4 Reasons It’s Hard For You to Say No to People’s Requests

saying no

Is it hard for you to say, “No?” Do you feel the need to explain yourself and give reasons followed by excuses followed by more reasons? Would you be surprised if I told you that you do not need to give a reason?

All the people of the world can be divided into two groups: those who can say “no” easily, and those who cannot.

To the folks in the first group, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would have a problem with it. Like the famous line from the old movie, To Have or To Have Not, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow,” people in the first group might say, “What’s so hard about it? Start with N, and end with O.”

But for many, many people, it’s just not that simple. Saying “no” for them carries enormous baggage. This is especially true for those who grew up in households which offered them little opportunity to say no. This is a version of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

4 Reasons it’s Hard For You to Say No

  1.  Guilt: People who struggle with this often tell me that they feel guilty for hours after saying “no” to someone, even if that person’s request was unreasonable. The guilt comes from feeling that they should always be helpful and willing and that if they are not, then they are a bad person.
  2. Low Self-worth: This is a general sense that you are not as important as other people. Your needs, your feelings, come second. Others’ needs and feelings are more deserving than your own. You don’t have the right to put your own before theirs.
  3. Lack of Skill: If you have spent your entire life always saying “yes,” then you may not know how to say anything different. The idea of saying no may feel foreign and just plain wrong. How do you do it? How do you say it?
  4. False Belief: This is a false idea that you have to give a reason for saying no. If a friend asks you to pick up her dry-cleaning, do you have to explain to her the reasons why you can’t do it? Do you have a good excuse? This false belief often leads to long, detailed, unnecessary explanations.

4 Principles For Saying No

  1. All of the people in your life have every right to ask you for anything. In return, you have every right to say “no.” Your guilt will dissipate if you understand and accept your true rights.
  2. Your needs and feelings are every bit as important as everyone else’s. You are the guardian of your own feelings and needs. You have a responsibility to yourself to prioritize them.
  3. Saying “no” does not involve skill. It only involves a willingness to make yourself uncomfortable. The more you do it, the easier it will feel; not because you learned how to do it, but because you’re getting accustomed to it.
  4. You do not need to give a reason. An extension of your right to say “no” is that you can do so with no explanation, no excuse. “I’m sorry, I can’t,” “I’m not able to do it,” or just simply, “No,” are all it takes.

Read these principles over and over. Post them on your bathroom mirror. Digest them. Remember them.

For they will set you free.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how to feel more confident and honor your own needs and feelings more, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

This book was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.


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G - February 28, 2021 Reply

my experience is if
I say no to a good friend it feels like the person is disappointed and this is hard for me to live on. the person might not ask me for a favour again = translating to I might not be considered a good friend.
If I say no in not friendship related situations people seem to be surprised that I just have the guts to say no. Also makes me feel uneasy even if the saying no felt like the right thing for me.

Susan - January 25, 2021 Reply

Such a great sharing! I learn that what should I do when someone puts forward a request to me. Thank you!

Birgit - August 12, 2020 Reply

Hello and thanks for another great post.
What I struggle most with recently is not that I can’t say no, but I have difficulties establishing healthy connections. I have been open to “friends” with high degree of social incompetance and I have gone into the “helper role” for them. Now, I realize that these “friendships” steals the energy and power that I so much need for being able to stand up for my children, family and other friends. I feel like those friendships drag me down, while them before made me feel validated. How can I take back my power? I set clear boundaries with them, but only one phonecall sets me back. Any suggestions to how I can withdraw from those connections that I have established?

    Kim - August 16, 2020 Reply

    I have the same issue that you so beautifully articulated. For me, those “unhealthy connections” are rooted in the inability to say no to people with inappropriate boundaries. CEN has left me vulnerable to “helping” people who turn out to be constant takers. CEN has made it hard for me to form solid friendships with people who don’t take advantage of me. I would really like to understand how to solve the latter.

      Jonice - August 16, 2020 Reply

      Dear Kim, learning how to say no and working on your boundaries will help you form different kinds of relationships. You can do it, I’m sure.

Mac - August 10, 2020 Reply

“All of the people in your life have every right to ask you for anything.”

Do they have a right to ask me to perform sex acts on them? Is it my job to say no or is it there job to not force me into a position of having to defend myself and say no?

    Jonice - August 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Mac, if someone asks you that in an inappropriate way, it’s a signal to watch out and protect yourself. The right to ask for anything does not go that far. These are guiding principles not meant to be exploited and used against people.

