If you’re a woman, when was the last time you said “no” to a friend, your partner, a colleague or your kid?
When the school asked if you could volunteer on the committee, you said “yes” even though the thought of one more thing on your plate made you want to scream. When the boss asked if you could push up a deadline, you said “yes” even though you knew the request was unreasonable. When the masseuse asked if you liked the pressure, you said “yes” even though it felt like your body was breaking.
For many women, “no” is a foreign word on the tongue.
“Women have been socialized into understanding that what is most important is that they be perceived as likable and agreeable,” said Caitlyn Collins, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St Louis who studies gender inequality at work and at home. “In dating, in marriage, in friendships, in their hobbies, in the way they parent their kids, the way they operate in the world of paid work – this idea that what it means to be a good woman is to subsume your own needs for the sake of others around you is a hallmark of femininity in the United States. And this, of course, has disastrous consequences for women.”
- Women are more likely than men to report having a great deal of stress, according to the American Psychological Association, and almost half of all women surveyed said their stress has increased over the past five years, compared to four in 10 men.
- Mothers tend to be more tired, stressed and unhappy than fathers
- Professional women experience more stress, anxiety, and psychological distress than men
“We don’t ultimately say ‘no,’ because we’re afraid,” said Natalie Lue, author of the forthcoming book “The Joy of Saying No.” “We’re afraid of conflict. We’re afraid of confrontation. We are afraid of being abandoned, rejected. We have to understand, as women we’ve been taught everybody else’s approval matters more than what we think of ourselves.”
Raised to say ‘yes’
Experts in gender say women are socialized to serve and acquiesce. Lue said women are conditioned to believe that their existence is for the consumption of other people.
“We must give, not take, or we only earn the right to take, to receive, if we’ve given enough, and so we constantly feel inadequate because we are taught that it’s our job … to be good and to be appeasing,” Lue said.
Collins said this is glaringly obvious in the home, where women frequently put their children and partners’ needs above their own, often while also juggling careers.
“This absolutely sets them up for … a great deal of failure,” Collins said. “It’s economically necessary for most moms to work outside the home for pay today, but our understanding about what it means to be a good mother means to dedicate all your time, energy, emotions, and money to the task of raising your children in this intensive way. It’s, of course, categorically impossible to live up to these ideals.”
When women do say, “no” there can be social consequences. A woman who is seen as more aggressive at work, which research shows makes a man seem more competent, will also appear less likeable, less like a team player. This can impact her career and her salary.
Afraid to say ‘no’
It’s important, experts say, to recognize not all women who fear saying “no,” especially to men, are afraid for the same reason. Survivors of abuse, for example, learned to say “yes” as a way to stay safe.
“There is this sense that if we say no, particularly in certain situations, that we’re going to come to harm,” Lue said.
Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said always characterizing the reluctance to say “no” as “people pleasing” can obscure the reality that for many women the consequences of saying “no” are dire.
“For many of us, what may look like ‘people pleasing’ behavior in our daily life was at one point a strategy we learned to stay safe in some way,” she said. “Even if saying ‘no’ may be a safe option for you in the present moment, many of us hold the memory of how this step has backfired or set-off others in the past.”
Physical intimidation, power dynamics and the instinct to survive can make it difficult to say no even when you’re being threatened with bodily harm.
“Just like our society can give license to people who abuse their power and position to commit sexual violence, victims can feel powerless to challenge someone,” she said.
Thinking about ‘no’ as a right, not as a privilege
Opportunities for women have expanded in recent years, and for some women this had added pressure to say “yes” to all things, simply because now we are told so much more is possible: go to college, get the job, find the spouse, have the kids, buy the house.
Collins said women need to think about saying “no” as a right, rather than as a privilege. They must believe they can say no to various tasks and commitments as men do, and they must come to expect more of the men, friends, romantic partners. colleagues and employers in their lives.
Lue also said while there are indisputable social costs for saying “no,” she also believes there’s a disproportionate level of fear because not all women are taught how to set boundaries. Women are taught, she said, to have endless limits.
“We think that ‘no’ is a dirty word, and ‘yes’ is clean … even though when we are saying ‘yes,’ much of the time we are saying it fearfully, we’re saying it resentfully, we’re saying it disingenuously,” Lue said.
Yes can be a lie, she said, when our mental health is suffering.
Notice where you say no, where you say yes, and how each makes you feel
Lue advises women to observe their behavior for a week. Your feelings when you’re saying yes, she said, can offer major clues about where to set limits.
“The resentments, the anxiety, and frustration, the big three, are always the clues about where you can say no,” she said.
If someone becomes upset when you say no, Lue said that likely indicates a problem with the dynamic of a given relationship, rather than with you.
“If you’re saying yes because you’re afraid … that’s the wrong reason to say yes. Say yes in an honest, authentic way, and you will feel better about yourself even if other people feel uncomfortable,” she said. “When you are aware of who you are and what you need, you have a much clearer idea of what you need to say yes and no to, so you know where to orient yourself in terms of the people, and the situations, and the things that best support you in being you.”