perform menial elementary-school tasks, help acquaintances move and/or bleach a son’s baseball pants an hour before the game know that Nancy’s advice is easier said than done.

photo-22My sister and I were lamenting our difficulties with the word the other day. An artist and college-art teacher, she has two exhibitions coming up early next year, and will need to scale back her extracurricular to allow for studio time. She has been practicing her “No” for weeks.

For my part, I’ve had a rough couple of months, and want to keep my obligations minimal so I can de-stress. I also want the freedom to visit the sons who have left the roost.

After comparing notes about our challenges, we contemplated why so many of us have difficulty turning down requests. And so, I came up with 10 different reasons why “NO” can seem the hardest word (sorry, “Sorry”):

1. We see a genuine need and want to handle the request. It feels good to feel helpful and useful, and even – depending on the demand – to be a hero.

2. We think we’ll enjoy the task or opportunity, and it’s worth jamming up our schedule to take it on. Fair enough. We just need to remember not to complain about how busy we are afterwards. No one wants to hear us whine about our own bad choices.

3. We worry that “No” will hurt our careers. Oftentimes, we must say “Yes,” even when the task seems heinous or overburdens our workload. It’s important to appear ambitious, hard-working and part of the company team. However, as Jim Carrey pointed out in the 2008 film, being a Yes Man has its downside, too. No one should serve as a doormat.

4. We fear that if we say “No,” we’ll lose future opportunities. Those with freelance careers understand this all-too-well. If you turn down a job, the potential employer must find someone else to take it. And if that someone else does it better, faster or cheaper, they will get the repeat business. As such, last summer, I completed an editing job at 6 am on a Swedish-hotel computer, just to ensure I would get the next assignment.

5. We over-estimate the time we have available for the additional task, or underestimate the time it will consume. I think most of us have, at one point or another, erred in this area. A few years back, some foreign friends asked me to read their daughter’s master’s thesis, which she needed to write in English. I had no idea that the thesis would top 10,000 words on a complicated subject. I might have said “No” or set a fair price if I had foreseen the favor’s scope.

6. We need to be needed. Face it, when someone asks us for a favor, tells us they value our expertise or could trust only us with the task, we feel flattered. I think this is especially true for those who swap careers for diaper duty.

7. We want to forge a relationship – either business or personal – with the person needing our help. My husband agreed to help me with a fly-fishing article when we were “just friends.” See what I mean?

8. We want to maintain good relations with the person making the ask. Perhaps this explains the high teenage-pregnancy rate. Let’s attribute some drug and alcohol overdoses to this, too. However, it can be true for people of all ages, particularly parents. In fact, my sister just pointed out that my son’s request for a new car falls into this category. (She’s right, of course.)

9. We feel guilty leaving friends/associates high and dry. Here’s where it gets especially tricky. Being asked for a favor doesn’t make us obligated to perform it.  If the friend in need can’t find another sucker, it’s their problem, not ours. Repeat after me: “Sorry, but I can’t do it.”

10. We want people to think we are “nice,” and “nice” people do not say No. Several books have been written on this aspect of “No,” so instead of elaborating, I’ll just link to a few here, here and here.  However, I’ll offer this recent example:

This past Saturday, my daughter and a friend had tentative plans. Since my husband wanted to watch a late-afternoon football game, I suggested Pea, the friend and I go to a movie at that time. She suggested a film we both wanted to see, and the friend countered with a film Pea had no interest in. She agonized over her reply, not wanting to hurt the friend’s feelings.

“Look, if you really don’t want to see that other movie, don’t agree to it,” I coached. “Reply again with the movie you want to see, or another idea, and make sure she knows you aren’t interested in her choice.”

“What if I tell her that something came up and I can’t go?” Pea asked. “I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

“No, if you come up with a lame excuse of not being able to go out, and then run into her at the multiplex theatre, it will be even worse,” I said. I explained that this way, if the friend was adamant about her choice, she could invite someone else, as could Pea.

Pea and I ended up at the movie alone. (We loved it.) She is just thirteen and dealing with middle-school girls right now. My hope is that helping her learn “No” now will come in handy when she’s dating, as well as later, when she’s an employee, a spouse and a parent.

–       Linda Williams Rorem, 16 Sept. 2013

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  1. I stopped feeling guilty long ago for saying “No” . I believe that it’s very immature NOT to. And not all of us thought that Nancy Reagan was a joke. That simple phrase accomplished many things–you are still quoting it today, after all. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments, Denise. You’re right, guilt is not a very useful emotion. Still, I think a lot of our readers struggle with it. Hats off to you for learning to say NO without feeling it early on! And, you’re right about Nancy Reagan. She did make a strong impact and she had legions of admirers. Thanks so much for reading Permission Slips.

  2. The use of “no” is a hard lesson to learn – good for you for coaching your daughter through it. After many years of being a member of the “just say no” club in order to maintain my own sanity, I find myself with all three kids in college and too much time on my hands. So some of my “no’s” will be turning to “yes-es,” but very selectively!
    -Amy at

    • I appreciate your pointing out the flip-side, Amy. Yes — with two off at college, I’m already feeling some of the “should have” pangs. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  3. Thank you for listing my recent blog post as a related article. And I enjoyed your post, too.

    Several years ago, I participated in one session of a ten-session seminar, for free, as a guest. I do not even remember the name of the seminar. But I do remember the seminar leader’s name, the location and the seminar leader saying, “How much more freedom would you have in your life if you just said ‘no?'”

    I have good posture, but after that statement my posture was excellent! Indeed, every time I feel I AM saying yes to others, too often, I look at how much less I AM saying yes to me, or to others who may need my time and talents.

    Thank you for this post. I devoured it, but look forward to rereading it again, and soon.

    • What a wonderful perspective: saying NO is saying YES to yourself. I’m going to remember that one. Thanks so much for your kind comments, and we appreciate your readership.

      • My pleasure. I enjoyed the post very much, and I AM honored that you enjoyed my post “Why do you feel guilty?”

        And I think I shall quote you, or at least slightly paraphrase you with your aforementioned comment. I fully agree that saying “NO” to another can, at times, be a very powerful and healing way to say “YES” to oneself.

        Have a great and “YES-to-myself” day!

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