Learning to Say No

One of the most important life lessons is a simple one, learning to say no.  It starts from the beginning with your parents. If you are what is referred to as a good kid, you don’t say “no” to your parents. Unfortunately, what that does in the fullness of time is strip you of the ability to say no to anybody.

My Mother

My mother was in hindsight a person with remarkable insight. I was too young to understand that with age came great wisdom. There is the line from the movie “Ground Hog Day” that I will paraphrase. It not that God knows everything, it’s just god has been around so long he knows everything

So it goes with my mother. Age brings great wisdom through experience. But at the same time, she engaged in manipulation that worked particularly well. After all, I was just a kid.

Saying no to my mother would bring down the house, I would suffer her tears and my father’s wrath. So I would submit and never say no.

What This Does to You

Not being able to say no gets you into a whole bunch of trouble. For the most part, people understand that you will say no to them. It happens. Most of us will understand that someone saying no to us is normal. But for me, it wasn’t. Saying no would create guilt. It’s the guilt that was embedded in me from the start by both my parents. In order to be a functioning human being, you need to be able to say no without feeling guilty.

An Example

In working with others you will be asked to do things that you really want to say no to. I was working at a major Canadian bank. My boss decided that he wanted to start a structured finance unit. Now the resources available for such an effort were minimal. No staffing and no support inside the organization for the activity. I was unhappy with what I was doing and wanted a change. The new position was a gamble.

Part of what drove me was my unwillingness to say no. I worried that I wasn’t being asked, but rather was told to make the change through this open-ended question. So I said yes. The outcome was the same, eventually, I got axed for some other reasons but the failure of this initiative was one of the reasons.

I kick myself now but not saying no was just plain stupid. I would have been way better off not going along with this.


I have many examples of this kind of behavior. The inability to say no is also tied to my feelings of ambivalence.

the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.
“the law’s ambivalence about the importance of a victim’s identity”

In many instances, I don’t say no because of my ambivalence. The ambivalence makes me indecisive, so with the indecision comes the inability to say no. It’s a never-ending “do loop” that that end with creating anxiety. The anxiety results from just hanging there no knowing what to do.

It’s all tied together and very difficult to unravel. You’ll find a lot about all this if you do a search on the Internet. But it all is of very limited usefulness. The reason for this is that a lot of time is used explaining the issue. Can’t say no. anxiety, ambivalence, etc. There is very little that you can read about how to deal with these situations in your life. There’s all feel good statements that fail to get you out of it.

The things that your parents imprint on you are difficult to change. In my case, I was trained to live for others and not for myself. This was part of the not so subtle training on how not to say NO. You’re personality and your very being is then subjugated to the will of others. You cannot say no at first to them and then to others. It’s a horrible situation to put your child in.

In my opinion, children need to be encouraged to learn to say no gradually. Of course, your children need to understand that you’re the adult and that until they are you have the final say. But you can help them practice saying no but not shaming them or use guilt to get them to always say yes. This can start with the things that they don’t like to eat, the games they don’t like to play. Gradually. It also does wonder for self-esteem when you feel that you are in control of your own life.

So My Task

So my task here is to do self-help analysis to make me feel better. If my readers can benefit from my experience and learnings that would be a definite added bonus.