Julia - August 9, 2020 Reply

Interesting! I have little bit different angle to this
* All of the people in your life have every right to ask you for anything. In return, you have every right to say “no.”
This made me think…whenever I ask anything from my mom, she almost automatically says no. Usually always followed with this explanation/excuse, because “I’m an adult”. I’m aware I’m an adult (I’m 44 years). She makes me feel quilty, as if as adults we are never supposed to need anyone for anything. Jonice, that cannot be true, can it!? I’m not “helpless”, I rarely ask for help.
As a heart-breaking example, I might for example be ill, have fever and unable to walk my dog outside and would need help with that. If I’m ill, what it has to do with the fact whether I’m adult or not? Or then she does what I asked, but usually with a “sigh” and as if what I asked was a huge burden, making me feel wrong. Is this abusive behaviour?
I’ve “learned” to become fiercely independent. Sad thought is, I wonder if that’s the reason I’m still single? I’ve read something interesting; that men actually want to be needed by women. I don’t mean being “needy” in a wrong way. Maybe men can pick that vibe from me that I don’t “need” them? 🙁 I thought (with a little bit of sense of humor), how would a man feel if I’d say “I’ll change the tyres of the car, I’ll do all the repair work at our house, I’ll buy the flowers by myself to me, I definitely don’t need you for anything….he would probably feel turned-off and totally non-masculine? :/
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this Jonice and wonderful if some man in this forum could comment too! 🙂

    Jonice - August 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Julia, I would change your sentence to “Feeling needed is a vital part of any healthy relationship.” Counterdependence can indeed get in the way of forming a deep and meaningful relationship with a healthy person.

    Kim - August 16, 2020 Reply

    I was similarly trained by my parents never to ask for help, with the underlying lesson that I would not be loved if I was not utterly self-sufficient. What I have noticed as I’ve gotten older is that asking for help & receiving it is how people form deep bonds & friendships. Making yourself vulnerable to someone, to owing them by asking for a favor, is how people reach out to each other & connect. Since I never felt I was allowed to ask, l leave people thinking I don’t want to be close to them because I never ask for help. People without CEN really want to walk your dog for you when you are sick, and for you to reach out when you need help. They were raised with compassion. Adults require all kinds of help! That’s where the phrase “it takes a village” came from. Since we have been shamed for asking for help, we are so scared to do it. Your mother’s response to your requests is toxic & cruel, though that may not be what she intends. You should be able to ask her for help even though you are an adult. And she has the right to say no, but not BECAUSE you are an adult.

      Julia - August 30, 2020 Reply

      Hi Kim!

      Thank you for your kind response. Today I really sat still and reflected (which actually feels little bit uncomfortable). In childhood we form beliefs/programming and I think it is pretty amazing that decades after as adults we still repeat them!
      In my case, it must be at some point I got this belief that asking for help and especially being a “burden” to others is a no-no. Sadly, I think I was not unconditionally accepted by my parents. I think I always had to monitor, how I should “be” for them, so that I would be liked, loved, connected and not abandoned and end up all alone (huge fear!).
      Because now if I think from adult’s perspective, neutrally (if I didn’t have this wounding) if I’d just ask help from someone and if they’d say no…then so what? 🙂 Then I can ask someone else, it’s not so dramatic.
      I think I just gained huge awareness, woo hoo! 🙂
      What always makes me feel better is to realise, that probably our parents are the “products” of their childhoods too. But of course it’s not an excuse for cruel behaviour.

Chris - August 9, 2020 Reply

Thank you I always value your articles. Not only do I have trouble saying no but I have trouble asking for help. The word please was always emphasised and used as a command in our household so I have trouble using this word. Would love an article on this.

    Jonice - August 13, 2020 Reply

    Hi Chris, perhaps “please” was used in an authoritarian manner in your family? Check out the articles I’ve written on authoritarian parents (also a parent type in the Running On Empty book.

Sebastián - August 9, 2020 Reply

Pretty sure I have a problem with this. If I only recommend one book about this subject, it would be Boundaries by Dr.’s Townsend and Cloud. If you haven’t heard of this, Dr. Webb, is worth a look! A little Bible-based, but it stands on solid psychological ground. Thanks.

    Elaine - August 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sebastián,

    Today, August 10, 2020, I literally was going to ask for a recommendation of a source if a person could give me only one, and there I saw your advice to read ” Boundaries!” Thank you so very kindly! ️


Deborah - August 9, 2020 Reply

Thank you for these principles; they will be my reference going forward. I was raised in a family that always provided some justification for declining any request. Saying “no” was never enough or even allowed at times. Aside of providing a reason, I also sought “approval” for that reason from the person making the request. People sure took advantage and said whatever to instill guilt in and/or coerce me to agree to their request. Looking back to when I was growing up, I think because I am a female, my thoughts, feelings, etc. didn’t matter; I was taught, covertly and overtly, to be selfless and always “giving.” These days, I can say “no” much more easily despite feeling guilty at times but I no longer allow that feeling change my initial decision.

    Jonice - August 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Deborah, good for you! You are an example to others that they can change too. Thanks for sharing.

GWOR - August 9, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice: Glad this section of dissection of disconnection is being addressed under life’s microscope. The purpose is to find and show all it’s relevant parts especially the stressful destructive areas within self and needing address with renewed openness.

And consequently so people can put their lives back together again much unlike Humpty Dumpty their own way for the self and learn again to love oneself the love they were denied from day one and reconnect on their own solid grounds for the self.

Yes it is okay to love oneself but when others a long time ago saw something evolving as change they would respond , you are so selfish.
No I just figured you out .

And then more doors opened without effort or the keys to the locks on life disappeared.

And If I keep serving them I am okay but having awaken they turned up the heat I had had enough both in family and employment needing fresh air .
Do not breathe on me !

