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How to say no, mean it and reduce our anger

May 7, 2011

How often do you want to say "no" to someone but you hear yourself saying "yes" instead, and you just feel so angry at yourself afterward. For some of us the problem is more dire than others. Some of us may only have a problem saying "no" to a significant person in our life while others may even have trouble saying "no" to a salesman on the telephone. Most people report feeling trapped and powerless in their own lives because they can't say "no" and I can fully understand that. The good news is that this is a learned behavior and therefore, with practice, can be unlearned.


1. Poor boundary setting ability - This is a learned behavior. What this means is somewhere along in our lives, and often during our childhood learning years, we learned it is not okay to take care of ourselves. There are a variety of ways we may have learned this. When trying to stick up for ourselves we may have been punished in some way. We may have been verbally or physically abused. Or a classic one is we were told we were selfish. If a child believes this, he or she may spend their entire lives believing that asking others for what we need is a selfish act. How sad that would be for us since we are the only ones responsible for getting our needs met, we have a right to get our needs met, and if we don't ask for what we need it is highly unlikely that anyone else will. If we experienced neglect as children, an inattention to our needs by our caretakers, this is another way in which we might learn that our needs are not important or valid. When a parent takes care of their child's needs a message is sent to the child that their needs are important. This is how a child learns to take over the job of asking for what they need as an adult. If we do not believe our needs are important, we will not ask for them to be met. And this converts into an inability to say "no", which spells disaster in our adult relationships.

Also, what is important to us is not always very clear. Often we have to spend some time thinking about that. We need to spend some time being introspective. If we believe that our needs are not important or that we are selfish if we think about our needs, we won't do it. We will, in essence, reject our needs which is the same as rejecting ourselves.

It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves and no one else's. Once we are willing to take on that responsibility, once we are willing to accept our needs as important and once we are willing to assert those needs, our boundaries will be good and then we will be able to start saying "no".

2. Fear of rejection or a need for approval - If we experienced rejection and disapproval from our caretakers as children, we can hold onto this trigger for a lifetime. Again this is a learned behavior. It is through approval and a lack of rejection from one's parents that we learn to approve of and esteem ourselves. This problem comes not from a parent disapproving of a child's behavior, but more from a disapproval and rejection of the child as a person. When we have this need for approval we may have trouble ending a conversation with a persistent salesman, or we may not be truthful or assertive for fear of offending someone or we may worry a lot about what others think of us. And we definitely will have trouble saying "no".

3. Fear of conflict - Again this is a learned behavior and often comes from our experiences as a child. A variety of experiences can cause this. One would be that when we tried to express our opinion we were put down, quieted or even abused. Our opinion was not given importance and our feelings were disregarded and minimized. This teaches the child that their voice does not matter and even that they are unimportant. It also teaches the child that speaking their mind is useless as their needs will not be responded to. And it also teaches the child that there will be some sort of painful emotional experience as a result of opening up. So we learn to avoid conflict. Since saying "no" will probably create conflict, we say "yes" instead. We will do anything to avoid conflict since we feel it will bring us pain. Avoiding pain is a huge reinforcer so we keep on doing it. We keep saying "yes" or nothing at all.


1. Anger and resentment towards others - When we want to say "no" and don't we are giving up what we want. Once in a while doing this is not a big thing. But if it is our pattern to give up what we want we will surely begin to resent those people that we give in to. We will begin to resent them for somehow forcing us to give up what we want, for holding some kind of power over us rendering us powerless to meet our own needs. We will resent them because we are not taking responsibility for the fact that we are doing this to ourselves. Or we will resent them because we believe it is their job to satisfy our needs.

2. Anger and resentment towards ourselves - The more we give power away to others, as in "Resentment towards others" above, the more we make ourselves feel helpless. We gradually feel weaker and weaker and more and more this erodes away any self esteem we might have.We become a shell of a person with no sense of who we are or what we want. We will continue of course to blame others for our problems but we do this largely to cover up the feelings of self loathing that exist for us. It is harder for us to admit to resenting ourselves than it is to focus on our anger and resentment towards others. It is more painful. So often we won't see it. It is important for us to look at our resentment towards ourselves. It is the first step in owning the fact that it is really us standing in our own way. But we don't want to do it in a self loathing kind of way. Self loathing serves only to drag us down and destroy our self esteem. Instead we need to learn to accept ourselves for our weaknesses, learn from the awareness and move forward through our fears. More on that later.

3. Increase in fear - The more we don't say "no", the more we are giving up what is important to us and the more we are giving power away to others. The process of giving power away reinforces in our mind that others have more power than us. It becomes a vicious cycle. We don't say "no" because we believe others have more power than us and because we don't say "no", it reinforces this belief. Not saying "no" increases our feelings of helplessness, which increases our fears, which increases our need to not say "no".


