The fear of saying no

I’ve been chronically unable to say “no” for most of my adult life and some of my professional career.

And for most of that time, I was completely oblivious to this happening.

Whenever something needed doing, I would keenly accept the task at hand. Sometimes I wouldn’t even understand the ask, nor be willing to clarify it ahead of time.

My rising inner anxiety (which I’m often not fully in touch with) would not have a voice in the matter either.

It didn’t matter whether the person asking was the CEO, middle manager or fellow team member; my inability to say “no” remained the same.

However, it hasn’t been all bad. Quite the opposite in fact.

I remember as far back as age 13 being the staff member at Burger King who managers would ask to do various extra tasks; knowing I would complete them quickly, to a good standard and in addition to my other duties.

Later on, being the ‘go-to’ person who could get stuff done has stood me in good stead professionally and furthered my career. Also closer to home in my family life too.

“If you need something done, ask a busy person”, goes the saying.

Only now, many years into my career and upon much reflection, have I been able to more fully understand why I found it so difficult to say “no”. And most importantly, actually do something about it.

It wasn’t until I learnt about the Karpman drama triangle and dynamics of co-dependent relationships within my counselling training did any of this start to make sense.

There is actually nothing inherently wrong with being helpful, willing to have a go, even “people pleasing” if you may.

In fact, it often feels good to help out and do what others can’t (or won’t). It’s what makes us human.

What is problematic, however, are the times where you say “yes” when you’d rather say “no”.

Particularly if you are doing this out of fear of upsetting the other person, perhaps even because of the consequences of doing so.

Fears that may have been protective in early life and threatening relationships often carry on to become unhelpful in mature adult relationships and within the workplace.

People pleasing isn’t spoken about very much, I suspect a somewhat taboo and shameful topic, and it’s certainly not in vogue like being “neuro-divergent” currently is.

However, the conscious act of responding according to our own genuine preference is an incredibly important skill to have. It will keep you out of trouble and get you far in life.

These days I welcome every opportunity to practice saying “yes, please” or “no thanks” or even “I’m not sure right now – I’ll decide later and let you know“.

Join me in this radical practice, if you dare.

Frank Ray Consulting. Software requirements for agile development teams, particularly distributed, remote and offshore development teams working in financial services.

Get in touch if you need our help