Being The Only Child : No allies, no friends
For the only child whether five or seventy five as many of us as the only child as the saying goes , “ someone has (had) to do the dirty work” from answering the door while the tax collector/ Sherriff is there to serve notice of eviction.

And as I have learned the hard way losing my pension and a fantastic job a number of years ago and closer now to 75 sometimes my reaction is the same as five, “someone has to do the dirty work.“

Looking back other than losing the money I was able to totally disconnect from the industry and go in a new direction because I had the academic credentials to cross over into another area and be highly successful within both the industry & the people professionally dedicated to health & wellness .

As we grow no matter our vocation society dishes out a bad lunch to people who seem to have it all figured out finding a resolution to a solution .

No matter who or where we are we walk being aware as the only child on eggshells and as the years go by sometimes we are better off whether to say to the other, any other, “what do you think?”
This helps remarkably to lift the load to return to solid ground and just breathe normally .

It is a way of letting go and it never too early to start .

As an only child under pressure within family, friends and school before I literally ran away always on the run getting to university was a stretch at best but looking back I had to just get away.

Did it all work out well I am still here letting my internal alarms warn me of incoming and take it from there or just leave it I do not have to run anymore .

Did I reconnect well there was a book out in the 1990s called “ if it is not broke break it .”

Then I started to relearn living to live again Jonice even-though it took many years to find balance and the ways I wanted to reconnect and eliminate the entities from people, places and things called nouns to permanently disconnect.

And the book yes if it was not broke yes I broke it and recycled all of it as the ground is already toxic enough and got my entitled freedoms by breaking the disorder into a form of a living order.

So glad you are bringing this subject to the top of the triangle as all sides are equal to a resolution.
Their own, yes it is okay to love the self first then a new day begins again.

alive1 - August 9, 2020 Reply

I would like to add my thoughts on this topic.

“All of the people in your life have every right to ask you for anything. In return, you have every right to say “no.””

With all due respect, I disagree that all people in your life have every right to ask you for anything. There are limits to what you can ask of others. And in the same way, there are limits to what you can say “no” to. You do not ask your husband to allow you to cheat on him. You do not say “no” to your sister needing you to call 911 because she cannot call them herself (unable physically).

I know these are extreme examples, but just to illustrate the principle of the matter.

“Saying “no” does not involve skill.”

It does involve skill, to handle possibly ensuing conflict (either immediate or delayed conflict). It depends on situation how you handle the conflict.

“You do not need to give a reason.”

Again this depends on the situation. Sometimes you do need to give a sensible reason to not come off as a lazy sulking child or passive-aggressive. (Even if you are not being passive-aggressive by intent, it’s possible for this to be ambiguous depending on the situation, the thing that was being asked for, your tone of saying “no,” the overall relationship, etc)

I do agree with 2), I can’t add anything to that, that was perfectly put.

    Jonice - August 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Alive1, there always exceptions to every rule, especially in psychology 🙂 I am trying to provide the general rule to people who struggle with seeing it far to much the other way. When in doubt, if you remind yourself, “You have the right to say no without explanation,” it will hopefully make it easier for you to do so.

      alive1 - August 9, 2020 Reply

      Yeah, in psychology it’s definitely hard to put together real rules. :p I mentioned the above because I’ve personally seen the side effect of trying to follow these types of rules too inflexibly. So maybe my comments can be helpful to some. Overall I personally think that 2) in the list is all that it takes really, since if you are able to understand your own feelings then you are going to be able to say no too.

        Jonice - August 13, 2020 Reply

        Yes, right. I don’t recommend anyone follow any rule in an inflexible way; the “rules” are guidelines and basic rights. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Alive1.

      Elina - August 10, 2020 Reply

      I agree with Alive1 🙂 And also: even if we don’t owe an explanation after saying no, wouldn’t it be at least polite??
      I have a friend (?) who has said many times “no” when I suggest meeting, going to cafeteria etc. And no explanation. I think it sounds incredibly unkind, blunt. I’ve started to doubt if she’s having some shady double-life when she is always so “busy” or maybe she simply does not want to meet me. I’ve decided to end this friendship, I don’t need this kind of “friends” 🙁
      Another friend says after saying no, for example she has to take her son his hobbies, she has to stay at work late, or even that she is so tired after work that she simply wants to lay down on the sofa. I appreciate this level of honesty 🙂 And it is very nice, because then I don’t have to take her “no” personally. Usually she also suggests if we could meet some other day then. This is very polite and kind I think!

        Jonice - August 13, 2020 Reply

        Dear Elina, this is a basic human right. But it should be tempered based on the relationship between the two people and taking feelings into account. Having the right to say no without explanation is not the same as using it in a thoughtless way.

      Maria - February 2, 2021 Reply

      Thank you dr. Jonice Webb I have found out from this articles what I need and it is never too late. i had a strong feeling being gulity when I want to say NO.
      I like your principles.

Dorothy - August 9, 2020 Reply

So many, many times I’ve said yes when inside I’m screaming no. It has left me so very depleted.

    Jonice - August 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Dorothy, you absolutely can work on this. It is virtually never healthy to deplete yourself in order to meet other people’s requests.

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