1.To become more successful at saying "no" when we want to we must learn to become less co-dependent. Co-dependence is an affliction that most people have to one degree or another and it basically involves believing that the power in our lives lies in something outside of ourselves (eg. another person, a drug, the car we drive, etc.) rather than in ourselves. Because of this belief we constantly give power away to things outside of ourselves in our thinking and in our actions. We give this outside source responsibility for us in many ways. Because we feel dependent on this outside source we may feel excessively needy of it or we may fear it and put up a wall to protect ourselves from it. Either way we are giving it too much power in our life. This is the main problem that stops us from saying "no" - the power we give away to the outside source.

2. Learn to empower ourselves - So we must learn to do exactly the opposite of #1 above. Basically it requires that we change our belief system. This will require first an awareness of how our thinking involves giving power away to others. Next we will have to turn our thinking around to believing that the power in our lives lies within us. This will require taking full responsibility for our lives and believing that only we can fulfill our own needs, only we can make ourselves happy, etc. This can be a very scary transition, but a very freeing one as well. More on this below.

3. Learn to approve of ourselves - For many the inability to say "no" is rooted in a need for approval from others. There is no such thing as "self approval" for these people and the primary source of validation of one's self must come from others. Our self esteem would be dependent on what others' think of us. How terrifying to be that emotionally dependent on others. The sad truth is that many people are very dependent on peer approval through their teen years and into adulthood. We are lucky if we learn to overcome this dependency in our adult years. Some of us are emotionally dependent because we were abused as children and as a result developed a very low opinion of ourselves. We learned to see others as more capable or knowledgeable than us. Therefore we follow them. Some of us are dependent on others for a sense of our value because we were taught by our parents things like, "What the neighbors think of us is important". We learned to fear how we would look in other people's eyes. We feared that we would not fit in. So we never learned to be ourselves and value who we were. In many ways our culture does not support valuing our own individualism. To learn to do this requires separating ourselves from the pack enough to develop our own personality, have some accomplishments, and develop some of our own self confidence.

4. Be responsible for our own happiness - Once we are willing to take responsibility for our own happiness, then it will no longer be difficult to say "no". Once we are willing to take responsibility for our own happiness, then we will be fully willing to understand and own what it is that will make us happy. We will be willing to develop the awareness of what will make us happy. We will be willing to disconnect from the pack enough to allow us to build this awareness. We will let go of needing or wanting someone else to do the work of making us happy. Instead of seeking approval from others as a road to our own happiness, we will understand that seeking approval from others stands in the way of us accomplishing our own happiness. We will want our own happiness more than we will want approval from others. Therefore we will begin to say "no" when saying "yes" will stand in the way of our happiness.

5. Let go of the fear of loss - To be more successful at saying "no" we must deal with the fear that blocks us so often from doing it and that is the fear of losing something. It may be a fear of losing status, or a friend or a significant other, or companionship or some material thing. Whatever it is, it is usually the fear of losing something which prevents us from acting on our own behalf, asking for what we want and saying "no" to what we don't want. We tend to want to hang onto what we have, for good or bad, because it is known to us and therefore gives us a sense of security. The thought of living without something creates fear because it is the unknown. Usually once we get to the "unknown", it is not hardly as awful as we imagined it and it often gives us a sense of relief and freedom to be there. Allowing ourselves to deal with this fear by making decisions and allowing ourselves to focus on how we are empowering ourselves while we do it can help us reduce or eliminate the fear as we move through it.

6. Start with small things - Many people, if they have a problem with saying "no", have the problem with more than one thing, perhaps many things. For instance, they may have trouble saying "no" to the pesky salesman that calls them on the telephone all the way up to saying "no" to their significant other with many things in between. On a scale from one to ten some of these things might be a one in difficulty to change and some might be a three and some might be a ten. Pick the things that pose the least difficulty in changing for you and practice saying "no" to them first. Say "no" to the person outside the grocery store asking for money, whether it be a homeless person, a person working for a charity or a girl scout asking you to buy some cookies. Say "no" to the salesman calling you at dinnertime. Say "no" to the solicitor showing up at your front door. The important thing here is to say "no" and mean it. Do not hesitate. Do not make excuses for saying "no". Just say "no" and hang up, close the door or walk towards your car. Yes, it's perfectly okay to say "I'm sorry, no" as a more polite way of saying "no" but make sure in your mind that you are not apologizing for your opinion. Be strong in your mind about your right to say "no". Continue gradually working on saying "no" to more and more difficult things. You will see how easy it becomes as you practice and how the world does not come to an end. Allow yourself always to feel good about yourself for saying "no". Validate yourself for your feelings and for learning to take care of yourself. Expect some backlash from those that know you and are used to you saying "yes". But don't back down.

Lorraine Watson

Lorraine Watson is a licensed therapist in California with extensive experience in the areas of anger management, nonabusive relationship skills and trauma. She is the author of "Expressing Anger Nonviolently". The contents of that book can be viewed on our website at

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