Do You Say Yes When You Really Mean No?


Janet, a 44-year-old executive at a consulting firm, came to me complaining of headaches, insomnia, and a constant nagging in her stomach.  She said her gut felt like it was tied in knots. At work Janet was a high performer and was rewarded with a promotion for always saying yes. She found herself awake at 3 a.m. worrying about how she would accomplish all she had committed herself to. Her physician had told her that although she was under an enormous amount of stress, there was “nothing medically wrong with her.”   He prescribed her pain, sleep and antacid medications for her symptoms. By the time I met her she was depressed, burned out and had begun drinking wine to take the edge off her work day.

What about you? Do you say yes when you really mean no? Do you find that your pattern is to acquiesce to another’s will rather than deal with conflict head-on?  Suppose your boss asks you to commit to a project that you know will turn your world upside down, cause major stress and guarantee your need for sleep medication to get through the night. Would you put on your super hero cape and take it on, knowing all the while that your body will pay the price and your heart will ache when you have to tell your child you can’t make his soccer game?

As parents, siblings, friends or colleagues we’ve been conditioned since childhood to put others’ needs before our own. It’s as if there’s nothing worse than having to disappoint someone else, but in fulfilling this commitment we end up disappointing ourselves.

Activate Your Pause Button

Luckily pause buttons aren’t just for listening to music or watching videos. Each of us has one; we just need to learn how to use it. When we’re outside of our comfort zone, for example, when someone we care about makes an offer or a request we would rather decline, sometimes it’s easier to say yes in the moment and then deal with what comes next, our own discomfort. But the truth is, we don’t have to be the first one to volunteer for a difficult, time-consuming job or to be the hero in our family every time.  When we care more about pleasing others than being who we really are, we betray ourselves and feel drained of energy.

Under high stress, your body shifts into survival mode in order to make decisions quickly.  When you physically pause, your brain has a moment to re-engage its critical thinking capabilities and gain additional perspectives.  This gives you a chance to come up with creative options, one of which is to set healthy boundaries.  You can ask for time.  You can ask for resources. You can say, “Thank you for thinking of me and I can’t make it. ”   Healthy boundaries are a great way to take care of yourself.  Learning to effectively use your pause button can help you set those limits.

Janet learned several new ways to approach her own tendency to overwork. She learned a soft belly breathing technique, which she found especially helpful during tense encounters or challenging meetings.

Soft belly breathing is a great way to pause whenever you need to take a step back and give yourself time to think.  Soft belly breathing engages your body’s natural relaxation system.  If you’d like to try it, here’s how:

Soft Belly Breathing

  1. Soften your abdomen and let the muscles of your belly relax.
  2. Let gravity pull your shoulders toward the ground.
  3. Become aware of your feet on the ground.
  4. Take a slow deep inhale and allow your abdomen to expand.
  5. As you exhale, move your belly button back towards your spine.

*Repeat steps 4 & 5 three times in a row and pay attention to your level of relaxation.

Janet learned to pause and find the courage to authentically say yes or no—and mean it.  She began rehearsing how to set healthy boundaries and discovered the bravado to say no out loud, first in our practice sessions and then in her life.

Pause, Then Hit Play

Today, Janet no longer needs her medications.  Nor does she use alcohol as a failed attempt to restore sanity to her life.  She still likes her occasional glass of wine, but now it’s because she’s out with friends and enjoys the taste.  Janet healed from her classic case of people-pleasing by hitting her pause button and communicating honestly.  Not only does she enjoy her job more, but she declared she’s more productive and has improved her health in the process.

After learning to pause, when you’re ready to hit the play button again, here are a few ways to be gracious while setting healthy boundaries.  Feel free to rephrase them to match your style!

  • “Thanks for the invitation. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to join you.  I’ve made a prior commitment.”
  • “I appreciate you thinking of me.  I need some time to think about it.  I’ll get back to you.”
  • “You’re important to me.  I won’t be able to attend, but please ask me next time.” (Only say the last part if you mean it!)

Pausing before you respond to a request will give you an opportunity to be thoughtful, expand your perspective and think through the best option for a given situation.   Allowing yourself time to think will help to lower your stress levels.  Once you know what is right for you, mustering up the courage to say yes or no authentically will become more and more freeing.  Remember, sometimes it is important to say no to another in order to say yes to YOU.

When do you say yes when you really mean no?  What’s one way you can say YES to yourself?  The TalkRx Community thrives on your comments and it’s a great way to get support.

To saying yes when you mean yes,

Doctor Neha logo


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